The Fearless Thinkers Podcast | Season 3, Episode 3

Decoding decision making:

Unraveling the complexity of organizational dynamics

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About the show

The Fearless Thinkers podcast, hosted by Rick Cheatham and Masami Cookson, personalizes BTS’s perspective on the people side of strategy.

Fearless Thinkers is produced by Masami Cookson, Nicole Hernandez, Taylor Hale and Aron Towner.

Special thanks to Joe Holeman, Chris Goodnow, Meghan McGrath, and Roanne Neuwirth for their invaluable help.

Decoding decision making: Unraveling the complexity of organizational dynamics

Join Rick Cheatham as he explores the intricacies of decision-making with Emma Nyström, Associate Director and Libby MacKenzie, Director. Together, they dissect the four essential elements—authority, evidence, social dynamics, and committed action—and offer practical strategies for improving decision-making processes. From reframing authority structures to fostering psychological safety, this episode provides actionable insights for leaders navigating the complexities of decision-making in today’s dynamic.

Masami: Welcome to Fearless Thinkers, the BTS podcast. My name is Masami Cookson, and our host is Rick Cheatham, Head of Marketing at BTS. On today’s show, Rick sits down with Libby McKenzie and Emma Nystrom. Emma Nystrom is an Associate Director who specializes in change and transformation, partnering with global clients to enable, advise, and support them in navigating change at scale to achieve business results. Emma’s experience spans industries from consumer goods to packaging and processing. She is passionate about helping people and organizations shift their ways of thinking and working so that they are able to achieve their goals. Hey, Rick, how are you today?

Rick: I couldn’t be better. It’s one of those things where the cold weather’s finally broken and, I’m just ready for the sunshine, even if it’s still chilly. I love being out.

Masami: Love it. Who doesn’t love being outside?

Rick: Exactly. I have to confess, probably should have listened to today’s podcast again before I made a big decision this last month. And that was – I put a deposit down on a puppy, a giant Bernese Mountain dog.

Masami: That’s so exciting. My gosh.

Rick: I’m actually quite excited. I’ve always been a dog person. At one point in my life, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian. So, I’m excited to have a dog again. I made a very big decision and that, like I said before, is where our podcast goes again today.

If you missed the previous decision making podcast, I encourage you to go back and listen to it because today we go a little bit deeper into the framework we use here at BTS to look at how decisions are made and potentially where changes need to be made both individually and organizationally to get better results.

Masami: Amazing. Can’t wait to hear more and congratulations.

Rick: Thanks. ​

Emma, Libby, welcome to the show.

Libby: Thanks, Rick.

Emma: Thank you.

Rick: Well, hey, thanks again for chatting with us today on a super important topic for every organization, which is decision making and our ability to make good decisions and then take action on them. I think it’s challenging in today’s environment and also something that with the right tools could be significantly easier.

Emma: Yeah, absolutely.

Rick: So, I was hoping today that you could help us go a little bit deeper into the concept of decision making. So, when we think about how we focus our efforts when it comes to decision making, what are some smart things to be thinking about?

Libby: So, we broke down decision making into four buckets split up by organizational and individual. So, is this an organizational issue that needs to be addressed across the board or is this at the individual level? And within each of those dimensions, is this a knowing or a doing gap? And so, from there, if you kind of start by thinking about it in those two dimensions, so is it an organizational doing gap? People know how to make decisions, but there are some cultural things that might be preventing us from making decisions well or is it an individual knowing gap and you have some new managers who are not necessarily great at making decisions in light of having new direct reports and those are very different needs within organizations. organizations say we need to fix decision making it’s really helpful to kind of back up and say, “okay, well, what specifically in relation to decision making do we need to focus on?” Because it can manifest in so many different ways.

Emma: So, I think that also speaks to that there are probably decisions that are working, there are probably places where we make decisions really well. They’re probably both groups in the organization and types of decisions where this works. So, I think that also speaks to this, where is the pain point, where is the gap and starting to understand that and I also think in terms of then well, sometimes I feel I hear from people if they just did, as we told them, everything would be fine, right? So that’s when I tend to think perhaps of the knowing and doing.

Libby: One of the interesting things that we realized in this work was the relationship at the individual level between the relationships to change and how that can show up in decision making. So, if you have people who are change receivers, they’re going to want to be told what to do as opposed to actively making the decision on their own. And so there are some interesting crossovers when you start to get into the psychology of decision making is, what beliefs do people have about their organization and their culture that may be getting in the way or not of their ability to make good decisions.

Rick: So many things come to mind for me, and I’d like to tie two of the comments together. One of them being, and I know it was a bit of a joke, Emma, when you were like, things would be much easier if people would just do what they’re told and I kinda tie that, Libby, with your last comments and even some things that we’ve talked about before around how people can sometimes become paralyzed through the process. How do you see that affecting that knowing and doing continuum. A) Do you even believe my assumption that people have been paralyzed by lack of data and direction? And B) If you see that as a problem, do you see that trend changing?

Emma: My spontaneous reflection is yes, I think people want more data, more, quality data, more, things to inform their decisions. I don’t think that necessarily in itself will solve anything because I’m sometimes speaking to leaders, where we have all this data, but we’re still making decisions with our guts. So, it depends a lot on who you are, how you’ve been brought up, I think in general, in your work and what you see around you.

Libby: And on the flip side, a lot of engineers want more and more data and so they don’t actually want to make the decision because they never feel like they have enough data. So Emma and I were talking about this yesterday morning, how is generative AI going to play into decision making across the board, and I think the biggest place where it’s going to come into play is in the evidence and evaluation space and this kind of is leading into what we call the four essential elements of decision making. Those four elements are framing, values and authority, evidence and evaluation, social dynamics, and committed action and so when we’re looking at evidence and evaluation, if generative AI has access to all of the internet, that’s a lot of the data that is even going to be available to you and so I hope that to some degree, the emergence of generative AI and its integration into our day to day work is going to help ease some of that reluctance to want to make decisions because you’re going to have as much data as possible coming out of AI and then it’s that human layer that needs to get put on top of it as you’re making those decisions well.

Rick: The whole knowing on one end of continuum doing being on another end of continuum makes all the sense in the world to me, I am curious, especially on the individual to organizational end, what drives that continuum? What’s in the middle?

Emma: An example I’ve seen, which is an organization where they were anyway going through an organizational change. So, redesigning their units and their structures, but also looking at all the job descriptions and they had big challenges around bringing everyone in for every decision and having all the points of views and it took too long and there was not enough commitment afterwards and they actually said, no, we need to streamline this, we need to speed up the pace. So structurally, organizationally, they looked at who’s the ultimate responsible person for each type of decision we’re making and said, it needs to be one person.

Emma: We can’t have more than one person who’s ultimately accountable. So that’s by design. But then of course, in parallel, we also needed to do some work on the individual mindsets and sort of knowing that you are empowered. So, we would need to step away from escalating decisions. We need to step away from committees of 14 people sharing a responsibility for a certain decision. So, I think that’s also how it can play out in terms of culture and structure going hand in hand.

Libby: And it can be really hard when an organization has grown up with a particular culture around decision making and you’re now having to change it because either the company has scaled so much that decision making culture is getting in the way of the organization and so there can be some inflection points. You look at a much smaller startup, how they make decisions, they could do something by committee if they only have 10 people in the organization.

But if you have a 20,000-person organization, there is no way you can have everybody involved in every decision and people have to accept that they won’t necessarily be involved in every decision and also have clarity around if I am getting engaged in this decision, do I have a vote or a voice?

Rick: So please tell me what are those things? How are they different?

Libby: Yeah, so having a vote is you are actually helping to make the decision. You actively get to help to decide whether that decision is going forward or you’re picking A versus B. Versus if you have a voice, you’re being sought for input on the decision, but you don’t actually get to choose what the outcome is and some people really struggle with that.

Rick: Very helpful. I actually really appreciate the examples so if we could then pivot, you mentioned very quickly, the elements of decision making, but I was wondering if one of you wouldn’t mind just walking through all of them for us one more time and then, we can dig into them one by one.

Emma: So, the first area we would think of, we call authority and that really comes back to what are the most important decisions in our organization that we need to get right? Who makes decisions in our organizations and how is decision making linked to our values? So, getting a sense of what that looks like to understand the context. The second area we call evidence and evaluation. So that’s where the data and the facts, the options come in. So having a good range of data and the facts and options, but also how do we evaluate them against each other in a way that we can make high quality decisions, but also at pace normally. The third area we call social dynamics hat comes back a lot to what happens in groups, group norms, collective behaviors, culture, if you will. And then the fourth area we call committed action. We also hear about that, and we see that in organizations. So once a decision is made, do we actually execute on it? Do we act on it? And do we do that at the pace that we need to? So that can be linked to accountability, delegation, escalation, and then what might be consequences if you don’t act on the decision, sometimes there are no consequences and then that’s important to understand.

Libby: We are really bad at committed action and it’s not actually the commitment that’s the issue. You have to go way further upstream and to exactly that point. Are you making the right decisions and if this isn’t a decision that you should be making in the first place or it’s framed improperly, that’s going to cause a struggle to commit to the outcome of that decision so to start with the end in mind if you’re seeing a lack of committed action in your organization, it might be just that piece, but it’s also important to look at the upstream inputs as well.

Rick: I’m curious about when we’re talking about framing values and authority, what are some of the things that you see great, well-intentioned people potentially doing wrong?

Emma: So not wanting to even define what are the most important decisions because of that, where do we spend most energy. Some decisions are likely to take more time and energy and people, because they are big, they have big impact. They are important, but we also see. In many organizations, you spend too much energy on decisions where you can just go ahead. Also, in terms of having a certain idea about who makes decisions and then that’s not actually the reality. I think also happens quite a lot. So, it says something on paper, or it should be in a certain way, but then in the end, you know it’s that other manager you actually need to talk to or it’s a more informal process to actually get to the decision. So, we may have a version of who makes the decision and then there’s the unofficial version.

Libby: From an authority standpoint, what’s coming to mind for me is the head of a country in a global organization and she said, I have to go to the global CEO to get approval for a contract that is $20,000. She just said, it’s so inefficient the speed with which we’re able to close these deals is so slow. If that approvals matrix exists for a reason because somebody probably made a decision around that value at some point in time where they said, we need to make sure it goes up to the top for approval here.

But is that really truly the best use of everyone’s time and are you catering to the speed with which we need to work and the general decisions or catering to the bad decisions that have been historically made or are you just dealing with those individual occurrences where perhaps something wasn’t done right? And okay, let’s treat that as a one off. So, I think there’s also some interesting dynamics there that can come from mistakes and they come from good places but is it truly in service of the organization.

Rick: It’s funny because you just happen to push on something where instead of addressing a performance management issue or if it could be in this case, even possibly just an individual capability issue, we create a policy. Policy can never replace performance management and unfortunately, it’s a thing that I think happens too often. So, when you think about evidence and evaluation, what do you think our listeners need to understand about this element?

Emma: Thinking about what is the information and the data we do need, not getting too caught up in it. So just reflecting on assessing the balance that you need, what’s enough information and what is the key information, but sometimes I see organizations struggle with just accessing the information, connecting systems, you know, the data, and how we then compare, and debate evaluate those different data sources, but also options that we might have and that comes into quite a lot of, how able we are to hold a great debate to then land in a decision, which is also, I think, competence and the capability. What does that look like? And is it the way it needs to be? So, it’s a bit of, I think that balance act.

Libby: Because we live in such a digital world now and you have companies that have acquired and acquired and acquired and so everybody’s on different disparate platforms and so all of this data is formatted differently and in different places and so one of the things that I think is really, really challenging for decision making today is having access to complete, consistent, and up to date information Those are really important things to keep in mind as you’re making decisions is how are we setting our people up as an organization to be able to make these decisions well and have the tools and resources in place.

Rick: Well, then if we move to the next bucket, social dynamics. Those are two words together that create a tremendous amount of complexity, no matter where you are. So, I’m curious if you could condense that down for us to the core things you think about for social dynamics when it comes to decision making.

Libby: There’s a big part of decision making that comes down to do people feel safe to make decisions? Is there some messaging in the organization that people are feeling, whether real or not, around if I make a decision and it’s wrong, what will the implications be? And a lot of times people make decisions and they’re like, “I’m gonna get fired if I make this decision wrong.” And that’s not actually true. It’s just perception. But that feeds into those social dynamics is how are people viewing the organization and the repercussions for the decisions that they might be making.

So that’s one aspect of it and then when you look at individuals, groups, and meetings and how work gets done, an example of that is within our social dynamics to people expect to be a part of all of these decisions and so there’s actually a big change initiative that needs to be put into place to say, yes, we value your voice and your perspective and you don’t actually need to be in all of these decisions all of the time and that helps to ease some of that challenges with social dynamics and expectations around decision making, particularly if you’re trying to shift the decision making culture.

Emma: I think one powerful part of social dynamics could be when we become too homogenous in certain traits in the collective. So, I think I already mentioned risk as an example. So, by definition, when you make a decision and you act on it, you’re letting go of other things you could have done, so we are all different as people in terms of how scary we think that is and then if you’re a big group of people and we all feel that is super scary, how able will we be in that dynamic to experiment, take risk and move forward. I think that’s one way to think about the social dynamics and maybe we need more people who are, let’s go for it. Let’s try it. You know, we’re more prone to that and I think the other part of it is what we see happening actually in our work. So maybe we are in a meeting, we’re making a decision and we’re like, okay, fine, we’re going to do this. But then you realize, afterwards that actually that decision was literally made in another context between other people informally. So again, what does that then tell us about the dynamics and the true dynamics, in our organization?

Rick: So then, if social dynamics is the most complex committed action is probably the most important because I think that a lot of great meetings and conversations happen, that sometimes don’t really turn into anything. So, if you would help us to unpack, what you mean by that and what we should be thinking about.

Libby: This again ties to the “if I make a decision and it’s wrong, what will the implications be?” And so, if people are scared because of the social dynamics, they are not going to commit to what a decision actually is another thing is around how you’re facilitating the decision making process and the debate is going to have a direct tie to committed action and Liz Wiseman in her book Multipliers talks about decision makers versus debate makers and so, the leaders who make really good decisions and are able to get committed action around decisions are the ones who facilitate rally robust debates. So, people are able to bring their voice to the table, share their perspective, have the debate, they might switch roles and actually debate towards a perspective that isn’t necessarily the one that they hold, but it allows them to look at things with a full 360-degree view before making the decision. But whoever is the leader in that decision and the one who owns upfront about the fact that you have a voice in this, and I really respect your perspective and opinion and at the end of the day, I’m going to make this decision and when they do make the decision because people understand the process by which the decision was made, they can be more bought into that decision, even if it wasn’t their first choice. So, I think that is something that can come up.

Emma: Yeah, in terms of committed action is also the aspect of how I perceive my own role. So that could be clarity, but it could also be that I actually buy into my role in it. So, if I’m the decision maker that I embrace that and I step into that role, but if I’m an input giver, maybe I need to step out and allow other people to execute or if I’m executing, but I wasn’t making the decision, am I okay with that? and then to actually commit to it. So, we also know that sometimes we’re vague in terms of what the roles are or people are not really agreeing with the role that they are supposed to take and then to add to that, which comes back to change and, personal commitment, I think is also, what’s the consequence and I think a simple version of that is when want to change something again in your personal life, it might help for you to tell a friend or to book an appointment because then you’re letting them down if you don’t show up and it’s the same, I think, in an organization if you know that nothing will happen if I do nothing, there’s going to be less pressure on just getting over the natural resistance to do it.

Libby: Yeah, creating a little bit of shared accountability can be very critical to getting things done.

Rick: So great stuff. Well, I always like to end just by asking the question, imagine yourself as someone who didn’t really have a lot of information on this topic, but learn today and want to go do something different tomorrow. What could that person begin to do to make better decisions themselves potentially, and or help their organization down this path a little bit further.

Libby: Get curious about how decision making is showing up in your organization and what is going well, and some things that come from a good place that did work for the organization at one point in time, and they are there for a reason. And then really think about if I’m frustrated with X or Y, is it on me as an individual? Is it a knowing or doing gap for me or is it organizational and is it something that our organization needs to look at a little bit differently? And then if you bring in the four essential elements exactly, where could things potentially evolve and get marginally better. Do we need to frame our decisions a little bit better? Do I need to make sure that I’m giving my team enough data and information so that when they come in and have a debate with me, they feel like they are coming in with an informed opinion so we can have that debate well. What’s going on in terms of the social dynamics that you as a leader might be perpetuating, and is there something that needs to shift in terms of how you’re creating a world of psychological safety for your team? And all of these things will ultimately help you to make and commit to better decisions in the long run.

Rick: Love it. Well, again, an incredibly important topic. So, thanks so much for joining us. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

Emma: Thank you, Rick.

Libby: Thanks, Rick.

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Show notes
Find this episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Vimeo.

Listen to part one of the decoding decision making series.

Check out our episode on “How to become more comfortable with change.”

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