“In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Teddy Roosevelt
In The Reasons Why People Meet, I introduced seven different types of meeting. In this post, we examine decision meetings.
The main purpose of a decision meeting is to choose a course of action.
Sounds simple, right? Then why do so many decision meetings fail?
David Pearl explains decision meetings in detail from pages 186 to 191 of Will There Be Donuts?; this post borrows/adapts heavily from those pages, but is certainly not meant to be a replacement – and all credit to Pearl for his keen insights and useful advice.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? You’re invited to a meeting, the purpose of which is to decide upon a clear course of action, but…
- The conversation meanders all over the place, with new ideas being brought up and no established means of evaluating alternatives
- The people in attendance don’t have the necessary context to make an informed decision
- The supposed decision meeting is missing all the folks with the authority to actually make the decision
- The meeting ends with a sorta decision that’s kind’ve decided…but everyone has a slightly different interpretation or isn’t sure where to begin
- You think a decision has been made and a course of action established, and then meet again next week for an update and the whole conversation repeats itself from scratch
“Very often decision meetings in business don’t conclude with a clear decision. And when they do, those decisions are often contested afterwards, overturned and/or rediscussed at the next meeting.”
As Pearl describes it, “Very often decision meetings in business don’t conclude with a clear decision. And when they do, those decisions are often contested afterwards, overturned and/or rediscussed at the next meeting.”
In Pearl’s view, businesses simply aren’t setting up their meetings as true Meetings for Decision. So let’s figure out how to fix things.
The table below outlines “the why” and “the who” of decision meetings.
Do we all agree on “the why”? We do? Great! Let’s move on to “the who”, as that’s a big problem in most companies.
The two most common ways organizations mess up “the who” of decision meetings are:
- By not having actual decision makers: “How often do you find that the key person with the capacity to make a decision is not actually in the meeting? If this happens, I’d advise you to stop the meeting and get on with your day.”
- By having too many people: “The number of people who need to be in a decision meeting can be very small; the number who want to be in the meeting can be very large.”
On the first point: whenever I’m in a decision meeting, the first thing I do is look around to see if the actual decision makers are there. If they’re not, then I point out this gap and, basically, get on with my day.
On the second point, Pearl offers this advice: “To restrict the number of people present, it’s best to insure those who aren’t invited are kept well-informed. Over time, they’ll trust that they didn’t need to be there.”
“To restrict the number of people present, it’s best to insure those who aren’t invited are kept well-informed. Over time, they’ll trust that they didn’t need to be there.“
The How (and What) of Decision Meetings
Sometimes the problem isn’t the meeting itself, but instead it’s the lead-up and the follow-through: “If you are having problems with decision meetings and want to improve them, take a look at what is happening before the meeting and after it. The problem is rarely the meeting itself, but the process leading up to and following it.”
It’s important that, prior to the meeting, the decision-makers are provided with all the relevant information, that all reasonable questions have been anticipated and answered in advance, and that everyone understands the point of the upcoming conversation.
You should also make sure to research any outside input that’s needed and to qualify any decision parameters (e.g., budget, timeline, etc.) so that you limit your decisions to realistic ones.
After all, you want the actual meeting to be a focused discussion of the relative merits of the realistic options/alternatives, as opposed to an examination of the situation or a option/alternative generation session.
On Perfection and Reality
“One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment. If it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
It’s easy to fall into a trap of pushing out a decision until more or better information is available – and sometimes that’s absolutely the right thing to do.
However, in many cases – and especially if there’s a real deadline – then you must be comfortable making the best decision that you can, with the information that you have. All you can really do in this instance is make sure you’ve done your darndest to get as much information as possible.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt told his Head of Labour, “One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment. If it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go.”
At this point, I’ll give a brief shout-out to Obliquity, a great book that examines how to move forward in an ever-changing world filled with imperfect information.
If a decision is essential, then a decision is better than no decision.
And, if you can’t get OK with that, then I advise against going into a role that requires decision-making…or you’re gonna be very uncomfortable.
But wait – there’s more!
So far you’ve done everything right: you’ve provided everyone with their contextual information, the small number of correct people (i.e., decision-makers) were in the meeting, a decision was made even though the world’s a nasty imperfect place…but, dear hero, your work isn’t done.
This critical juncture is the point at which many decisions die. To avoid a similar fate for our decisions, Pearl tells us that we need to:
- Enrol people in the decision
- Promote the decision
- Track the decision
In many cases, there are people who don’t agree with the decision, and that’s how decisions and courses of actions start to get undermined. To avoid (or at least to manage) this scenario, you might have to enroll the participants so that they treat ‘the’ decision as ‘their’ decision. As Pearl says, “They may not be able to agree, but they are required to accept.”
Personally, I find this crap galling in real life – there is just so much waste when people put their energy into undercutting or opposing a course of action. In fact, one of our guiding leadership principles at work is to, “Disagree and then commit to new company strategies.”
In other words: have your say, but then once a decision’s made you focus your energy on executing it.
Pearl’s next point, that we’ll need to promote the decision is also captured in one of our leadership tenets: “Make decisions, communicate decisions.”
“When (communicating decisions) doesn’t happen, you are likely to see decisions endlessly re-discussed because people simply don’t know what has been decided.”
In Pearl’s experience, “When (communicating decisions) doesn’t happen, you are likely to see decisions endlessly re-discussed because people simply don’t know what has been decided.”
Sure, the decision itself might need to be made behind closed doors, but then you need to let people know the outcome.
Next, you have to track the progress of the decision outcome to make sure it’s being executed. It’s tempting to get lazy and to think that our work ends with making sure the optimal decision is made, but it’s actually far more important to make sure the optimal decision is actually implemented.
It’s tempting to get lazy and to think that our work ends with making sure the optimal decision is made, but it’s actually far more important to make sure the optimal decision is actually implemented.
How did we do?
Finally, from time-to-time we need to look back at our decisions and decide if they were the right ones. To make this point, Pearl quotes Peter Drucker: “Checking the results of a decision against its expectations shows executives what their strengths are, where they need to improve, and where they lack knowledge or information.”