Early in my consulting career I had the opportunity to assist one of our most senior consultants on a substantial project. My company had been asked to support the restructuring of a global Fortune 100 consumer products goods company. The company had decided to centralize the technology function by creating a shared services structure. Essentially, they removed the IT organizations from each business unit and created a matrixed structure with the IT executives responsible for the entire enterprise and smaller IT functions that reported to both the business unit general manager and the shared services IT leaders.
My colleague Linda and I facilitated several meetings with the IT executives and the CIO as they built operating agreements and communication plans. We had generated a list of questions and my colleague and I would trade off facilitation duties as we moved from question to question. She sat down, I stood up and then I noticed that the next question on the flip chart was, “What’s the new bonus plan?” In the new structure, the V.P.s in the room wanted to know on which metrics would their bonuses be based. It seemed like a reasonable, important and totally inappropriate question to work out with the entire group of Vice Presidents.
Before I could orient the conversations, opinions started to fly. I would describe as a civil, animated discussion. On the bright side, the group had become energized by the conversation. Unfortunately, I saw no way to facilitate the discussion in a way that would satisfy the group.
Linda wisely intervened after about 20 minutes to ask the one question I had neglected to ask: How will this decision be made? The participants pondered the question and then the CIO, a gentleman named Steve, spoke up, “I guess I’ll make a recommendation to the head of HR. If I’m not proposing anything immoral or inconsistent with our compensation policies, I suspect they’ll be fine with my recommendation.” Linda summarized, “So, Steve, you’ll make the decision. Do you want any more input from the team before you decide?” Steve did not. Then Linda turned to the team, “Do any of you have more input to offer Steve before he makes his decision?” They did not. It turns out we were done, but for the fact that no one had clarified the decision making process.
Any stakeholder in a decision might be: a decision maker, someone who gives input before the decision is made, or someone who finds out about the decision after it’s made. Knowing which of these situations pertains goes a long way towards untangling decision making in complex organizations. When in doubt, ask: How will this decision be made?