Deciding to Change: Choosing
by Rick Brenner
When organizations decide to change what they do, the change sometimes requires that they change how they make decisions, too. That part of the change is sometimes overlooked, in part, because it affects most the people who make decisions. What can we do about this?
Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South Pole, December 16, 1911. The photographer was Olav Bjaaland.
When Amundsen and his party of eight all told departed their base camp for the pole on September 8, 1911, they departed too early. Forced to return in a hasty retreat on account of severe cold, they sustained some injuries from frostbite, and lost a few dogs. But the greatest damage came from the conflict that ensued, and the outright rebellion of Hjalmar Johansen, who openly questioned Amundsen's fitness as a leader. Back at base camp, Amundsen was able to treat the injuries, order equipment changes, and reconfigure the pole party to a smaller group, excluding Johansen. Also excluded was Kristrian Prestrud, who by then had realized that he was not up to the challenges of the polar journey. Amundsen also asked Jørgen Stubberud to go with Johansen and Prestrud on an Eastern expedition during the summer while the polar assault was underway. Finally, he carefully polled the party about the decision to depart. When the polar party departed on October 19, after several days of weather delays, they were a smaller party, better equipped and supplied, and starting almost six weeks deeper into Spring. These changes came about as a result of Amundsen's application of three of the practices advocated here: exclusion, inclusion, and retrospectives.
The photo is taken from Amundsen's book about the expedition, The South Pole.
When organizations decide to do something different from what they've been doing, the changes they undertake might involve changing more than what they do. Sometimes they must also restructure the way they make decisions. For example, the relative importance of software engineers and actuaries in insurance companies has changed significantly in the past 50 years. Although software engineering is more important today in such organizations than it once was, one can debate whether the political power of the people engaged in software engineering today parallels the importance of their profession in executing the mission of the organization.
Elective change in organizations sometimes exposes conflicts of interest between the interests of the organization and the interests of the people who must make the decision to change. In some cases, this conflict of interest is resolved not in the favor of the organization, but in favor of the personal interests of the decision makers. When that happens, the organization remains stuck on paths that lead to stagnation, contraction, and — possibly — bankruptcy.
What can we do about this? Here are four suggestions for enhancing decision quality.
- A pattern of participation in decisions that affect the personal interests of the decision makers is a performance issue. In politics and jurisprudence, excusing oneself from such participation is called recusal. The practice is rare even there, but with the exception of certain professional standards, it's almost totally absent from organizational life. Would not organizations that succeed in incorporating recusal into their decision processes gain significant advantages in decision quality?
- The dual of recusal is inclusion. In most organizations, the same group of decision makers makes all the big decisions. From time to time, they do seek advice from specialists, but the specialists' role is advisory only — they rarely have decision authority. Are there not classes of decisions that would be improved by including some people who are customarily excluded from decision-making?
- Decision process risk management
- Even among A pattern of participation in
decisions that affect the
personal interests of the
decision makers is
a performance issueorganizations that recognize the importance of risk management, risk management practice tends to emphasize what the organizations does, rather than how the organization makes decisions. Certainly all organizations make bad decisions once in a while. Can we not use risk management principles to protect ourselves from these mistakes?
- Most important, perhaps, is a practice often called "lessons learned," or retrospectives. Retrospectives help us avoid repeating our own mistakes — or the mistakes of others. Although widely used in the lower reaches of the org chart, they are much less common at high levels. Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that requiring self-examination of others is easier than asking it of oneself?
Which of these practices do you recognize in the decision-making process of your own organization? Which are absent from it? First in this series Top Next Issue
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- When we change organizational culture, we often stumble over unexpected obstacles. Sometimes the tangle can be so frustrating that we want to start the company over again. Here are some tips for managing large-scale cultural change.
- The Ties that Bind
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- Training Bounceback
- Within a week after we've learned some new tool or technique, sometimes even less, we're back to doing things the old way. It's as if the training never even happened. Why? And what can we do to change this?
- The True Costs of Cost-Cutting
- The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually worked that way...
- Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
See also Organizational Change and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
- And on February 11: Bottlenecks: Part II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern. Available here and by RSS on February 11
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