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The Client
Name: Art
Age: 48
Title: VP, Information technology
Industry: Home health care
Issue: Improving organizational decision-making

Q. You've written about making decisions in times of change; however, our challenges have less to do with the current uncertain environment, and more to do with lack of skill in making decisions. We tend to be a very risk-averse group that is reluctant to stand by decisions. What would you suggest?
A. Develop a structure for decisionmaking, along with risk management strategies to help your boss, team members and peers move forward.

The inner game
Paralysis results when the risks from taking action seem higher than the risks from holding steady. Understanding your company's decisionmaking dynamics will help you promote a new approach.

Take a deeper look at your risk-averse culture. What happens to people who try to make changes? Are failures accepted and used for learning, or are they punished? Consider the tolerance for backtracking on decisions and why that might be occurring.

At an individual level, first consider what encourages you to take action. It may be sudden inspiration, sufficient data and analysis or support from others. Similarly, action may be impeded by fear, either of making a mistake or of change itself. Once you've assessed this for yourself, expand your thinking to the possible motivators and fears of those around you.

Finally, get your emotions in line as you prepare to advocate a new approach. You may be anxious, annoyed or even apathetic. Figure out what you need to do to approach the future positively and flexibly.

The outer game
Getting your boss on board should come first. Calmly and objectively lay out the issues you've observed, providing examples of the outcomes related to delayed or revisited decisions. Perhaps project costs have skyrocketed or customers have been underserved. Use your insights into your boss' internal drivers and create an environment that helps your boss endorse a new approach.

Then offer a method to facilitate decisionmaking. Explicitly weigh the risks of each alternative, including doing nothing. If the risks seem unacceptably high, try scaling back the size of the decision. For example, if you can't quite take the step for a full IT infrastructure investment, look at ways to break the potential project (hence the decision) into modules. Do detailed risk-management planning, identifying risks and contingency plans. Avoid "all-or-nothing" thinking, which can lead to paralysis.

Get your company's executive leaders on board. You can't ask your employees to take risks if the organization will crack down on them for undesirable outcomes. Gain buy-in all the way up for becoming a more decisive, action-oriented organization. In particular, enlist other leaders' support for standing firm on decisions that have been made.

Then, begin to mentor your team members. Try assuming that they want to make decisions but are blocked. Work with them to identify the limiters that hold them back from decisive action. Be consistent in your expectation that decisions will be made and support them in staying the course on decisions that have been made. Be tolerant of errors and use them to help improve future decisions.

The last word
Explicit approaches to decisionmaking and risk management will enable your group to achieve better performance through better decisions.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted October 11, 2009
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