Balancing cost and quality in decision-making


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (just over 4 minutes listening time–it’s a 2 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


There is an apparent conflict between making decisions efficiently, which is to say, using a low-cost process for decision making, and making efficient decisions, the decisions that are most likely to lead to good quality results.

Decision process is important in several ways. For instance, delegation is an efficient decision-making process when it reduces the number of people involved and thus the total number of hours put into making a decision. This is true whether or not the person given decision-making authority has the most expertise in the area of the decision. Delegation also has potential intrinsic benefits. It can build decision makers’ expertise and help them develop in their organizational roles. In large part one learns to be a better leader by leading, and a salesperson by selling, and so on. Thus, even if the decision arrived at by a delegatee could have been improved upon by someone with more expertise, an organization benefits by using delegation as a process because of the time savings and the delegatee’s expertise building and role development.

But there can be costs associated with quick decisions, and decisions involving fewer people, as compared to slower decisions and decisions involving more people.

Decision quality, as well as the decision makers themselves, may benefit immensely when goals, assumptions, and alternatives are fully discussed. Even the most experienced, most qualified, most respected, and most intuitively gifted decision makers will face decisions that are outside of their expertise, or for which they lack adequate information, or which fall into their personal blind spots. Properly framed challenges help decision makers “check their math” and discover answers that may have been hidden.

Or as Richard Doherty was quoted by USA Today as saying about the turnaround at Apple when Steve Jobs resumed its leadership: “[H]e asked these amazing questions, and the company started to transform.”

Answering questions also helps decision makers articulate their decisions to the degree necessary to sketch a vision that others in the organization can get behind and follow through on. As well, those who ask questions develop their domain expertise, and refine their art as decision makers, by running through the mental workout of formulating and presenting questions.

But decisions which include the input and approval of larger numbers of people can be inefficient from a process perspective. Learning curves, egos, politics, or simply the sheer volume of people who want to be heard can make group processes extremely time consuming.

Your best practice will be to remain aware of the potential tradeoffs between efficient decisions and efficient decision-making. Make strategic choices somewhere between the two extremes, accept the potential downsides of your choices, and be prepared to deal with pitfalls should they appear.

Less talk and more action

Too much talk, not enough action: how to switch it around


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (about 9 minutes listening time–it’s a 4 MB download, which will take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


In certain organizations people are always going to meetings where practically nothing gets decided. All talk and no action–what’s going on?

Action isn’t always better than talk. Sometimes the best solution to a problem is to do nothing. But when action is needed, or when talk is getting in the way, it’s time to scan for obstacles like these in your organizational culture.

1. Fear of accountability. Accountability means decision makers experience the consequences of their decisions. Placing responsibility for decisions in the hands of people who are properly motivated by the consequences will lead to better decisions over the long haul. But in the real world things often don’t turn out as planned. When an organizational culture resorts to blame and personal attacks, people won’t want responsibility for decisions. The personal risk is too high. Even when action or innovation is desperately needed, decisions are avoided or deferred. The status quo, in which nobody has to stick their neck out, offers a relatively safe harbor for individuals fearing punishment and retaliation, regardless of the long-term negative impact on the organization.

Where fear of accountability may be a problem, key questions to ask are: How do we cope with others’ mistakes? What response to mistakes would be the best for our organization and our people over the long run?

The mistakes made by the team responsible for a bank’s web site and the research and development team for a toy company, for example, might seem rather different. But everyone who has had more than a cursory level of business decision-making responsibility has made mistakes. And experimentation, which means accepting the risk that results won’t always turn out the way we want them to, is a powerful tool. So the more important question is not whether someone has made mistakes, but how they handle their mistakes. (“Fail quickly and move on” is one successful CEO’s advice.)

2. Defaulting to consensus. Consensus means getting input from everyone in a group and requiring unanimous consent before moving forward. Consensus can be a powerful mechanism for motivating every member of a team and for uncovering and resolving hidden issues that team members might otherwise let lie. However, overuse of consensus can be cumbersome, impractical, and enervating to teams bogged down by too many details.

Where overuse of consensus may be a problem, key questions to ask are: What is important about using consensus for a particular decision? What would be the benefits of taking a particular decision out of a consensus process?

To find a healthy balance, rather than relying on one form of decision making for every issue, try experimenting with different decision-making mechanisms periodically, such as consensus on one end and veto-free delegation to one person’s judgment on the other.

3. Boredom. Some people attend meetings simply because they don’t have enough to do, or don’t like their assigned work. While ambitious people often take on extra work in order to get ahead, projects can get bogged down when too many people are involved, and everyone’s work suffers if individuals or teams split their focus too many ways.

When boredom may be a problem, key questions to ask are: Whose contributions are necessary at this stage for this project? What is important about their participation? What are good ways to deal with someone’s boredom?

If someone is bored enough with their present job, it’s time for them to change. Neither they nor the organization benefit if they aren’t focused on the work already on their plate.

4. A meeting culture. In some organizations the best way for people to get noticed and get ahead is by participating in meetings. In a certain highly competitive corporate culture I know, people believe they receive credit for what they do only through the political act of presenting their work in person at a meeting, lest their contributions be ignored or even credited to someone else.

When a meeting culture may be a problem, key questions to ask are: How are careers and meetings connected? What’s important about this linkage? How could this connection be improved?

Competitiveness in an organization’s culture can lead to great strides for both individuals and teams. But competition can work against an organization’s long-term best interests if it encourages people to hold each other back while pursuing personal quests for recognition.

5. Inconsistent leadership support. An organization’s leaders may pride themselves on their motivational skills even while their on-again off-again support for innovators sabotages personal initiative across the organization.

If partially completed projects are an issue, ask these questions: How have our leaders actually rewarded action? How consistent is support for innovation according to people on the receiving end?

Consistent support gives innovators the confidence to follow through and the incentive to try again, while giving others the courage to take the plunge.

I want to give special thanks to Don Lange, owner of Straightface HQ, a 3D visual design shop in Seattle, for the spirited conversation that lead to this entry. Don’s background includes working as a lighting specialist for Hollywood film productions on which, he tells me, teams of highly autonomous production experts meet just often enough with just the right people to stay coordinated while working super-efficiently in parallel. So if you are looking for people who understand high levels of delegation, pay attention if you see “Hollywood” on a resume.