It’s surprisingly quick and easy:
Don’t just make a decision based on someone else’s summary.
This seems obvious, but in fact it’s what a large number of leaders and upper managers do – with less time to make more decisions, it is very common to require management underneath you to summarise meetings, events, or data so that you can make a quick decision without spending time you don’t have reviewing the minutiae. Everything from major company direction to internal cultural decisions is usually decided in this way.
Why is this a problem?
Because when somebody else summarises for you they do two things:
- They remove data they don’t consider valuable but that may well be needed. This is reductionism
- They interpret data for you, which can change its context from true
Both of these can be a big problem. To put it in more perspective, Management can also be called Intermediation, and it’s easy to forget management has a chain effect. You might trust the manager who reports to you; but do you know and trust them all the way to the data?
This is something I call Decision Resolution.
Not all intermediation is bad. Managers are there precisely because they need to manage aspects of the business or people on behalf of leadership, and interface with leadership on behalf of those aspects or people – the second part being something I have seen a number of managers unfortunately pay less attention to.
It’s also possible for management to accurately aid decision making, if they particularly know their leadership or work very closely with them in specific instances, but I would say this is an exception rather than a rule, especially in larger companies – and the larger the company, the more this is all a problem, especially because summaries are very easy to quickly and lazily dash off – for example, in bullet points. Also if senior managers are very close to leadership, there is a chance they will be affected by the same inattentional blindness I mentioned in The Decisive Patterns of Business.
(Quick aside – how many times have you noted a summary in bullet points and later gone back to find you don’t remember all the context around each one? Don’t worry. We’ve all done it.)
The more managers you have between you and the raw data for a decision, the more likely intermediation will summarise, reduce, and interpret data that usually is presented with little context.
If – especially as a leader or senior manager – you want to make an accurate decision with long-term reliability, you need to do it based on slightly different data than the traditionally-presented set, with better decision resolution.
Instead, try making a decision based on a small chunk of RAW data. What does that mean? Well, here’s an example in visual form (it could be any actual decision):
Let’s say you are a leader, and you have to make a major decision based on the wheels in this picture:
It could be size, shape, colour, composition, how they should complement the car, perform, whatever. This is the big picture. You feel you don’t have time to inspect the whole car, because you have a mountain of other decisions for other areas, and all you care about are the wheels.
So you trust intermediaries to prepare the data for you to make an informed decision. This is where problems arise, because complex issues are involved that include things such as politics, competency, how many levels of management, and so on.
This unfortunately includes agendas, where summarised data is manipulated to encourage a decision beneficial to the summariser. An example? I’ve seen senior sales management swearing blind they need a feature for a deal, and doing everything they can to summarise positives and position deals to persuade leadership it must be developed… for it to then resolve that the company has embarked on an urgent $750k R&D project for a couple of potential $50k deals. I don’t have to point out how that’s not really helpful for a leader.
So with our car visualisation, several layers of management deciding what is important and passing the information on up to increasingly busy seniors then might well be affected by the car colour isn’t important, the wheels are all this size so we can worry about other aspects, or even if we make it generic enough they might pick wheels that will work better on another car we prefer… and so forth. Eventually, the picture may emerge to leadership a little more like this:
Right… so, the general shape is there. The wheels are in the right place. Nothing seems out of order, per se. But there’s no context. No colour. The decision resolution is so low at this point a manager can’t really tell, but since they have no basis for comparison and they’re given a basic set of data, they make what seems to be an informed decision.
If you were to make a potentially critical decision, which picture would you rather make it on?
Right, but we don’t feel we have time to scrutinise the first. So instead, what’s better than reducing and interpreting the data is this:
Ok, here’s the wheel. Original data. We can see it very clearly. It still lacks some context, but we can be more confident that a decision will be more accurate.
This is granularisation instead of reduction. All the data is there, but you’ve chopped it into small chunks.
Now this might not be enough for you to make a decision, but you can add more chunks until you have enough to make a decision:
The more data there is here the better your decision will be. The critical point here is that the data has not been changed – it’s just a smaller portion than the whole. This means that when you make a decision it will be accurately based on real data, with real context – not what somebody else decides is the correct data.
If you don’t feel you have enough raw data for the decision, add more until you do.
Instead of expecting a chain of managers to summarise the points in a meeting for an overall decision, perhaps pick one person and ask them to specify only one point, in detail, with the rest ready if needed (and I speak elsewhere about the value of using narrative and example for this, not just parroting bullet points). For a decision, don’t invite too many chefs; ask one specific person to ready the data in a granular fashion. It’s a little more work than summarisation, but for the purpose of an accurate critical decision… shouldn’t it be?
Less intermediation mean more accuracy. It’s long been known that too much middle management also can interfere with company running and value delivery – there is a point of diminishing returns with delegation of authority within a hierarchy, and that is an important modifier. Gaming behaviour, politics, jobsworthmanship, red tape, and many other symptoms of bureaucracy can result (I speak about these a lot as well!).
This also means leaders not falling into the understandable trap of saying there is “not enough time”. You still need to have some understanding and oversight of what you are making a decision about, of course, which means making appropriate time. If you don’t have that understanding, and are simply relying on whatever people are telling you (outside a completely trusted relationship) to make decisions quickly… Perhaps you shouldn’t be making that decision.
Obviously, there is a balance between accuracy and time spent on the decision, so this is about learning how to refine the decision-making process, not reducing it.
And a final consideration – listen to the subject matter as well, not only your own authority. The data is telling you what possibilities there ARE, instead of you – or someone below you – trying to force possibilities into the data.
Why is accuracy important?
I keep talking about the acceleration of business today. And it’s true – it’s faster than ever. Half the problems companies are facing is because their old management structures, hierarchies and engagement practices simply can’t keep up.
So speed matters! But what matters as much is accuracy. Take too long to make the right decision and the opportunities pass by. Make decisions so quickly so they aren’t accurate to the situation, and they will still pass you by, or worse, damage you.
Measure twice, cut once – speed of decisions is not the only deciding factor in business! Accuracy and ability to change those decisions based on constant feedback must also exist.
Balancing this will help you choose wisely in the appropriate time.