Decisions that don’t make sense
Performance, engagement and wellbeing all suffer when senior executives focus on making decisions instead of creating conditions.
“Decide, v.i. – To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another”. - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
At a day to day level, people experience organisational culture as ‘the way we do things round here’.
In any given organisational context, the three essential things done ‘round here’ are:
Sense making – understanding the context and us within it
Decision making – choosing what to do and what not to do
Action taking – doing things to create value
As our world becomes ever more uncertain and unpredictable, there’s less and less time to make sense, make decisions and take actions before the context changes and different actions are required if we want to create, rather than destroy, value
That’s the fundamental reason organisations need future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness.
It’s also why the main job of senior executives is not to make decisions but to create conditions where sense making, decision making & action taking become ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded, and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
That’s easy enough to understand in theory.
But it’s surprisingly difficult to put in practice.
The fundamental reason is that, for more than a century, we’ve automatically accepted as axiomatic the now dangerously destructive delusion that senior executives means decision makers.
This legacy concept has become so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that if you ask anyone where decisions get made in an organisation they’ll instantly point to the top.
Equally, if you ask them where action gets taken they’ll quickly point in the other direction – towards the workers, the hands, the front line, the coalface.
But ask where the sense making takes place and you’ll usually get blank stares.
It’s a vital question to ask because doing so shines light into the dark recesses of organisational dysfunction, illuminating the fact that the best sense making happens not at the top, where decisions traditionally get made, but in the body of the organisation where the real action takes place.
There are three main reasons why the richest sense making happens in the body of the organisation:
It’s where people are in most direct contact with most customers.
It’s where people are most closely involved in day-to-day value creation and see what’s working well, what’s working less well, and what’s not working at all.
It's where the maximum diversity of people and perspectives come together, these days from maybe five generational cohorts.
If you’ve ever wondered why organisations have so many problems with performance, engagement, wellbeing and retention, look no further than how frequently decisions fail to reflect the rich sense making happening in the body of the organisation.
This disconnect between sense making and decision making means many organisational decisions don’t make sense to the people tasked with acting on them.
When people are faced with enacting decisions that don't make sense, they have a choice of three options:
Option #1 – Just do it.
Imagine spending every working day doing things that make no sense.
You’d be hard pushed to avoid descending into a general state of apathy.
That’s neither good for organisational performance nor personal wellbeing.
Nor does it help those engagement scores so important to HR…
Option # 2 – Question the decision.
This may sound like the responsible thing to do.
But senior executives tend to be very busy people (making all those decisions don’t you know) and rarely welcome requests to revisit decisions they regard as already done and dusted.
The questioner is likely to be told, in more or less subtle ways, to just do it.
Experience this once or twice and you’ll likely:
Join the ranks of the deeply disengaged who choose Option #1
Descend deeper into cynicism
Look for a better job where the ability to think is seen as an asset, not a liability
As with Option #1, performance, engagement, and wellbeing all nosedive.
Option #2 brings the added bonus of also boosting attrition…
Option # 3 – Do something that does make sense instead.
This creative solution is a bit risky to take on alone.
Most people who choose Option #3 therefore get together with trusted associates at the water cooler, coffee machine, or bar after work to figure out what to do instead.
Of course, this ‘disobedience’ mustn’t get back to the folks in big hats who made the original decisions or there’d be trouble.
Heads might even roll.
Amongst those who choose Option #3, there are a few who don’t entirely hide their actions – the ironists – who communicate their ‘non-compliance’ in subtle and sophisticated ways to others ‘in the know’.
Ironists are often mistaken for troublemakers but in reality help maintain positive spirits in the face of persistent gaps between official decisions and appropriate actions.
Despite any learning brought about by a few brave ironists, the net outcome tends to be that senior executives plough on in blissful ignorance that organisational value is often created despite, not because of, their decisions…
This dysfunctional disconnect between sense making, decision making, and action taking emerged, evolved, and embedded itself over a long time, when the world was changing much more slowly.
It was a world where there was time for senior executives to make dodgy decisions, communicate them, have people repair, remake, and rework them locally, take more effective action, cover up their ‘non compliance’, and generate results.
If things got really out of whack, senior executives often hired a traditional finders, minders, grinders consulting firm to ‘help’.
That help consisted of the consulting firm invading the organisation with a small army of junior ‘grinders’ to ferret around and tap some of the rich sense making going on in the body of the organisation.
Then the senior ‘finder’ running the consulting intervention would add a judicious amount of marketing spin, and present the ‘results’ to senior executives — with recommended ‘next steps’ including, surprisingly enough, further ‘essential’ consulting work.
Meanwhile, the people who know what’s actually going on in the body of the organisation, and care most about its future, get increasingly ignored, marginalised, and alienated.
Having witnessed this sad charade going on consistently for more than 35 years, I’m no longer amazed that such disastrously dysfunctional organisations have limped along for so long.
But I still live in hope that senior executives will eventually wake up to their primary responsibility – creating a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness where sense making decision making and action taking are ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded, and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
It’s the only way their organisations will thrive and their people will flourish in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.
It’s what will solve the crises of engagement, wellbeing and attrition plaguing organisations that’s become so much more visible in the wake of Covid-19.
It’s why the #1 job of senior executives isn’t making decisions but creating conditions.
This was a significant problem in the early days of Coivid-19 lockdowns because people had fewer opportunities for casual encounters with trusted associates to sort out decisions that didn't make sense.
I’m indebted to my colleague Dr Richard Claydon co-founder of EQ Lab whose PhD was on the subject or organisational irony as a strategy for living in modern organisations.
“Hired Help that Hinders” is the fifth and most systemically serious of the Five Fatal Habits that have consistently prevented organisations from creating future-fit cultures of innovation, agility and adaptiveness for more than 30 years.