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Accelerating Decision-Making and Action in Complex Organizations: A Guide for Leadership

Ah, the joys of multi-layered organizations! Where a team of brilliant minds can somehow make a decision that no individual member would’ve EVER approved of on their own. Where meetings can feel like marathons without a finish line.  And, where communication, approvals, and processes designed to make things faster actually slow your progress to tangible results.

Things change fast and often don’t go as planned. You need a blend of accountability, coordination, and oversight to handle the thorny beast of reality every day. And yet, bureaucracy kills results. Ideally, you’d like your teams to compound their individual intelligence instead of checking it at the door. Can you have it both ways?

The answer is yes, but it’s not as simple as saying buzzwordy things about flattening hierarchies or irresponsibly bypassing processes. It’s about creating a culture of what I call “Iterative Management” – one that values rapid decision-making using light, scalable processes, and one that recognizes that it’s better to move forward than to wait for perfect clarity. Here are some tips to help you achieve the balance:

1. Help Middle Management Move Faster: Middle managers are the unsung heroes of organizational decision-making, regularly sitting through meetings that could’ve been emails, and emails that should’ve been meetings. They often find themselves sandwiched between executive directives and ground-level realities. This is the job. You can’t make it go away, but you can help them understand the often-challenging reality of their position: They must constantly make trade off decisions that remove resources from “good” options to ensure the success of slightly better ones. Shower them in tools, training, and trust so that they can make those decisions confidently, without seeking approval from those above (or fearing their wrath if they do).

When middle managers can decide confidently, they can act swiftly, ensuring that projects don’t stall and that the most important ones get the most attention. Conversely, if you micromanage or force them to peanut-butter resources thinly over too many things, they will fail… and you’ll be the one responsible.

[[RELATED VIDEO: Iterative Management Has Been Transformative]]

2. Allow More Trial-and-Error: Perfection is overrated. If you’ve ever been in a meeting where you’re waiting for that one elusive piece of data to make a decision, and it feels like waiting for a plot twist in a never-ending soap opera, you know a decent decision today often beats a perfect one tomorrow… or the next day… or… never. Embrace the iterative process! Make the best decision you can today, then refine as you go.

What of those those who say “we can’t build the plane while we’re flying it”? Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but that’s already happening. You’re either doing exactly what you’ve always done, or you’re trying to improve… something. As soon as it’s the latter, you’re venturing into uncharted territory, at least a little (and maybe a lot) – and you don’t get to take a pause from the rest of the business while you do.  Encourage teams to adopt a “decide, act, review, refine” approach, so that risks are quantified intelligently, decisions are made quickly, and results can be improved in real-time based on outcomes and feedback.

3. Lean In on Transparent Communication (Way In): Everyone likes to say that communication is crucial to trust. And sure, trust is the backbone of rapid decision-making (and everything else). It’s obvious and true: when everyone is on the same page, decisions happen faster and issues surface sooner and more completely. And yet, how often do individual managers and even executive teams spend more time on “positioning” than on real information transfer? It’s too easy for managers to fall in the trap of making things look good – especially when it seems like that’s what their superiors want. Instead, reward your employees and their employees for bringing “bad news” sooner. Turn meetings into channels where concerns are addressed promptly, and heads-up’s on future issues are not just tolerated but welcomed and actively sought.

When you eliminate the detective work of trying to sort out the truth hidden in heavily stage-managed status presentations, you get to use that time to engage in group problem solving that deals with actual future issues. Once that becomes a habit – once every meeting, every week, is always looking forward at what’s coming up and what should be done about it through a lens of total transparency, the whole organization gets smarter and more agile.

[[RELATED: Changing Culture Isn’t Easy, but it’s Not THAT Complicated]]

In the words of Abraham Lincoln and/or Peter Drucker (!), “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” I’d add “one step at a time.”  As a leader it falls to you to create a world in which your subordinate managers collaborate on incremental creation of your shared future instead of cherry-picking information to pitch each other on how well everything is going. If you succeed, you’ll find yourself running an organization that’s not just reacting to changes as they happen, but is agile and proactive in incorporating reality and common sense into decisions which are both made more quickly and adjusted more easily when things go differently than expected.

Which – let’s be totally clear – they absolutely will.

Like this and want more? Watch Ed Muzio’s new TV Series, “One Small Step” on C-Suite Network TV. And, Visit the Group Harmonics Industry Intelligence Archive for ideas, whitepapers, and case studies about changing culture and how management culture impacts so many facets of the organization.

Co-published on LinkedIn

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