Deciding Fast and Deciding Slow

Many organizations I consult with wish they could move faster. These organizations also cite how long it takes to make simple decisions as a huge bottleneck and would love to find ways to remove or expedite the decisions.

In fact, when I consult, one of the things I keep an eye on is the rhythm of decisions and change in an organization. Every place has one, and I go with that flow before I improve it.

Slow Decisions

So, let’s first talk about what on earth is going on with slow decisions. There are a few obvious culprits for slow decisions:

  • Can’t get everyone in the room
  • Nobody knows the details
  • Nobody wants to make the decision
  • Long approval chains
  • Double-checking approval chains
  • Critical path folks are on vacation

These obvious issues are useful because they provide a starting point to ask the wonderful question, “Why?”

Why can’t we get everyone in the room? They have too many other commitments aside from this issue.

Why does nobody know the details? Because everyone is too busy with other things and doesn’t believe it’s their responsibility.

Why does nobody want to make the decision? Because if it goes wrong, they don’t want their name on it.

Why are there long approval chains? Because nobody wants to make a decision, and people believe having multiple sets of eyes will prevent disaster.

Why do we double-check the approval chains? Because they take so long, some folks will skip right past others to expedite.

Hopefully, reading these gives us a set of themes that are emerging around two key areas: overcommitment and poisonous responsibility.

Fast Decisions

Let’s invert the timing and say that we can make decisions instantly.

What are the problems we’ve got?

Well, if we compress all the time it took from how slow things are above to just a few seconds, I think it’s pretty clear things will be disastrous.

Why? One person will have to make an instantaneous decision without the details and get blamed for the disaster later.

Just because things took so long before didn’t mean the quality was any better. It just took longer. Compressing the time doesn’t address the overall quality of decision-making, just the time. If the decisions that folks are making are still perilous and slow, speeding them up is a bit like building a race car without brakes.

Better Decisions

What’s my way to address this? We want to provide some minimal guardrails to our decision-making. These guardrails are easy to set up and provide a foundation that gives everyone trust that the right people will make the right decision.

The first component to making good decisions in this scaffolding is answering three questions:

  • What are we deciding to do?
  • How will we know if it worked or didn’t?
  • When can we check?

The first question is usually as far as most groups get, but these second two questions never get answered. By answering these second two questions, you must have a certain number of details incorporated. Also, by providing a checkpoint, you give a risk-reversal opportunity.

The second component of good decision-making is simple: Have three legitimate options.

A legitimate option is one where you have a real chance of success.

Getting three options is harder than it sounds, and many folks will balk that some options aren’t legitimate, but for it to be legitimate, it simply needs to have a similar chance of success as the others.

Once you have three options, you can pick the most appropriate one and move on.

I’ll tell you a secret, though, that if you have three options with similar chances of success and level of detail, the choice can almost be random.

Decide Better, Decide Faster

My approach to speeding up decision-making is focusing not on the speed but on the guardrails. Once they are in place and habit, speed follows quickly.

For one client, I was able to reduce the average time of 6 months to make a decision on green-lighting a project down to less than 90 days fully staffed and writing code.