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Assemble your toolbox for distributed decision-making

If your organization has a distributed workforce, it needs to figure out how to optimize distributed decision-making. Joseph Flahiff lays out the fundamentals.

Our dryer was taking twice as long to dry our clothes as it should. I am a handy guy so I decided to see if I could...

fix it. I had a look at the machine and then went to my garage to grab the appropriate tools: a Phillips head screwdriver, a crescent wrench and a pair of needle-nose pliers. At first glance, these seemed to be the right tools for the job.

When I got into the work -- dryer parts torn out and strewn around -- of course, I discovered that the one tool I needed (in this case a multimeter) I hadn't brought with me.

I say of course because any IT leader reading an article entitled "Assemble your toolbox for distributed decision-making" knows where I am going with this domestic tale.

While it would be great if you always had the right people, the right information and the right guidance at hand when you needed them, unfortunately, getting a job done is frequently like working on my dryer.

There often is the one person who isn't in the main office where the decisions are made, or there is one critical piece of information that is not available because it is in a different office. Distributed decision-making attempts to take advantage of technology and clear decision-making models to ensure the right elements are on hand to get the job done.

Speed, quality, engagement

Distributed decision-making, done correctly, offers two key advantages: speed and quality.

Let's start with the benefit of speed. Making decisions fast brings several advantages. The first and most commonly thought-about benefit is speed to market. Another benefit is that you maximize your decision options. That is, if you make a decision quickly, you will have time to make another decision and another. You not only get a product or service to market faster, but you are also learning and adapting faster than your competitors. Similar to a chess move where you capture a piece and you take away your opponent's ability make any moves with that piece, you gain a competitive advantage on many levels by being first.

Next to the benefit of speed is the quality of the decision. The quality of a decision is made up of two factors: the information available to you and what you do with that information. The availability of information is highly impacted by technology and making access to the right information possible. What you do with that information is largely dependent upon the skills of the people involved -- hence, the desire to have the right people all in the same office at the same time.

A distributed decision-making model identifies which people need to weigh in and what information needs to be put in the hands of the decision-makers so they can make the best decisions possible at any given time.

In addition to speed and quality, a great byproduct of a distributed decision-making model is the engagement you create across the organization. If all the decisions in your organization are made at the head office by a select few people, people in the outlying offices can feel disengaged and disempowered. Creating a distributed decision-making model engages people from across the organization, making them feel as if they are in one virtual office.

How do you get speed, quality and employee engagement? There are three key tools or inputs you will need to get ready for distributed decision-making: communication, skill and direction.

Communication

To make a good decision quickly, decision-makers must have the appropriate information. They must not only have information about the issue at hand, but they also must have information about the scope of a decision's impact. They must understand the implications of the decision.

If there is a delay in information or in the quality and timeliness of the information, it will potentially negatively impact the decision; either the decision will be made without the right information, impacting the quality of the decision, or the decision will be delayed until the information is available, impacting the speed of the decision.

Historically, the limits of communication tools have been the biggest barrier to fast, high-quality distributed decision-making. As technology has improved the speed and quality of communication, more organizations operate globally and are guided by distributed decision-making.

But do these organizations have the right technology in place to make fast, high-quality distributed decisions? To answer that question, organizations must remember distributed decision-making is not just a data-driven process; it is a human process as well. So, it is important to see the other parties. The hierarchy of communication I use with clients is as follows:

  • Face to face. If not this, then…
  • Video conferencing. If not this, then…
  • Telephone. If not this, then…
  • Instant messaging. If not this, then…
  • Email.

(I foresee virtual reality [VR] and augmented reality [AR] playing a big role in distributed decision-making. Imagine, if you can, an AR/VR meeting space where the appropriate team members log in from around the globe. The appropriate information is displayed and/or is accessible through the AR interface.)

Face-to-face tops the list because much of what we communicate is conveyed in subtle, involuntary microexpressions. We may not even be aware that we are doing this or that we pick up on these microexpressions, but they are an integral part of clear communication. Since these microexpressions may last for only one-fifteenth or one-twenty-fifth of a second, it is difficult -- if not impossible -- to detect these on even the best video teleconferencing systems.

If you can't get video, then get audio. With an audio-only conference, you can at least hear the vocal elements -- pitch, speed, speech pattern, tone, etc.

When we switch from verbal to written or typed communication, we have two remaining possibilities: either synchronous or asynchronous communication. All the emojis in the world won't make up for the loss of vocal elements and visual cues. I almost never recommend using any written medium for important, sensitive, emotionally charged communication. Decision-making can be all of those things.

Skills (technical acumen)

Distributed decision-making isn't throwing together a random collection of people to make the decision. You need the people with the right technical skills in the room. Heck, that is why you are distributing the decision.

There is a simplistic notion that the people closest to the problem have the best information to make the decision. That isn't always the case. Sometimes, the people with the most information about a project, for example, do not have the sufficient skills or other information necessary to make a good decision. This is particularly true in large organizations. The larger an organization gets, the more silos are necessary. (Yes, I said silos are necessary. They are necessary to keep people from dying from information overload. If the word silo has too much negative connotation, use the term organizational cells.)

Distributed decision-making is a virtuous circle: When decision-making is distributed and the upper layers of the organization are not required to make all of the decisions, they can spend time on this activity of communicating the strategic direction of the organization, which improves the quality and speed of distributed decision-making.

Think about silos or cells as object-oriented organizing. Everyone in the whole organization could interact with every other person in the organization, but if they did, it would be impossible to keep all that information in your head and track all those relationships. So we build smaller units with which we can interact, much like the thousands of lines of code behind an object in an object-oriented component.

The information necessary to make the optimal decision may be held within a different cell of the organization. For example, a software delivery team may not have all of the information necessary to make the decision to delay the delivery of a feature. Some of that information lies in the sales department; some lies with marketing, training and other groups in the organization. So the ideal distributed decision team will consist of the people with the right information and the knowledge of what to do with that information.

In the case above, someone from the constituent teams -- marketing, sales, training, etc. -- would need to be a part of the distributed decision-making team.

Clarity

In order for distributed decision-making to work, the people making the decision must not only know their field, they must also know how that knowledge fits with the overall organizational strategy. They must be able to make decisions that are aligned with the corporate vision and make them just as the CEO would make them. This is possible only when the leadership of the organization has communicated the information so clearly, so frequently and so widely that everyone can make their day-to-day decisions as if they had consulted with executive leadership first.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
Theodore Roosevelt

Distributed decision-making is a virtuous circle: When decision-making is distributed and the upper layers of the organization are not required to make all of the decisions, they can spend time on this activity of communicating the strategic direction of the organization, which improves the quality and speed of distributed decision-making. The role of clarity in making fast, high-quality distributed decisions extends beyond just clarity about the strategic direction of the organization; it's important to have clarity in roles and responsibilities, as well as the type of decision and process that will be used.

Clarity of role, type of decision

It is critically important that there is clarity in the organization about the role of the parties involved. There are tools for clarifying roles, but it can be just as simple to ask:

  • Why are you a part of this decision?
  • What do you hope to get from it?
  • What do you bring to it?

Quickly answering these questions will bring as much clarity as spending time creating a detailed roles definition.

Will the decision be quantitative or qualitative? That is, can the decision be made by examining the data and the result found in the data? Or is there some judgment -- some understanding of intangibles -- necessary to make the decision? Intangibles may include nonquantifiable risks, benefits, public perception, customer goodwill or bad will.

Conclusion

Creating a distributed decision-making model for your organization will allow you to tap that most valuable resource in your organization -- your people. By leveraging technology and clear communication, you can make high-quality decisions quickly, resulting in competitive advantage, competitive opportunity and increased engagement.

How is your organization doing or not doing with distributed decision-making? Could you use more clarity? Are you using the appropriate communication methods to get both the information and the right people with the right skills together?

About the author

Joseph Flahiff has more than two decades of experience executing, coaching, consulting and training in traditional and agile delivery across large-scale complex enterprise IT organizations, as well as smaller boutique agencies. Email him at joseph@whitewaterprojects.com, or text Joseph at (206) 276-1386.

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This was last published in October 2017

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