Making decisions is a core part of a manager’s role, and in a knowledge-based organization core to everyone’s role. For advocacy organizations the choices vary widely from who to hire, how much to budget, which campaign goals to choose, what policy report to write, how to frame a campaign message and so on. Staff members frequently spend a great deal of time on such decisions. Often that makes sense. Other times, staff members may take agonizing over calls that do not matter much either way. If you’re ever witnesses a lengthy email chain going back and forth over obscure language in a press release or blog post, you’ve seen similar.
Speaking from personal experience, this can be particularly common among lawyers or other policy experts who place a high premium on being exactly right. Organizers too can take time with decisions, particularly given the importance they place on process for gaining buy in among key constituencies. In many cases these instincts are critical to success. Putting out a factually inaccurate policy paper can hurt a researcher’s credibility. Not taking time to build relationships and buy-in will doom your coalition before it gets off the ground. However, applying the same high standards to all decisions across the board is a surefire way to muck up operational gears.
Challenges around decision-making aren’t solely a problem for non-profits. Jeff Bezos has commented on the risk aversion apparent in many organizations that spend serious resources trying to make the right decision every time. He advocates for splitting decisions up into two types when determining how much energy to allocate. Type 1 decisions are “one-way” doors that are impossible to reverse, such as selling a company. They deserve a commensurate amount of effort to consider. Type 2 decisions are “two-way doors” that can be reversed if things go wrong. On his view, the vast majority of decisions fall into this category and taking chances by experimenting with things that can go wrong, also sparks innovation and projects that can go spectacularly right.
The political arena may offers different incentives than Amazon. Sending out a press release that alienates a core constituency can have lasting, though not completely irreparable, consequences somewhere between door numbers 1 and 2. Nevertheless, moving away from an attitude that all decisions have to be right all the time toward one that allows for more risk, failure, and innovation can make a big organizational difference. Here are a few ways to think about this.
Time and Resources Commensurate with the Scope
An underlying assumption of the doorway idea is that the greater the risks and consequences of a decision, the more time, energy, and information it deserves. Big projects like a 3 or 5 year strategic plan deserve a lot of consideration. Finding the right people, too, can merit a lot of attention. It’s worth noting that both examples are still two-way door decisions. Strategies can be changed, as can personnel.
Planning for a short advocacy campaign, or finding the right location for an event, however, should merit less time. And while bad public releases can cause serious damage to an organization, most egregious mistakes should be avoided with a quick review. Campaign messages evolve over time so spending too much time on a public statement will miss the window for when it’s effective.
One challenge to weighing the costs of spending time on a decision is that most choices are hidden in the daily give and take of a knowledge organization. Although spending $5,000 on a small convening registers as a cost, we don’t often consider staff time in the same way. Staff meetings in even modestly sized organizations can easily run into the thousands of dollars when adding up the salaries and time devoted to the task.
Considering the specific cost spent researching or considering a decision in this way can help discipline decision-makers. If you send a staff member on a several hour research project, it might cost a few hundred dollars. Would you pay that dollar figure for the info you’re hoping will help you make the choice? And does it generate more value than the next best thing that staff member could be doing? If the answer is no in either case, don’t make the request.
Diminishing Marginal Returns to Information
The staff time example also points to the importance of considering the expected value of waiting and gathering more information about your options. In many cases, there are diminishing marginal returns to searching for additional data that may help you make the right call. I’ve seen managers spend time answering questions that almost regardless of what the answer is, will not change the dynamics of the underlying decision. To avoid some of these traps, it’s worth asking yourself:
- If I knew the answer to this question, would it change the decision? If the answer is no, or probably not. It’s rarely worth spending the time.
- How likely is it that additional information will change the decisions? Early on as you’re gathering information, a few internal or external meetings may add a lot of value. However, if you’ve already received feedback from one person on your government affairs team about potential targeting, a second person might have a few new ideas, but likely isn’t going to fundamentally change your strategy.
Obviously questions like these carry a fair degree of amorphousness. You’re never going to have an exact estimate such as “this piece of information will increase my likelihood of success by 10 percent.” At least asking the question however, can help you avoid activities that are probably a waste of time.
Another factor to consider is buy-in with a decision internally or externally. Where a call can impact a lot of people with different opinions, giving everyone a chance to voice their perspective is critical. This is particularly important where you might end up deciding something over opposition from your team. If people feel they’ve had a chance to say their piece, and you understand where they are coming from, they are much more likely to execute a decision, even if it’s one they disagree with. Externally this can play an even more important role if you’re running a campaign strategy in coalition. The more buy-in you need from more parties, the greater the process it will often take to get everyone around the same page.
However, it is also important to be careful about adding too much process, particularly to internal decision-making. Many people may have opinions on a particular issue, but if it’s not likely to impact everyone’s work and not everyone needs to be involved. Further, even if a lot of people will be impacted, there are still diminishing returns to large meetings in trying to debate these decisions. Have middle managers or a specific committee solicit input helps keep groups smaller, less prone to group-think, and more likely to get information from team members who might not provide thoughts in large staff meeting.
Finally, it’s critical for managers not feel that they need to make all of the decisions. If you’ve ever had an executive director of a multi-million dollar organization commenting on the choice of appetizers for a particular event, you can be sure it’s not a great use of their time. Generally, organizational leaders should focus their time and energy on the decisions only they can make. Such as overall strategic direction, message, or high-level partnerships. Under this broad direction, there are lots of day to day decisions to make and those are generally better left closer to the people doing the work within the confines of the broader direction. For example, you want your digital, who are paying attention to the online conversation around your cause, making decisions about what to post, who to retweet, and when.
In addition to delegating decisions of narrower strategic scope, it’s also important for executives to know their strengths and weaknesses, and they should generally delegate decisions in areas where they lack competence. For example, I’m a policy wonk and good and detailed explanations of complex topics, but if we need to explain something in plain language to a reporter, it’s perfectly reasonable to let our communications director make the call on how to frame a policy. Practically, there should be some give and take. I’ll want some input to make sure there’s a basis in fact about what we’re saying and the message should be consistent with the org, but as long as it’s accurately, we’ll do better if we use her plain language explanation than my nuanced treatise.
To sum up, the larger the scope of the decision, the more time and energy you should allot. This is especially true if it’s a call you cannot later change. The amount of input gathered should also be commensurate with the scope of who is impacted and how critical buy-in is to the outcome. The more information you gather the less likely each additional bit of information will impact your decision. Meetings and research get expensive quickly. Avoid spending time perfecting calls where a wrong decision brings minor consequences. Use those as learning experiences. Finally, delegate as much decision-making as possible so you can focus on a few really important choices.