One of the great silent scourges of organizations is a culture of indecision. Often, the executive team or HR department may not even know they’ve carefully crafted a culture that ruthlessly punishes people for making a decision, or gently encourages them to move along without “rocking the boat,” all in the name of safety, tradition, deference to peers and “policy,” or some other high-minded concept that sounds far better than ingrained indecision.
Companies where indecision is rife may be otherwise
wonderful places to work. Employees may be friendly, and there may be a strong
focus on collaboration and teamwork. Corporate strategy may be as unchanging as
the tenets of a major religion, and there’s a sense that everything moves
slowly along a well-worn path.
Confrontation is nonexistent, since actively avoiding controversial decisions is a sure way to reduce strife, although a poor way to run an effective team or organization, as decisions are the incremental adjustments that keep your corporate ship headed in the right direction rather than drifting aimlessly toward waters unknown. So how do you identify a culture of indecision before your organization opts for irrelevance? Here are some tips:
In Lou Gerstner’s book about turning around IBM in the early
1990s, he noted a formal IBM policy whereby any employee could “non-concur”
with a decision or proposal. Like a referee throwing a flag in American
football, all action would stop, with refs and coaches conferring while the
players stood around aimlessly waiting for resolution.
While this is an extreme example, many companies have an elaborate process of hearing every opinion, weighing every minor dissent, or allowing a particular person or department to immediately call any decision into question. While airing disagreement and reviewing matters with affected parties is a critical activity, allowing anyone and everyone to stop to action on any decision is rarely beneficial.
Shiny, happy teams
Rarely will you hear someone speak poorly of teams. After all, management gurus have been pitching the power of teams for several decades. While there are many positives to collaboration, “team decision making” is often code for no decision. If you routinely hear “We need to consult ‘the team’” or “The team just can’t seem to reach a consensus,” your teams may be a paper tiger hiding a collection of individuals who fear making a decision.
The perils of "policy"
Corporate policy is the perfect cover for indecision. Leaders can shrug their shoulders and claim their hands are tied when it comes time to make a controversial decision, and employees in all ranks of the organization can hide behind policy to avoid acting on a difficult or unfavorable decision. While every organization needs ground rules and basic guidance, if your policy manuals require a forklift, and you find “policy” recurrently cited as a reason for inaction, it’s time to examine your decision making process. Even in highly regulated industries, “policy” should never be an excuse to avoid a decision.
Some companies allow third parties to serve as enablers of
indecision. Consulting companies that bill by the hour will gladly stand by and
produce increasingly convoluted analyses or schedule meetings to build
consensus and air concerns, as this merely adds to billable hours, all while
you throw good money after bad.
Similarly, research organizations, software vendors, or market conditions are never perfect and never provide a guaranteed outcome. Resist waiting for the economic indicators to turn, the vendor to release that long-promised update, or the research organization to finally predict perfection, as it will never happen.
The head on the spike
One sure way to foster a culture of indecision is to
metaphorically crucify everyone who makes a decision that ends badly.
Calculated risks are generally behind the greatest innovations of our time, and
for every risk that’s celebrated for its wildly successful outcome, there are
dozens that did not turn out positively.
Punishing those who fail acts just like the medieval king who would put the heads of executed enemies on a spike to serve as a warning to root out bad behavior. In this case, the behavior you’ll root out is an ability to make decisions and take risks, with your management in a state of paralysis for fear of ending up on the proverbial spike themselves.
Indecision is rarely as obvious as missed numbers, competitive threats, or major market disruptions, yet it can be just as insidious. Successful companies in particular can allow fear of failure to breed a culture of indecision, creating a perfect storm once a major market shift occurs, and leaders sit on the sidelines analyzing and forming teams and committees while the rest of the market passes them by. Learning how to identify the signs of a culture of indecision are the first step in rooting it out.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.