Perhaps one of the most critical responsibilities of management is making crisp, effective decisions and then rallying the resources to execute them. For IT leaders especially, the pace of rapid technical change has made decision making in a timely manner all the more critical. In many cases, however, leaders quietly and unwittingly opt for one of the worst possible decisions they could make: indecision.
Deciding not to decide
In many organizations, indecision masks itself under the guise of prudence, careful analysis, or taking a "wait and see" approach. While these might be legitimate reasons for delaying a decision, they're often the bricks laid on the path to indecision. Many perceive indecision as "keeping options open," but this is not the case. While you avoid committing to a decision, markets change, competitors advance, and suppliers move on. Despite attempting to "keep options open," avoiding committing to a certain path usually limits your options as the circumstances around the decision change.
In short, not making a decision is actually committing to a certain path of action, and doing it in the worst possible way. In effect, indecision is making the decision to leave the field while the game is still being played and surrendering your ability to affect its outcome. Avoiding a decision also creates organizational entropy, as resources continue to study potential options, and organizational angst is expended considering the options in question and potential outcomes.
The quiet art of indecision
In the technical field, we as IT leaders are expected to make crisp, fact-based decisions. Many aspects of technology present themselves as hard facts. We can size a data center down to a precise number of virtual CPUs, and readily gather software, hardware, and implementation costs down to a penny in many cases. However, the rapid pace of change in technology tends to cloud these otherwise clear-cut and fact-based decisions. Cloud Provider A might be the best choice today, but upstart Cloud Provider B has a compelling new technology that should be ready for primetime in 18 months; do we go with B and hope everything pans out?
These types of considerations can often lead down the path of indecision, an especially insidious path when the organization reassures itself it's being prudent, but is really avoiding making a move one way or the other. In many organizations, indecision is actually promoted by the company's culture. Those who make the wrong decision are lambasted, and for many leaders, marshaling teams to perform complex analysis and "kicking the tires" is the most fun part of their jobs, further promoting a culture of indecision.
Deciding not to decide, the right way
There are certainly times when the timing simply isn't right to make a good decision. When this occurs, gather the affected parties and detail why this is not the right time to commit to a decision. Discuss and document any internal or external factors that might influence the outcome and cause the decision in question to be reopened. Document the circumstances that made it impossible to make a good decision and detail the opportunity cost of foregoing any action. Most importantly, determine when the case will be reexamined, and when the decision becomes moot and is no longer worthy of consideration. With this "post mortem" on the decision in place, communicate with the organization and move on with life.
After a few months of documenting decision making in this manner, it will become abundantly clear if your organization has a difficult time making decisions. If you're constantly revisiting the same decisions, or spending months agonizing over relatively mundane initiatives, there's a larger problem afoot with a very real and very high price tag.
Gaining awareness of how your organization makes its decisions, and acknowledging the fact that quiet indecision is actually a decision in itself, is one of the best ways to increase the performance of your team or organization.
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.