Who Should Decide?

I was recently browsing through a copy of The Harvard Business Review from February 2006 when I started reading an article entitled “The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-making Style”.  The first sentence of the article read:

“The job of a manager is, above all, to make decisions.”

This statement is so completely at odds with my own thinking that I read the article.  My expectation was that the statement was designed to grab the readers attention and that the authors would then proceed to debunk the statement by alluding to the needs of modern businesses.

This was not the case; the authors genuinely see decision-making as a management responsibility.
My own view is that the role of manager is:

“To create an environment in which good decisions are made quickly and easily by everyone.”

So why am I getting so exercised over such a small difference?  After all, decisions get made under both approaches; the only difference is who makes them.

The reason is that the first approach harks back to a time of predominantly top-down decision-making which assumed that there was a “right way” of doing things.  The role of a manager was to know the “right way”, to pass that knowledge on to their subordinates and to supervise them to make sure that they did it the “right way”.

This approach has served businesses and organisations well for the last 150 years, but times have changed.  Most significantly, globalisation has intensified competition and caused the pace of change to accelerate to the point where we simply do not have the time to pass information up and down the management hierarchy while awaiting a decision.

The problems this approach can cause were brought home to me during my time in the computer industry.  The company I worked for bought computer disks from a number of manufacturers.  We then put them through our own Q&A process and developed software that further increased the quality of the product.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that the trends in the industry were well understood, the company’s senior management were still deliberating over how our procedures should change when the life-span of disks became shorter than our Q&A process.  The result was that by the time we were ready to release a product for sale, it was obsolete and no longer being manufactured.  We therefore ended up in a situation where, for a period of time, one of the world’s largest computer manufacturers was unable to supply any disks for one of its computer ranges.

The approach I support relies on pushing the decision-making process as far down the organisational hierarchy as possible.  This is not to say that managers will not have to make decisions – they will.  But the decisions they make should only be the ones that someone else cannot take.

For many senior managers this is a scary prospect, as it makes them feel out of control.  However the truth is that they were probably never really in control in the first place.  They may have sat in lots of meetings, deliberated over a huge number of decisions and answered questions from numerous members of staff, but the chances are that, if the organisation is performing well, the majority of decisions are being made without them or, if the organisation is performing badly, that important decisions are not being made because there are simply not enough hours in the day.

Being “in control” in modern organisations requires people to be leaders as well as managers.  Rather than ruling the organisation through the command and control approaches of the past, it requires them to create alignment by sharing a compelling vision of where the organisation wants to go and by ensuring that the values of all staff are consistent with those of the organisation.

With the pace of change accelerating, the task of setting direction for an organisation is an ongoing task that requires much more of a leader’s time than was the case in the past.  Pushing down the process of decision-making not only enables the organisation to respond to change better, but it frees up valuable management time to plan how to capitalise on the opportunities that change presents.

Moreover, empowered employees tend to be engaged employees.  It stands to reason.  What would you prefer; to be told what to do or to be trusted to make your own decisions?  And as all the research confirms, the happier employees are, the better the service that provide to customers.

The reason the Harvard Business Review article annoyed me so much is therefore because it is encouraging managers to stick with out of date practices.  More critically, to stick with practices that will limit their organisation’s ability to compete in the modern economy.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.