A few years ago, my wife and I decided to build a home. We started the process with shared excitement, but quickly realized it was a tough process. Soon we were overwhelmed by a myriad of questions that we were expected to answer immediately: What color do you want? How big should this be? What kind of floor do you want? What type of tile? Where do you want the light switch? What type of lights? There was an endless stream of choices we were required to make among numerous options. As the process continued, we began to realize that it was almost impossible to have a firm answer for every question at our fingertips.
Then we asked ourselves: Are there any principles that are non-negotiables for us? For example, we want a home that fits our taste, but is still functional and easy to live in. We wanted things that could maximize the attributes of where we have chosen to live — the surrounding area and the topography — yet not allow the costs to get so out of control that we couldn’t enjoy living there. After we agreed on a set of non-negotiable benchmarks, these became our design principles that would guide us through the process.
Once we narrowed our focuses around those principles, it made our decisions a little easier. Now we were no longer swamped by the continual flow of decisions to be made. We could consider each question as it arose and come up with the best answer based on our principles.
Within organizations, we often see a similar phenomenon occur. Leaders want and need to make decisions about their organizations. However, they tend to get snowed in while considering the number of possibilities – so many, in fact, that it can become overwhelming.
To better manage those decisions, we suggest organizations follow the same approach that my wife and I implemented. We suggest they similarly identify, “What are the principles that matter most to us?” Think about what factors are most important to you and your leadership team in advance. Then when you have a tough decision to make, you are less likely to be immobilized and unable to make a choice. Using the organization design principles to weigh the options in front of you helps you determine the best solution while keeping in sync with the things that matter most.
Some examples of the kinds of issues that can split leadership teams about their organizations are:
- How do we design an organization that enables fast decision making while avoiding risk?
- How should cost constrains be balanced with the need for quality?
- How can we properly ensure accountability for results while ensuring collaboration?
- How can having the ideal system or process be balanced with the practicality of today’s capabilities?
The best approach is to identify your design principles early on – before you face a critical decision. If you wait until the decision has to be made to clarify your principles, it can be harder to do so in an objective and strategic way while facing the pressure of a pending choice. However, if a leadership team can align on those principles in advance, before they have crucial decisions to make, then they will be in a better position to apply sound, thought-out guidelines to the choice at hand.
Decision making is particularly challenging in high-stakes situations when there is money involved, or where people’s livelihoods or personal interests are at stake. Having an objective way to arbitrate among decisions becomes particularly important.
The challenge intensifies when there are multiple people involved in the decision. For example, what would happen if I made all the decisions about the new house by myself, and gave my wife no say in the matter? One could argue that would be a much easier approach because I don’t really need to collaborate with anyone else. If I prefer the color blue, the house is going to be blue. In this scenario, I don’t need a lot of principles to try to get myself aligned with what I want. However, when I think about doing this with another person or with a group of people, I start to realize that all my opinions might not provide the complete answers we need. Now, I have to factor flexibly into the equation as I deal with multiple decision-makers.
This concern takes on more significance as we undertake organization design work for our clients. We are not just dealing with a couple who want to work together to build the home of their dreams. Organization design brings together people with very different professional backgrounds and opinions about how to be successful, and they need to work towards consensus on urgent issues. It becomes even more important now to be able to outline the things that we can all agree upon in advance. This can significantly boost the process of making decisions in a group setting around high-stakes issues.
The same approach can help streamline decisions regardless of the stakes involved. Having your organization develop, agree upon, and share a set of design principles helps guide leaders and teams through the difficult and complex process of making organization design decisions.