Sunday, 11 July 2010 00:00

The Revered Decision Maker... Not Really

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The quickest way to get lost, in business or in your personal life, is failing to make decisions. Not knowing where you are headed increases stress and frustration. It would seem natural, then, that teams on projects beleaguered with indecisive management would be excited to have the logjam broken by a dynamic, decisive leader. Simply put, they are not. Every decision has its opponents and they are bound to be irritated, feeling they have lost prestige or stature. However, turning the decision into action requires a unified team. One of the best tools to accomplish this is to understand what impeded decision making and tactfully educating the team members on the source of the problem. This will garner their backing and improve their willingness to support the decision.

Why People Fail To Make Decisions

Indecisive environments frustrate people, their morale sags, and productivity plummets. The problem must be addressed aggressively, with a quality decision process and accountable decision makers. Educating team members on the new process, is the most effective method of gaining their acceptance of decisions coming out of that process. Essential for dissenters, it is also critical to defend the occasional wrong decision.

There are hundreds of reasons for reluctant decision makers. In general, though, they can be grouped into three broad categories—individual, environmental, and situational.

Leader Manager

Does the right things

Does things right




Business like



Inspiring Innovation

Tough Minded


Analytical Structured





Shares Knowledge

Centralizes Knowledge



Warm and Radiant

Cool and Reserved

Expresses Humility

Rarely admits to being wrong




Some people do not have the fortitude to be decision makers. Making decisions requires taking a stand, defending the decision, and, if it is incorrect, admitting the error and creating the corrective action. People that lack confidence fail to make and defend decisions, while ones that cannot admit an error are trapped in their own pride. It takes confidence, conviction and humility to be a good decision maker.

Of course, there are people that are simply poor decision makers. They do not have the objectivity to gather and analyze the data. They make decisions based on emotion rather that fact, resulting in ill-founded direction.

After identification, handling these situations is easy. Replacing or augmenting the indecisive manager will solve the problem quickly. In these situations, the team rallies behind a new leader—everyone knows where the roadblock has been.


Environmental factors, primarily the company culture, are the most difficult to address. Cultures that are fast to blame breed slow decisions. People refuse to make choices until they have foolproof options, plausible deniability, or someone else to blame. Eliminating culpability is a requirement and often escalates all decisions.

Consensus decisions slow organizations and can frustrate many team members. It is nearly impossible to get everyone to agree, it takes significant time and energy. Since no one has ownership or authority to admit there is a problem or make the correction, admission of failure is interminable.

Lack of decision-making authority is the third major group in this category. As opposed to an organization that needs escalation to avoid blame, these organizations do not have the distributed intelligence to make decisions at lower levels. These companies are slow, have trouble surviving in today's business world, and they are rapidly fading from the landscape.

Internal people can rarely correct these problems; they are part of the culture and are blind to the issues. External consultants or new senior management well versed in organization development are the ones that commonly realign the organization to a different methodology.


Situational problems arise from transient conditions. These are based on localized problems new to the organization. Two examples are lack of problem definition and poor or insufficient data.

There are many times decisions cannot be made because the problem or the desired outcomes are poorly defined. Without understanding either of these, you do not know where you are or where you are headed. Each attempt at making a decision results in identifying too many flaws. The flaws cannot be refuted, since the issues are poorly defined. As the saying goes, "It is like nailing jello to a tree," the decision falls apart before you can take action.

Poor data normally results in bad decisions. Continuing to make bad decisions and failing to realize the source is poor data, conditions indecisiveness. Since almost all decisions are made on estimates, reviewing estimation processes often identifies the source of the problem. Lack of definition, inadequate understanding of the problem, or over confidence regularly lies at the root.

These problems are usually solved by adding people with specialized experience to provide accurate assessments. Internal resources or consultants can help break this logjam by pinpointing the problem and correcting it.

Moving Forward

Decision-making processes are complex. Reading Leadership Decision Making, by Dr. Hossein Arsham, will give you a good overview of its complexity. Understanding this complexity improves decision making.

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