We’re at a moment in time where top-down planning is increasingly ineffective. Change is the only constant. Rather than set a plan with rigid parts to have others deliver on, as a leader it’s more efficient to set strategic direction and priorities, then hand over incremental decisions to smart specialists. A good leader can locate the calm in any situation, and then relay that sense of control to the team.
In Linchpin, Seth Godin uses the example of the fast and complex Japanese transit system that operates on schedule and on budget, not by top-down directive, but by a large pool of empowered employees making the best decisions in the moment. “Letting people in the organization use their judgement turns out to be faster and cheaper–but only if you hire the right people and reward them for having the right attitude.“
Jazz musicians practice for hours, and then when they arrive on the bandstand, forget their training and just play. In this respect, planning does play a role. Planning, or prioritizing, helps ground your decision-making when things go haywire. Think of it like the foundation of a house: whatever goes on top of it, you’ve done the work to create the solid foundation, so your house will at least be structurally sound.
When constructing an organization built for good decision-making and rapid iteration, start with the foundation.
1. Reward Independent Thinking. There’s always a lot of behind-the-scenes greasing of the wheels before the big visible result. Make sure you’re developing a culture that features baked-in autonomy and rewards independent thinking and teamwork. Kill all obstacles to an open culture.
2. Hire The Right Leaders Hire for personality, drive, execution, and accountability. Skills and experience will always be essential, but today they’re not enough. The value of positive, responsible, accountable, and happy team members who take action cannot be overestimated.
3. Celebrate Improvisation. In order to learn how to be spontaneous, it’s important to create a hierarchy that leaves room for flexibility and potential failure. Think of good decision-making as a skill to be fostered in your organization just as you might keep employees up to speed with new technology or processes. It might even be a good idea to incentivize attempts at big ideas, whether they fail or not.
4. “Brand” Your Mission. Every team should be be well versed in its purpose. A brand is purpose distilled to its essence. Is your mission as simple to understand as a good brand? If not, work on it. Do this relentlessly so that your employees are guided at all times by the team’s mission.
5. Allow Freedom Of Movement. Employees never cite money as the number one factor in determining work happiness; it usually has something to do with autonomy and freedom. If you encourage cross-functionality, knowledge sharing, openness on projects, you create an atmosphere of respect and openness.
6. Encourage Side Projects. Successful main projects almost always started out as side-projects. I know of one company that held an internal product competition. Think about ways you can get employees solving problems that may not be directly related to their roles and cross-pollinate whenever possible.
In the end, good decision making depends on clear priorities and an openness and willingness to be flexible, to respond in a thoughtful way in the best interest of the organization, and to be bold. Are you ready to create a culture of do-ers and decision makers?