Leading Through Uncertainty: Decision Making

By Christopher Fussell & Micah Zenko

It might be tempting to think that we’re finally emerging from over two years of crisis. But between ongoing waves of covid, soaring prices, massive supply chain disruption, and conflict in Eastern Europe, it is the regrettable reality that uncertainty remains high. When dealing with this uncertainty, and preparing your organization for the next crisis, it is imperative to maximize the effectiveness of your decision-making. McChrystal Group’s own cross-industry research from 50,000+ individuals shows that organizations that are slow to make decisions are 17% less likely to adapt their strategy to changes in their environment. We also identified that only 33% of these respondents, ranging from C-suite to frontline contributors, agreed that decisions across their organizations were made in time for effective execution.

We know timeliness is a critical component of effective decision-making, and this is particularly challenging in a hybrid work environment, with some team members working from home, traveling and others in the office. Below, you’ll find five behavioral and process changes to help you and your team be more effective decision-makers during times of uncertainty.

1. OVER-COMMUNICATE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR TEAM

Decision-making authority should be delegated down to the lowest appropriate level so that decisions are made quickly and with all necessary context. But this degree of delegation requires leaders to have faith in the capabilities and risk appetite of frontline leaders. Guardrails are important here, to provide the team with the structure required to set them up for success. If leaders and their teams are misaligned, teams and individual contributors will default to slower, safer and smaller decisions.

We’re often oblivious to how the second-order effects of geographic proximity solve some decision-making issues. If I’m that front-line teammate, I can get clarity about my boss’s intent through a quick chat in the hallway, or through the peers to my left or right. When I’m remote, this becomes orders of magnitude harder. Most people hunker down and default to inaction when the direction is unclear and authorities are vague. Leaders can fight this by constantly and consistently telling their teammates, “there will be points of uncertainty as we’re separated but I trust this team, and I trust you to make decision X. Act when you know the time and opportunity is right.”

After your team starts making new decisions, you can make small changes in your communications and tone to make a further impact on future decisions. Encouragement, support, and coaching will breed confidence and openness. Second-guessing and “this is how I would have done that differently” interventions will erode or eliminate any gains you’ve made in empowering your workforce. Be very intentional about your language and approach, as the impact will be amplified.

2. RE-EVALUATE SUCCESSFUL DECISION-MAKING FRAMEWORKS AND SET DECISION BOUNDARIES WHERE POSSIBLE

We recommend a detailed mapping of decision-space authorities in your organization. A decentralized environment can’t be a linear, back-and-forth system of giving direction, taking action, and waiting for the next set of orders. Instead, begin now to clearly define the decisions that each individual or team is expected to make. In our experience, the simplest way to start this is at the top.

  • Consider the decisions you hold at your level on any given day, then ask how many of those decisions you can push down one level.
  • This will inform your design and implementation of the meeting cadence needed so that the next level down has access to the information required to support their decision authorities.
  • Repeat this process by level, and you’ll find that your frontline is now far more empowered with decision authorities.
  • Document, publicize, and adapt decision-space authorities so there is a regular understanding of who owns what decisions. There won’t be a hallway for you to sort this.

3. ESTABLISH CLEARLY UNDERSTOOD ACCOUNTABILITY MECHANISMS

The “did you meet your numbers?” question is a banal form of accountability. A glance at a simple spreadsheet can answer it. What senior leaders should care about is whether the decisions that their teams are making are having measured and demonstrated outcomes. Particularly in remote work environments where information is often stripped of context, clear substantive results that align with the strategy are harder to come by. For this reason, ownership and accountability are? critical. Work on creating a new form of accountability – one that mitigates against vague and non-contextual forms of written communication – challenge yourself as a leader to ask building questions, not binary ones; “why is that working so well, in your opinion?” creates far more opportunity for dialogue than something like, “great job for hitting your numbers on that product!” The latter might feel more positive to one individual but is top-down and does little to create a culture of connected ideas.

4. BROADCAST DECISION MILESTONES: PHASE 1 VERSUS PHASE 2

So far, we have mostly addressed the culture you should create for empowerment and decision-making for routine decisions. When you face a strategic decision, the organization needs you to be much clearer, over-communicate, and over-share throughout your decision-making process. We’ve found an easy framing tool you can use is telling your team when you are in Phase 1 or Phase 2—a simple way to help your team know what sort of input to give.

  • Phase 1: you are still in the information collection and analysis phase, and you’re open to new options and perspectives.
  • Phase 2: you’ve made a decision and now you’re transitioning to execution.

For example, when a leader suggests a solution, she can say, “I see us as still Phase 1 on this, but it seems to make sense that we push the deadline by two weeks.” That tells her team, “I’m seeing things this way, but I need your thoughts and input. Don’t let me bias this outcome.” Alternatively, and especially in a remote-work environment, a leader can say, “OK, great discussion. Based on the input, I see us in Phase 2 – we’re going to push this deadline by two weeks.” Here, her team is hearing a clear and declarative statement: the discussion is over and here is the decision. This is the clear signal to execute against that plan.

A simple system like this will help your remote teammates know how to help, without the benefit of the normal body language cues, hallway conversations, and head-nods that we’re all masters at transmitting and receiving during face-to-face work.

5. TRUST MORE THAN EVER

Simply put, trust is the glue that binds people during heightened times of uncertainty, and it is even more crucial amongst widely-dispersed organizations. Improving the trust between teammates requires leaders to:

  • Vigilantly communicate with increased regularity (increasing the regularity and breadth of how you communicate).
  • Maintain an intentionally positive and prosocial voice, coupled with an honest view of the situation.
  • Demonstrate empathy over organizational frustrations.
  • Express authentic concern for the challenges facing your organization and your individual teammates.

This degree of trust includes the assumption that remote decision-makers are not acting with bad intent when their choices seem - from a distance - unwise or uncertain.

Decisions sit at the heart of every business, whether the essential decision-makers can slap the table in person or not. In uncertainty, your role as a leader is more critical than ever, and a disciplined approach to cascading decision-making can be a powerful tool for you and your team.

Chris Fussell is the President of McChrystal Group. Chris has focused on bringing his Special Operations experience and expertise in cross-functional collaboration, knowledge sharing, and decision making with large corporations facing similar challenges. He joined McChrystal Group as a Partner in 2012.

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Micah Zenko

Director of Research and Learning

Micah Zenko is the Director of Research and Learning at McChrystal Group, charged with the development and instruction of offerings designed to improve organizational performance through Red Teaming, strategic planning, and scenario development.

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