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Deciding Who Decides, and Doors: The Decision-Maker Conundrum

Overcoming the Decision-Maker Conundrum

The general rule of great delegators is to push decision-making authority to the lowest level possible within an organization. Reason being, that is where the best information lives to inform that decision.

However, real life is not so simple. Most managers and organizational leaders struggle to define the appropriate level of decision-making authority to give staff members. Give too little decision-making autonomy and employees feel stymied and dis-empowered. Give too much decision-making authority and you risk serious personal and organizational impact if things don’t go as planned.

This “who decides what” struggle is only exacerbated in the context of public sector organizations. After all, one of the cultural and structural challenges of government and government decision-making is the asymmetry of outcomes. One on hand, good decisions are largely ignored – that’s what government should do after all. On the other hand, bad decisions become headlines in the Washington Post and can potentially limit/destroy career prospects.

As a result, many decisions tend to rise like bubbles; they seemingly can only to be made at the highest levels of an organization, not at the front-lines where the information lives. Once a decision rises to the senior-most levels, the fact that it must be made by executives and only executives automatically infuses the decision with self-made importance.

The creation of a perpetuating cycle is just the start. Executive-only decisions are ipso facto serious ones. Resolution requires diligence.  This leads to intensive data-gathering efforts, numerous, multi hour-long discussions, and plenty of hand wringing.

We have all been there to witness the hemming and hawing of analysis paralysis. We have come to recognize the sound of silent thrashing due to indecision.

Define the Door

The “one-way” vs. “two-way” door framework is a useful paradigm for leaders to consider. Famous folks like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and others allegedly use it to improve their decision-making. Essentially, all decisions at home and at work can be classified as either one-way or two-way doors. One-way doors are those decisions that are very hard to reverse – the decision to get married, quit your job, or buy a house. Two-way doors are those where after crossing the threshold, you can turn around and unwind the decision more easily – enrolling in a master’s program, switching gyms, or buying a new dress.

The framework suggests that the process of how one makes decisions should depend on whether the decision is a one-way or two-way door. One-way doors require (extensive) information gathering, due diligence, and deeper understanding. Decisions that are two-way doors, however, inherently require less investigation and can be made faster. The investment of time, information gathering, and implication mapping is far more applicable to one-way, irreversible decisions than it is to two-way, reversible decisions. Being able to distinguish between the two types is key to good decision-making.

Let’s get back to the “who decides what” conundrum. If you adhere to the one-way versus two-way door framework, the real question is actually “who decides when.” If a decision is a two-way door, leaders should be more willing to delegate them. Not only will this empower staff to take greater ownership, but it will counter decision-making slowness, organizational inertia, and the creep of risk aversion.

The willingness to let staff make critical two-way door decisions inherently limits the downside to the organization (and to the leader) while exposing a new cadre of employees to the risk of potentially being right.

Similarly, treat one-way decisions with great care. Arbitrarily delegating these decisions is dangerous for any leader.

So there you have it – first define the door and then decide who walks through it.   

Continued Musings

Extreme A: All decisions are two-way doors. Given enough time and perhaps money, almost any decision in life can be undone and reversed. Corporate acquisitions can be divested. Marriages dissolved. New products discontinued. Unfortunately, most of us lack infinite money and none of us have infinite time.

Extreme B: All decisions are one-way doors. While any one decision may be “reversible”, there is no way to undo all of the second and third-order implications of a decision. Any corporate raider can undue a merger, but what about the choices to eliminate products and let go of people? A marriage is reversible, but what about the children that came from that original union?  Any decision inherently gives rise to more decisions. There is a cascading dynamic that – without a time machine – cannot be reversed entirely.

Beyond these (practically useless) extremes, a sizable take-away is that we would all prefer more two-way door decisions. One technique to get there is to convert some one-way doors into two-way doors. How? Shrink the field of impact for a given decision so that it is effectively reversible. For example, instead of deploying a new technology across the entire company (big one-way door), try a pilot in just one division first (small one-way door). In this way, organizations can use the learning from that decision to either inform the broader release in the near-term (i.e., the pilot went well) or for similar deployments in the future (i.e., the pilot didn’t go so well).

Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across State, local, Federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.

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Katie Malone

This is such a refreshing perspective on the decision-making process. The one-way versus two-way doors example illustrated a helpful method for deciding whether to take authority or delegate. I especially liked your line about the “risk of being right.”