Decision-Making: Autonomy versus Speed


One of the strange ironies of our time is the incongruity between organizational obsessions with productivity and the lack of attention to critical principles that directly affect everything else in the organization. Decision-making falls into that category, alas. Decision-making, and the organizational thinking that underlies it, deserve more scrutiny.

One useful way to consider alternative approaches to decision-making is the intersection of two dimensions: the degree of autonomy for the one proposing a decision to be made, and the rate of speed of the process to get the decision accepted by those most impacted by the decision. That’s where this essay is headed, but first, I’ll lay out the story of how I learned what I now know about decision-making.

My Story

When I first started in the world of business decades ago, I had formal training only in my discipline -- computer science -- and no management training whatsoever. And the first few companies I worked for had well-defined decision-making approaches but did not lay them out very clearly. Apparently, I was supposed to learn them by osmosis, on the job.

The thinking then was that there were basically two sorts of decision-making. Senior executives made big decisions autocratically as the head of any organization or sub-organization. That might come after discussions with other executives (and perhaps the board) and subordinates. Alternatively, small decisions were made by individuals -- if truly small -- or more generally, by a group or team through consensus.

A few years later, when I became a manager and then president of a software company, Meridian, I still had no formal training in management. As a young leader of a software startup with a background in computer science (and only a few years of experience leading small technical groups), I managed a 25-person company as a few overlapping teams, and largely let the heads of those teams determine how decisions were made in their own domains.

Personally, I was constitutionally disinclined from the most primal of decision-making approaches: autocracy. I didn’t want to unilaterally make major decisions, especially as several team leaders owned more stock than I did. I relied on the team leaders — the head of sales, programming, and operations — to work with me in a model of consensus-oriented decision-making. One of us would propose some company-critical decision — like the merger that we eventually executed with our largest (and publicly-traded) competitor, or taking on a major contract — and if an initial straw poll vote failed to pass unanimously, we’d talk the issues through until we all agreed on the decision and its ramifications. A slow, but thorough process. But we as a group were confronted only with existential problems: other simpler issues were handled in other teams.

The programmers adopted what I would now characterize as a consent approach to decision-making. Consent is an approach to group decision-making that short-circuits the hard work of consensus by limiting objections: members of the group can withhold consent, but only for a well-defined reason. The proposer can counter an objection by amending the proposal and at some point the objector assents. Once all objections are resolved — when all can live with the proposed decision — consent is achieved.

As Ted Rau characterizes it:

Consent is defined as ‘no objection’. Not having an objection is slightly different from agreeing. We refer to that extra space as the range of tolerance. We don’t have to find the overlap of our preferences in order to make a decision. Instead, we seek the overlap of our ranges of tolerances which gives us much more to work with.

It’s strange that I haven’t really learned much new about group decision-making in the decades since running that software company. (If you were waiting for the end of the story, yes, we merged with our largest competitor, and I become head of engineering for a 175-person software company, Verdix, that merged with another firm to form Rational Software, later acquired by IBM.)

However, a few years ago I learned about an approach I hadn’t encountered before. The advice process involves a great deal of autonomy for the decision proposer while retaining a means for collective intelligence to influence the decision. I read about it in 2017, from Richard Bartlett:

Anyone can make any decision, so long as they are willing to take responsibility for the outcome, and they have first listened to input from anyone who will be affected, or who has relevant expertise.
Notice it says
listened to, not agreed with. If your relationships are good, this gives you most of the benefits of consensus, at a fraction of the cost.

Radical autonomy! It seems like a short-cut consent approach, with the obligation on the proposer to overcome objections removed. An element of autocracy for everyone.

Bartlett makes the point that the advice process needs to operate in the long run in the context of other organizational feedback cycles, so the responsibility element is analyzed and learned from. I confess I have never worked in an organization using the advice process as a regular, general approach to decision-making, but I am sold on the principles.

Many ideologies have arisen in the intervening years about the relationships between decision-making and organization design — such as Sociocracy, Holacracy, Frederic Laloux’s Teal, and a number of others. For today, though, I am limiting my discussion to the nuts-and-bolts of the decision-making approaches, and their differences.

I think of decision-making at this scale as the mitochondrion of the organization, the organelle in our cells that creates energy. Teal, Holocracy, and other theories of organization are aspirational rather than focused on the nuts-and-bolts, bottoms-up operations of small-group decision-making. I’ll leave larger-scale organizational forms as a topic for a later day.

Comparing The Approaches

At the outset, I offered a simple approach to contrast various approaches to decision-making: the degree of autonomy for the proposer, and the rate of speed of the decision process.

Here’s a chart arraying the approaches in a 2-D matrix:

As I said earlier, autocracy is often considered the original form of decision-making, but I doubt that. People are much more social than we generally admit. However, there is no doubt that many top-down, command-and-control structures in the past were quite autocratic. Meanwhile, many theoretical approaches to organizational design — I am thinking specifically about Laloux’s Teal model — have a socio-evolutionary aspect that associates forms of decision-making with levels of organizational advance. For example, a Teal-level organization theoretically relies on the advice model. But I will leave the evolution of organizations to another post.

Autocracy can be a very fast decision-making process, perhaps to its detriment. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow offers a great deal of research that demonstrates that slower decision-making is more likely to lead to good decisions.

The advice model is a high-autonomy and medium-speed approach. Decision makers in this approach can ignore advice if they want, but Kahneman’s warning applies to them as well. The larger the number of people interviewed the slower the process, but the likelihood of satisfactory outcomes rises.

The conceptually democratic majority voting approach, like the straw polling I used with my direct reports — can lead to faster or slower decision-making depending on the result. At Meridian, I was looking for unanimity, but a majority approach could be based on a simple majority, or some specific level of agreement, like a supermajority of 66% or 75%. Obviously, this has to be established at the outset, and is perhaps most useful for large groups and decisions of low impact, like ‘should we order Chinese or pizza for this week’s company meeting?’.

Consensus is the slowest decision-making approach, and that might be justified if it uniformly leads to better decisions, but it does not seem to. It tends to smooth off all the potentially revolutionary or highly innovative aspects of proposed plans because many people are risk averse. In my estimation, consensus should be reserved for the narrow set of decisions that directly impact all the members of the group and require all to actively support the decision going forward.

My recommendation is that when considering a decision-making approach, look toward the center of the table. Is there a reason consent should not be used? It is relatively fast, relatively democratic (all can object if justified), and relatively autonomous. If greater autonomy is needed or greater speed is necessary because of external forces, the advice approach might be better.

Autocracy, consensus, and voting approaches should be reserved only for edge cases, which are either very low stakes (pizza versus Chinese food), for very small teams, or individuals autocratically making decisions about their own solitary work.

Individuals make their own small-scale decisions — like ‘which of the things on today’s to-do list should I do first?’ — as autocrats, or in an advice process, perhaps asking a colleague’s thoughts on solving a programming bug.

Come to think of it, perhaps that’s why we think autocracy is primal.

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