Decision Making and A Culture of Trust

Last time we looked at the Advice Process as a simple (in principal) 4 step decision making technique -

  • Decide who should decide

  • Make a proposal

  • Seek advice

  • Decide.

While the process itself is very simple, getting it working in most organisations is very tricky because it completely upends a number of pretty baked in cultural conventions - use of hierarchical authority, undermining consensus to get your own way, lack of trust requiring approvals and so on. The existing culture will fight this process every inch of the way. But, if the organisation is really serious, really puts some resources into this and pushes it forward, it can act as a significant catalyst to cultural change. By changing the way decisions are made, the cultural conventions around decision making can be transformed.

Cultural change is hard because it's often hidden. We are so deeply inside the culture that we don't question, or even notice it most of the time. Rather like a fish trying to describe water, when we are surrounded by something we take it for granted and barely notice its presence. Only when something happens (like the fish suddenly being yanked out of the water by a guy with a net) do we notice what we had been surrounded by all along. A deliberate process change - like adopting the Advice process - which is deliberately in conflict with existing culture can enable us to see the culture and, if we are brave, act to change it.

The major cultural issue that Advice process will run up again is trust, or more specifically, the complete lack of it in most organisations. The organisation needs to be able to accept that the decision made by the appropriate decision maker is the decision. No review. No sign-off. All those review processes and multiple sign-offs that your current decision making process requires are there because the organisation does not trust that its people will make the right decisions. Although most organisations pay lip service to the idea of empowerment, reviews and sign-offs are directly dis-empowering to the decision makers. They know they aren’t really making the decision, the reviewers are. And they had better be really good at second guessing what decision the higher ups think is the "right" decision, otherwise they are in trouble.

Normally we live within this low trust system without even being aware of it. Seeking approvals is just normal. We don’t even notice that lack of trust around us. Not directly...we do feel it in our bones though, when work feels unfulfilling and frustrating and we can't wait for Friday and to leave this whole mess behind for a few days, or to knock off at 5 and go home to where people actually appreciate and respect us. But hey...that's just what work is like isn't it? It has to be that way...doesn't it? Because it's work.

We feel the lack of trust but we don't call it lack of trust. We call it "due diligence" or "governance" or "risk mitigation". But we feel it and it eats away at us every day. It demotivated us. It makes us cynical and disengaged. But because it's all around us, we never think to challenge it.

What happens then, when we throw something like the Advice process into a low trust culture? A process that explicitly requires high trust? One of three things will happen. The first is the obvious one - the current culture wins and the new process quickly withers and dies. Excuses are made "it might work for other organisations but it will never work for us because we are different". "We don't have the right structure", "We are too complex". Anything other than the truth - "we never gave trusting each other a try".

But what if the organisation is serious about this new process? They have heard that it's fantastic and they really want to get it working. The CEO is on board. What happens than? The second outcome is that when problems start to arise, the organisation says things like "the process is good but to work properly for us, we need to tweak it a little". A review here, a committee there, just so they can maintain "good governance". Before you know it you have the old decision making process back but with some of the words changed to make it sound like the new process. Much like the way most large organisations do agile transformations.

So far, so depressing. But there is a third outcome - when problems arise due to the low trust environment, the organisation uses that as a catalyst to change. They stick to their guns and stick to the spirit of the Advice process. This takes real courage, but if they can manage do it, they can use the process change as a catalyst to change their culture in a better direction.

Essentially the Advice process is used as a spotlight to highlight their cultural problems for all to see. This gives them the opportunity to face those problems and fix them. The process change can make the normally invisible culture visible and when something can be seen, it can be analysed, discussed and fixed. If it's visible, it is something that can be talked about, not something that just has to be accepted.

This sort of process change can be a very powerful catalyst for cultural change. Provided the organisation (and particularly its leadership) has the courage to face - and change - its own culture. Using a process that requires high trust, like the Advice process (or something like agile) and sticking with it, will help build a culture of trust within the organisation. It does this by providing dozens of tiny examples every day where trust works.

Not everything will go smoothly though, there will be wrong decisions made (as there will be with every decision making process). The real test is what the organisation does when a wrong decision is made? Do they look at it, learn from it and work out how they can make better decisions (maybe through training or some other form of support)? Or do they revert back to control and start putting in approvals or reviews?