Posts tagged decentralising
Distributed Decision Making

Imagine you are in a car travelling down the motorway. You are trying to keep to the speed limit (110km/h here in Australia). How good are you at doing that? Do you, like me (and most of the population) just follow the car in front with an occasional glance at the speedometer? A few hasty speed corrections when that occasional glance tells you that the car in front was doing 130 not 100? Now imagine that there is a police car right behind you. Does your strategy change? Mine certainly does. Your eyes barely leave the speedometer. You maintain absolute, tight control over the car's speed.

There are downsides to this approach though. While your eyes are firmly fixed on the speedo (that's Australian for speedometer BTW) they aren't firmly fixed on the road. While you are deeply focused on the operational details of driving the car (controlling its speed) you have lost sight of something very important - the road ahead. You may be sitting right on the speed limit but you have just driven past your exit. Or worse, you may have missed a sign telling you that the speed limit had changed and now the flashing lights are in your rear view mirror and you are being pulled over for speeding. Precisely the thing you were trying to avoid.

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Outcome Based Funding

So last time I talked about large companies and some of the reasons why they make sub-optimal decisions. Not bad decisions, but ones that aren't as good as they could be. The main reason for sub-optimisation was centralisation of decision making and the main reason for centralisation was the need for control. In particular the control on spending money. With no central control of funding, anyone could spend a bunch of company money and the company would soon be broke.

If decentralised decisions are more optimal because the person making them has more information than someone further from the coal face, but centralisation is required for spend control, what are large companies to do? Are they doomed to make sub-optimal decisions forever? Fortunately, no. There are ways of maintaining centralised control of spend while allowing decentralised decision making about where to spend money. There are, in fact, many ways to do this and we will look at one of them now. I'm calling it outcome based funding; I'm sure the financial folks have a fancy, official name for it, but outcome based funding will do for now.

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Why Do Large Organisations Make Bad Decisions

Everyone who has ever worked for a large company knows that they make really silly decisions. Completely illogical decisions. Decisions so monumentally ridiculous that you wonder how the company actually manages to survive as a going concern, let alone turn a profit. It's seemingly obvious to everyone in the organisation, except the senior executives who are making the decisions. Good projects aren't funded, bad ones are. Good teams or departments are restructured but poorly performing ones aren't. Opportunities are lost. How do they continue to make money with all these bad decisions? And why do smart executives continue to make them?

The answer of course is that big companies very seldom make truly bad decisions. What they make are a lot of very sub-optimal decisions. Decisions made are seldom illogical, there is a lot of reasoning that goes into them. Unfortunately, that logic and reasoning is based on very poor information. The decisions they make are good enough to stay in business and continue to make significant amounts of money. They just aren't the best decisions possible. The real question isn't "how can companies still make money while making poor decisions" but "how much more money could they make if they made better decisions". Looking at the reasons why companies make sub-optimal decisions can point us to ways to make better ones.

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