The Advice Process
Last time we looked at some of the problems organisations face around decision making using traditional top down or consensus based techniques. We also introduced the idea of collaborative non consensus as a decision making technique - where everyone can discuss the decision but not everyone has to agree to the decision for it to be ratified. These can range from fairly simple systems where people can say “yes”, “no” or "can live it it" which allows them to raise an objection but not veto the whole decision, right up to fairly involved systems based around the idea of principles and objections - objections based not on just not liking an idea but on violating some fundamental principle that the organisation lives by.
While principled systems work well for organisations that are deeply in touch with their principles, other organisations may need a more structured approach. One such approach is the Advice Process which was developed at an organisation called AES many years ago and was documented in Frederic Laloux's wonderful book Reinventing Organisations. The Advice process is a simple, structured decision making process that involves 4 steps -
Deciding who decides
When a decision needs to be made, the first step is to identify who the decision belongs to. Actually the first step is really working out that a decision needs to be made but let's leave that aside for the moment (we can call that step 0). The person should be close to the problem so they have the full information. Preferably the person who identified the need for a decision in the first place since they are by definition close to the problem. However, sometimes there is a more appropriate person in the organisation. A decision around marketing would probably belong to someone in a marketing function even if the need for a decision was identified in engineering. The decision may need a certain skill or certain level of experience that the identifier doesn't have. Often though, there are no special skills needed so the identifier should be the person who makes the decision. If they can't make the decision for some reason, say they need a sign off or approval, then they aren't the most appropriate person. The “signer off” or approver would be. But we try to avoid that. Push the decision as far down the organisation as you can. As close to the actual problem as you can get.
Once a decision maker is identified, two very special things happen - they get the authority to make the decision, regardless of their position in the organisation. If they are the most appropriate person, they get the authority. The second special thing that happens is that along with the authority to decide, they get an obligation to decide. They can't avoid making the decision. The organisation expects them to use the authority they have as most appropriate decision maker to actually make the decision. With great power comes great responsibility.
Once an appropriate decision maker is identified, they prepare the Proposal. This is the proposed solution to the problem. They can come up with it themselves, they can consult, whatever they need to do to get the proposal done. The proposal is important because it makes the subsequent discussion about something concrete. If you just start a discussion about a problem and ask for people's opinions on solutions, then you will get more opinions than people in the room. The discussion will go nowhere. Having a concrete proposal before the discussion gives the conversation focus. You are now asking for advice on this specific proposal.
That's step 3 of course - seeking advice. The decision maker asks for advice from as many or as few people as they feel are necessary to get a wide range of viewpoints. They may consult with people in the areas impacted (this would be highly recommended), people with special experience or even, if it's something that impacts a lot of people, consult with the whole organisation via a blog or some other enterprise wide communications tool.
The decision maker has an obligation to consider the advice. Note here that I said consider. Not accept or act on. More than likely they will get conflicting and contradictory advice. They are under no obligation whatsoever to make everyone happy. We are not looking for consensus here, we are looking for the best decision based on the available advice.
That's step 4 of course - decide. The decision maker considers the advice and when they think they have enough information to make the decision, they decide. That's it. End of process. The decision is made, and because the most appropriate person made the decision with the best information available now, the organisation accepts it.
This is important. It's also the really hard part of the process. Once the decision has been made, the organisation must accept it. No approvals. No appeals. No escalations to higher authority. You may not be happy with the decision, it may impact you, you may have advised against it, but you must accept it because it was made by the most appropriate person with the best information available at the time. Now this is going to be a challenge in most organisations where appeals to authority, escalations, non acceptance of decisions and constant re-litigation are the norm.
What happens if a wrong decision is made (and wrong decisions will be made)? The decision should be about getting an outcome, if that outcome isn't getting closer then we may need another decision. The important thing here is that the original decision is still the best one that could have been made given the information available at the time, so no fault applies at all to the decision maker. They did the best they could do given what we knew then. But now we now more so we re-visit the decision in the light of additional information. No blame, no recriminations.
While the advice process is very simple, it probably runs counter to the culture in your organisation. Make no mistake, this is a huge change. This can completely come unstuck if your culture fights it. On the other hand, if done right, if the organisation really commits to the process and to making it work, it can transform the organisation's culture in fantastic ways. Just how fantastic? That's next time.