Leadership

What an Effective Decision-Making Process Looks Like

By / Dec 11, 2017 (xijian/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Leaders can avoid decisions that intimidate them by piling on studies and discussion. But boards and CEOs can be deliberative while being decisive too.

When it comes to decision making, an association can sometimes send mixed signals to itself. It celebrates decisiveness as a virtue—we want staff leaders who aren’t afraid to make changes, and we strive to fill board seats with professionals who have a mind to innovate. But associations also pride themselves on being deliberative bodies, emphasizing the importance of caution and research before trying something new.

My feature on decision making in the new issue of Associations Now, spotlights just a few of the problems that emerge when these two ideas grind against each other like gears that won’t quite lock together. Rash decisions aren’t particularly common among the association experts I spoke with, but many associations do suffer from a problem with over-deliberation—and its close cousin, neglect. A promising idea that sounds intimidating gets punted in the name of “we need one more study,” or gets tabled in other ways until it disappears.

Shelley Row, a former association executive, is right to call out the emotional side of this problem—often, the real statement behind “we need one more study” is “I’m scared to pursue this.” But it may be helpful to know that a little extra deliberation can help conquer that fear—so long as the deliberation is focusing on what the real concern is. As SmithBucklin’s Dale West, CAE, told me, ““People have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately think what’s right in front of them is the actual problem to be solved. And when we go deeper we realize that that is actually not the problem that has to be solved.”

”People think what’s right in front of them is the actual problem to be solved.”

There’s something a little ironic in that, but it makes sense, so long as that deliberation is done in the name of getting greater clarity. That’s why I was particularly interested in the process the Association of American Medical Colleges uses when it needs to decide if a project or idea is worth pursuing. It’s made up of five steps, which can seem cumbersome, but every one of those steps is designed to force the idea-creator to be clear about how the idea meets AAMC’s mission, and presses AAMC to deliver a clear yes or no.

Each step, or “gate,” in AAMC parlance, comes with a relevant question:

Gate 1: Idea Screen: Is this idea worth exploring further?

Gate 2: Strategy Screen: Does this idea merit further resources based on the review criteria?

Gate 3: Go to Development: Will AAMC support the development of this project with necessary resources to achieve its projected impact and return?

Gate 4: Go to Test: Is this a project/program/product that could be viable in the market?

Gate 5: Go to Launch: Should this project/program/product go to full market launch?

At each step, a three-person panel at AAMC is ready to weigh in, and has made a commitment to do so quickly. “Once that three-person group was identified, it made implementing this easier for the organization, because it was very clear who then was going to make decisions at these various points,” says William T. Mallon, senior director, strategy and innovation development at AAMC. “Prior to that, we too, like many organizations, had a little bit more diffusion and lack of clarity around who gets to make a decision.”

The most crucial filter in the process, Mallon says, is the second one, because it forces a question that perhaps more organizations should ask during a decision-making process: Is this idea a match for our mission? After all, many associations have pursued good ideas that have little relationship to the organization’s goals, or got burdened with bad ones because nobody thought to ask that question. The strategy screen, he says, “is arguably one of the most important pieces because it’s an early conversation or early exploration of, Is this idea worth doing strategically? Never mind what it would cost, never mind what of resources would it take. Is it something we should be doing as an organization because it’s consonant with our mission?”

The structure of the process AAMC uses won’t necessarily make sense for every organization. But the questions that are embedded in it should make plenty of sense for just about everybody. When you’re clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, you erase the fear that stymie good ideas, and shoot down the bad ideas that slow down your organization. There’s nothing wrong with being deliberative—so long as a decision comes out of it.

What does your association do to be more decisive, especially with big, intimidating projects? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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