"When leaders put control into the hands of their people, at all levels, they unlock incalculable potential."
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When it comes to making decisions, whether it is in strategy, product development, budget, service, or compensation, there are endless examples of the decisions we have to make in the business world on a daily basis. Then there are thousands of case studies that business students at prominent schools use to train themselves in the art of decision making, the key responsibility for any business manager.
But what if these case studies that thousands have studied are missing some crucial steps? What if the way we are taught to make decisions is missing a critical aspect? Dennis Bakke, in the book The Decision Maker, is challenging the way we make decisions in business. The book is a business fable loosely based on his own experiences in the business world where he rose to CEO of AES, a fortune 200 global power company and now as co-founder of Imagine Schools.
The idea that Bakke presents is simple and the results have been powerful in practice: when leaders learn to put real control into the hands of their people, they tap into incalculable potential. Bakke shows us that “decision making is the best way to develop people; and that should not stop at business school.”
The Big Idea
The Decision Maker Process
"You’ve got a lot of power when you decide who to send into the game, even if you’re not the one with the ball."
The entire principle around the Decision Maker process is simple: identify the person closest to the situation and let them make the decision. Told you it was a simple process, but why does it not happen?
In classical business practice, the process for decisions is a Top-Down approach where the “leader” makes the decisions. Each person in the process makes what they assume to be the best decision for them, their team(s), and what they perceive to be for the greater good of the business.
Dennis challenges that in using the Decision Maker Process, there is tremendous potential to unlock the success that each decision we make could have on the company, team(s), and the people involved in the process.
The process is as follows:
-The leader chooses someone to make a key decision (The Decision Maker)
-The Decision Maker seeks advice (including from the leader) to gather information
-The final decision is made not by the leader, but by the chosen decision maker
How do you know how to choose the Decision Maker? Start by looking at who is close to the issue, who is well acquainted with the context and details, and who understands the big picture of the decision to be made. Next consider their perspective. This can be just as valuable as proximity, as sometimes the Decision Maker may be someone from the outside as well. Also, consider their experience in the situation and decision-making—have they had similar decisions to make? Lastly consider their wisdom as well. Have they made good decisions in the past? Do you and others have confidence in them?
The Advice Process
"When people are asked for advice, they start to feel ownership…everyone who offers advice works for the success of the project as if it is their own."
One of the first roadblocks many may incur when implementing this process is making sure the selected Decision Maker does not exclude groups or miss information somewhere. The way that you can avoid this is to include the Advice Process.
In the decision-maker culture, the Decision Maker makes the final call but must ask for advice. So how does the Decision Maker know whom they should approach for advice? They should look for the following in people:
– Experience: Has this person had experience with the circumstances that require the decision to be made?
– Position: People in different positions see things differently. The Decision Maker should seek out a leader, a peer, or someone who works in a position below them in hierarchy – and even, if the circumstance allows, seek advice outside the company.
Creating this process in your culture will have immediate impact. It reduces the time needed to get buy-in and can reduce risk by exposing potential risks that the Decision Maker overlooked. It may take a few decision-maker processes to get everyone bought in, but you must hold them accountable to speaking up and participating.
Basic Assumptions in a Decision Maker Culture
"Building your business on these assumptions, using these simple but powerful techniques, can transform a business – and people’s lives."
Another tool that changed the way Dennis ran his business was in the way he viewed people. It is game changing to the culture when people are viewed as individuals. Here are a few of the examples of assumptions that Dennis recommends we use:
– People are unique. Fairness is not treating everyone the same way. We need to treat everyone as individuals; this will unlock each person’s unique motivation and potential.
– People can learn. People do not stop learning, but they do lose the motivation to learn more, so creating new challenges for them will encourage them to educate themselves.
– People are fallible. Everyone will make a mistake or two. When they are wrong, coach them through the process and lift them up.
– People want to contribute. Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than them. When they can use their unique gifts to help grow themselves and others we are making positive impacts in the world that have limitless potential.
In making these assumptions of people in this culture, we start to see them for their unique qualities and the value that they bring to our organizations, not as just another cog in the machine.People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. We need to give them a chance, and the Decision Maker culture does that.
What I loved most about this book was framing my own leadership style around a concept that was already happening in my own team. I was able to refine my skills in decision making to look for advice from others around me freely; I was able to pull in the team members I manage daily into decisions and use it as a great coaching option. Once or twice they even surprised me by showing me an option I overlooked—OK, it was more than once or twice.
Business leaders should learn from sports coaches that we cannot play the game from the sidelines. We need to trust our people, coach development and skills, and know who to put in the game at the right times, and we cannot play every position every minute. When we begin to let the players around us play their position, make the shots or passes as they see fit, and hold them accountable to those decisions, we will have a Decision Maker culture.