The Decision Making Spectrum

“Deciding” is perhaps the second most important aspect of every collaboration effort, immediately after “doing”. Yet, many efforts to make a decision seem to go astray. There are many reasons leading to this outcome, but one of the most important ones, that is also very easy to fix, is lack of clarity on the decision-making process itself.

Today I want to focus on a few aspects in which additional clarity can be easily obtained: who is making the decision? and how is the rest of the group will be involved?

I’ve been iterating on this simple spectrum over the past several months and while it’s not unique in any way, shape, or form — I found it to be particularly helpful in driving clarity around these two aspects:

The spectrum spans from more authoritative decision-making modes, to more collaborative decision making modes. The left-hand side includes several modes in which there is still a single decision maker, where the right-hand side includes several modes in which the group is making the decision.

Clarifying which mode will be used in making a certain decision goes a long way in providing the clarity needed for a smoother decision making process. 

  • Full own/delegate — an individual, either inside or outside of the group, is making the decision, and the rest of the group is not involved in making the decision in any way. The would not even know that the decision was made.
  • Inform — an individual is making the decision, and informs the rest of the group of the decision that was made after the fact.
  • Consult — an individual is making the decision, only after consulting the group members and explicitly soliciting their input.
  • Democratic — the group is using a democratic vote to make the decision. The group will move forward with the option with the most votes/majority/supermajority.
  • Consent — all group members must not object to a certain course of action for the decision to be ratified. Objections must be reasoned and paramount. Full agreement that this is the best path forward is not required, just that you can “live with the decision” or view it as “safe enough to try”.
  • Consensus — all group members must agree that this is the best path forward.
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The Decision Making Spectrum

Communicating difficult decisions

People in leadership roles are often asked to make decisions that have broad implications for the rest of the organization.

A good decision-making process aims to give everyone a voice, but rarely should it give everyone a vote (an important and underappreciated distinction). However, sometimes even the former is not always possible.

Even once you’ve made a decision, the hard part is not over. Now it needs to be thoughtfully communicated to everyone that’s affected by it.

After getting this terribly wrong several times and having to deal with the backlash, I was able to identify a few key pieces that seem to make some communications better than others. Is it the perfect structure? Probably not. And of course, it needs to be adapted to the specific context every time. But it seems to put me on the right track much more so than starting from a blank page each time.

In any case, here it is:

Outcome → Trigger → Options → Decision → Empathy → Dialogue

(Sorry, haven’t come up with a neat mnemonic yet)

  1. Outcome — the decision that we made. No sugar-coating. No lengthy preamble. Those who care less about the decision, or were heavily involved in the decision-making process will usually stop here. Those who are heavily invested but were not heavily involved will read on.
  2. Trigger — decisions are not made in a vacuum. Usually, there was some trigger that led us to re-examine the status quo and consider a different path forward. We can’t assume that everyone has that context, and understanding this “why” is an important piece in buying into the outcome.
  3. Options — this is the “show your work” section. Give more details about the decision-making process. Who was involved? What other options were considered? When this part remains opaque some people will assume the worst: that you made the decision out of ignorance and didn’t even consider “their” solution. By providing more visibility into the options that were considered, rather than just the option that was selected, we’re making it easier for everyone to assume competence and positive intent.
  4. Decision — re-iterating the option that was picked and explaining the rationale behind picking it over the other options.
  5. Empathy — acknowledging the imperfect outcome, and that there are negative consequences for some people or that some people will be disappointed or frustrated by going with that option. Creating the space for those emotions and normalizing them.
  6. Dialogue — an invitation to continue the conversation. Even though the decision was already made, some people may need further processing and dialogue in order to come to terms with it. And sometimes, certain edge cases will require further action / making amends.

Here’s a fictional example of using this structure announcing a benefits cut:

All,

[Outcome] Starting 1/1/18 we will no longer be able to offer a monthly gym stipend to our staff.

[Trigger] As part of our 2018 budgeting process, the People team was asked to identify a way to reduce our benefits budget by $100K to help ACME Corp extend our runway to 2 years before we have to raise another round.

[Options] We considered several ways by which we can drive this reduction, including (but not limited to) reducing the matching in our 401(k) program, increasing the employee participation rates in our healthcare program, and not offering a catered lunch in one of the days of the week.

[Decision] We favored reductions that don’t have a direct impact on people’s take-home pay over ones that do; and reductions that impact some of our staff over ones that impact all of it. This was not an easy decision to make, as all options have some negative consequences, but the rationale above led us to pick eliminating our gym stipend as the best way to meet our reduction target.

[Empathy] We know that some of you may be disappointed, or even angry by this decision. It is a completely normal reaction to something that has an unpleasant consequence for you.

[Dialogue] If this decision creates a particularly challenging circumstances for you, or if you just want to learn more about the process that led us here — we’d like to invite you to reach out to us. We’d be happy to share more details or think through creative solutions where needed.

— The People team.

Communicating difficult decisions

Intro to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Psychological Flexibility

A little over a year ago, I learned about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) from my mom, who found it to be a rather compelling approach in her animal-assisted therapy work.

Wikipedia’s definition of ACT is pretty straight-forward:

A form of counseling and a branch of clinical behavior analysis. It is an empirically-based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility.

ACT promotes the development of a “psychological flexibility” mindset, consisting of 4 mindfulness principles (being present, acceptance, diffusion, self as context) + clear values + committed action.

Intrigued by the idea of incorporating mindfulness concepts into a more rigorous psychological approach, I’ve decided to read Russ Harris’

The Happiness Trap

It was a delightful read, providing an easy to read overview of the theoretical basis as ACT, as well as highly actionable protocols (exercises) that brought many of the principles to life in a very tangible way. You can find the deck that I’ve put together to summarize the key ideas, below:

Interestingly enough, a few months back I came across a somewhat similar framework, created by Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald. McDonald defines the qualities that define a moment of mindfulness using the acronym RAIN:

  • Recognition — What is really happening? (ACT: being present)
  • Acceptance — Can we accept that it’s happening? (ACT: acceptance)
  • Interest — Can we bring genuine interest to what is happening? (ACT: self as context)
  • Non-identification — Is this happening “to me”, or is it simply happening? (ACT: defusion)

A lack of mindfulness moment can be described using the acronym DROP: Distraction, Resistance, Obliviousness, Personification.

Intro to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

BICEPS [Medina]

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BICEPS is a human social behavior model developed by Paloma Medina. Similar to SCARF it applies an evolutionary lens to understanding human social behavior. BICEPS argues that 6 core needs are at the heart of human social behavior. Most behavior is then done in pursuit of those needs, and when threaten a fight-freeze-flight response is triggered.

It can therefore be used in:

  • Designing social interactions to minimize threat/triggers
  • Managing interaction effectively when they take place. For example, by self-reflection, identification of the “threat”, and choosing response over reaction.
  • Reflecting/retrospecting on an interaction to identify what may have led to a sub-optimal outcome.

As opposed to SCARF, Medina open-sourced BICPES under the Creative Commons license. She’s also

BICPES stands for: 

  • Belonging (SCARF: Relatedness) — community, community well-being, connection
  • Improvement/Progress — progress towards purpose, improving the lives of others, personal growth
  • Choice (SCARF: Autonomy) — choice, autonomy, decision-making
  • Equality/Fairness (SCARF: Fairness) — access to resources, access to information, equal reciprocity, fair decisions
  • Predictability (SCARF: Uncertainty) — resources, time, future challenges, direction
  • Status (SCARF: Status) — status, visibility, recognition
BICEPS [Medina]