August 26 2020 | | 6 minute read
A college professor once told me that one of the skills I needed most was to learn how to ask the right questions. Since a very young age, I have jokingly had the word “curious” as my middle name. So, I remember thinking to myself that statement was both trivial, given how crazy my parents had been answering all sorts of questions. It was also bold considering how hard I was working to put myself through a private university and manage to stay on the honor roll. Wasn’t I paying for a lot more than to learn how to ask questions?
Over the years, however, after leading several nonprofit and for-profit organizations through crises and innovative growth, I've developed a great appreciation for that professor’s wisdom. Indeed, leadership includes the responsibility of critical decision-making, but making the right decisions requires asking the right questions that engage others and learn what the choices are really about – the root causes and impacts – that involve as many perspectives as possible.
As Peter F. Drucker says, effective executives and community leaders know the “trickiest decision is that between the right and wrong compromise and a decision is only a good intention until follow-through takes place with action matched to the skills and abilities of those carrying the decision out.”1 Decision-making is not done in a vacuum. A lot of people are involved before, during, and after a decision is made.
Who are the decision-makers?
Communities of Excellence 2026 Co-Founder Lowell Kruse often shares in his presentations2 an anonymous quote, “Communities are run by the people who show up.” The people who show up make and follow through on decisions. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we have the power to do so because of real and perceived funding and political challenges that limit our scope of ability and progress. Several experiences have taught me that regardless of position or age if the people who show up to do the work have the will and an understanding of the big picture as systems-thinkers, there are no limitations to what is possible when they work together. They figure out alternate routes over, around, and under the roadblocks by working together. Showing up is a significant part of decision-making.
Including all of the people who show up is another key indicator of positive difference-making decisions. Most people are used to hierarchal leadership structures that rely on a sole individual at the top of the organizational chart to make the most significant decisions. In communities and many contemporary organizations, we are collectively learning that a distributed leadership model is a more engaging, impactful, and a smarter way to make many decisions. Distributed leadership is often the framework of choice for collaboration.
According to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s work with Open Mind Consulting & Informing Change in their 2018 report3 on distributed leadership, individuals on teams and in groups making decisions together play different roles with varying levels of leadership responsibility. Some individuals are the “Makers” who make final decisions. Some people are the “Participants” who inform decision-makers with a genuine voice and stake in the outcome of decisions. The level of access they have to information surrounding a decision varies. The third set of individuals serve in the “Observer” role. They influence and are informed about decisions being made, but are rarely asked to inform participants and decision-makers because they lack having access to the pertinent information. Finally, an individual or group of people fill the “Influencer” role helping to determine when and why decisions need to be made.
All four of these roles can shift along a spectrum from one individual making all decisions, and bearing all responsibility for the decisions made, based on information that is exclusively accessible to them. At the other end of the spectrum are many people involved in making decisions based on information they can all access. The group also shares responsibility for the resulting outcomes. Both high-stakes and low-risk decisions can be made at all points along the spectrum.
This collaborative and encompassing approach to leadership and layered roles of decision-making is definitely more time-consuming. However, community development and continuous improvement are too expansive and far-reaching for any one individual to do alone. A hierarchal chain of command may be the right organizational and communication structure for short periods during a crisis where urgent and emergent actions must be taken. However, distributed and inclusive ecosystems are more effective in most other situations. A mindset shift is needed for this approach to work. A culture based on agreed to values, transparent and frequent communication of relevant information and mutual trust is essential for distributed leadership to work.
How to make decisions?
Regardless of who is making the decision and where they fall on the distributed leadership spectrum, the process options for making decisions is the same. There is always the quick-reaction-without-key information method. Its effectiveness rate is about the same as rolling a pair of dice. The choice works occasionally but is typically based on luck. I wouldn’t recommend it in community settings.
The most successful leaders know that taking enough time to gather and understand as much quantitative and qualitative data as possible – whether that crucial step is only a few minutes or several months – is the difference between making wrong and right decisions. Here are a few steps that these wise makers often follow (1, 4, 5):
Classify the scope of the problem. Is it simple or complex? Tame or wicked? Generic, shared by some, or unique? We make hundreds of simple decisions for ourselves every day, but when it comes to more complex problems, the considerable scope requires much more consideration than our daily habits. So, what’s next?
Define the problem. What is it? Are you dealing with a symptom of something else? If so, keep asking why until you reach the root cause of the challenging symptoms, so the decision or decisions made contribute to solving the actual problem instead of delivering a temporary bandage to cover up what is going on.
Gather information about the problem and potential solutions to make an informed, and if necessary, innovative choice.
Ensure and increase the quality of your data. Be certain it is collected in a reliable and validated way. Random hearsay is not nearly as credible as a structured and measured survey or database of regular conversation summaries gathered systematically. Look for external and internal sources of reliable, in-depth information.
Connect the dots by linking data from different sources. Including disparate data sets from many different perspectives around your community roundtable in your decision-making process ensures you are looking at the big picture – the systems view of your community. What is tracked and generally known by the school or a faith-based organization may not be familiar to the realtors, builders, and city administrator or vice versa. Sharing information critical to decisions that impact many different people is vital to the success of thriving communities.
Understand assumptions, bias, and mental models. When reviewing a situation, it is always helpful to understand as best as possible what underlying factors are driving the responses of the people that become the data you are linking.
Analyze the data with competence. Deducing conclusions from many data sources requires techniques and capabilities beyond most office software and leadership intuition. The assistance of skilled analysts who can expertly help identify areas of alignment and gaps gives decision-makers greater confidence in the story the data tells.
Learn from relevant theories and experience. Recognizing that others may have dealt with the same or similar problems in the past can be helpful. Compare your situation with research on the results and relevant theories applied by others. Infuse this additional information with your data to develop a hypothesis about your decision options. If there are any questions you have not asked yet, a solid theory can help you identify what those should be.
Narrow to the strongest options. Practice reasoning and deduction. Obtain answers to any further lingering questions. Seek input from trusted advisors when appropriate and necessary.
Make a choice. You may be the sole leader responsible for making decisions or a group of senior leaders who are entrusted to make decisions together on behalf of many. Or, you may be presenting the final options to a larger group of people empowered to decide with their vote. Regardless of who is involved and how it is done, the final decision must be made. This step is where a lot of decision-making processes stop in collaborative groups and strategic planning retreats. Options are debated, and plans are agreed to, and then…crickets. Nothing happens because the assignments and accountability for action aren’t included in the decisions. That leads to the last two steps.
Follow through on the decision. Without follow-through, a decision is only an intention.
Build into the decision the implementation requirements to carry the choice(s) out. The work plan can be very simple or deeply detailed. The important thing is that it is created and used to carry out the decision.
Test the success – the validity and effectiveness – of the decision’s intention against what action actually takes place. This is an important step in the decision-making process because the outcomes inform the makers of where the decision falls on the scale between right and wrong in solving the original problem. Learning from past choices is an element of the information gathering that occurs in step three of the decision-making process in future situations.
Continuous improvement and excellence in performance and quality are attained only by those who follow all steps of this decision-making process, whether they do so unconsciously or consciously. The Communities of Excellence Framework is a helpful tool for decision-makers to address every step of the recommended process shared here for dealing with complex challenges and opportunities.
Information for this post was gathered from the following sources in addition to the author’s insight gained through experience:
1 Drucker, P. F. (1967). The effective decision. Harvard Business Review, January. https://hbr.org/1967/01/the-effective-decision
2 Kruse, L. C. (2020). A Co-founders overview of how and why Communities of Excellence 2026 was formed. www.communitiesofexcellence2026.org.
3 The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Open Mind Consulting and Information Change. (2018). Case studies in distributed leadership: A framework for exploration, organizational snapshots, and tools and applications, November. https://hewlett.org/case-studies-in-distributed-leadership/ and https://hewlett.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Conceptual-Framing-.pdf
4 Davenport, T. H. (2009). Make better decisions. Harvard Business Review, November. https://hbr.org/2009/11/make-better-decisions-2?referral=03758&cm_vc=rr_item_page.top_right
5 Jachimowicz, J. M. (2017). A 5-step process to get more out of your organization’s data. Harvard Business Review, March. https://hbr.org/2017/03/a-5-step-process-to-get-more-out-of-your-organizations-data