You threw what you thought was a pebble into a pond and created ripples that have your conference rooms awash with disagreements, debates and dissension. The new strategy seemed simple enough: Transition to a common system across all operating units in order to enhance supply chain performance. The decision process to select the common system was pretty straightforward, but now everyone’s lobbying for functionality and schedule change that are putting the overall initiative at risk.
Decision making in IT is pretty messy. By definition, integration and standardization are at odds with quick, customized delivery. As a result, in most organizations the interests of the enterprise take a backseat to the more immediate need to improve business alignment and partnership. Within IT, this conflict is internalized, and conference rooms and offices are filled with well-intentioned applications, architecture and infrastructure professionals questioning each other’s motives.
Read other columns by Susan Cramm
In the heat of the battle, there’s little that can be done other than ensure that the meetings are productive and the right decisions are made. In his 2006 Harvard Business Review article, “Conquering a Culture of Indecision,” business strategy expert Ram Charan identifies behaviors that help ensure decisive dialogues:
Close meetings by articulating who will do what by when and require attendees to communicate the decisions to their organizations within 24 hours.
Arrange for the right people to be involved in the discussions and promote open discussion by generating alternatives and assigning devil’s advocates to say what others may be thinking.
Ensure that leadership is present to squelch dysfunctional behaviors including extortion (holding the whole group at ransom until they get their way), side tracking (going off on tangents), silent lying (not expressing true opinions) and dividing (creating breaches by soliciting support outside of the meetings or having sideline discussion during the meetings).
With a little reflection and foresight, it’s possible for CIOs to avoid tension and acrimony by identifying strategic initiatives that require changes in traditional approaches to decision making. IT leaders can also identify decisions that could be made better and faster with more direction from above.
Consider the “pebble.” Viewed from a decision-making perspective, the “pebble” was actually a large and imposing rock. It required a significant shift in decision authority from the operating units to the enterprise. Conflicts naturally arose since the operating units assumed that their authority had not changed, while those coordinating the initiative at the enterprise level assumed rights that they viewed as critical to getting their job done.
To avoid this problem, examine your strategic and operating plans with an eye toward understanding their impact on decision making thoughout the organization. Next, require that those coordinating these initiatives include redefinition of decision rights as part of the program plan. Decision authorities are best defined by identifying key resolutions that need to be made and using frameworks to ensure that all parties understand their role and that it is clear to all who the ultimate decision makers are.
At the same time, some decisions made at lower levels of the organization take too long or are just plain wrong. A classic IT example involves the selection of standards. At lower levels of the organization, “out of standard” products creep in over time for reasons that are good in the micro but not in the macro.
IT leaders can take a burden off their staff and protect the longer-term interests of their enterprise by setting boundary rules. A classic example is the rule that when it comes to standards, “no more than two flavors of any type of hardware/software can exist at any point in time.” Boundary rules work. They encourage responsible decision making by restricting decision authority, but they also allow for well-reasoned exceptions by escalating the decision to higher levels.
There are many varieties of IT-specific boundary rules. These include those related to strategic focus (“all new investments must benefit the external customer”), investment levels (“IT funding changes will not negatively impact company margins”), business needs (“success will be gauged based on end user acceptance”), infrastructure (“all improvements require business cases”), projects (“plan for six months, cancel at nine”), risk (“we will set controls in compliance with…”) and sourcing (“all the best work will be done by our own employees”).
It’s impossible and undesirable for leaders to be involved with every decision that is made within their organizations. Yet given that leaders are accountable for the outcome of the decisions made under their watch, it is essential that decisions are made well. Sorting out decision priorities and authorities can help ensure that the right decisions get made in a way that enhances the relationships of those who need to work closely together to get the job done.
Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. You can e-mail feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.