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Our Default Organizational Decision-Making Model Is Flawed. Here’s an Awesome Alternative!

Our Default Organizational Decision-Making Model Is Flawed. Here’s an Awesome Alternative!Hi everyone, before we launch into today’s post, my friend Oz recorded my Guided Meditation for Nonprofit Professionals. Check out Oz’s soothing voice as he guides you to the Land of Sustainability in this free 12-minute relaxation exercise. “Breathe in and out […] Your desk is completely clutter-free and not a coffee-stained dumpster fire of chaos and broken promises.” (Original written meditation here)

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One of the things EDs and CEOs have noticed is that we get “decision fatigue,” and one way it manifests is in our frustration at having to make even small decisions when we’re at home. The other day, for example, my partner (who also directs a nonprofit) was hungry and asked which of two packages of ramen I recommended she eat. I was unable to answer. “I’m torn!” she said, “Just make the decision for me!” I stared at her for several more seconds before hissing like a cat and scampering into the living room to hide behind the couch.

Decision fatigue is real, y’all, and it has sometimes led to fights and arguments in our household over the most ridiculous things. (“Which movie should we see?” “Hisssss!”) It is also symptomatic of the weakness in our society’s default decision-making philosophy. This philosophy is basically top-down and hierarchical, where the people who have the most power have the most decision-making authority, even in areas where they have the least amount of knowledge and experience. The ED/CEO makes the final decisions on everything. Staff who challenge the decisions get into trouble. And the board sometimes vetoes the staff’s decisions.

This decision-making model, which we have unconsciously accepted as the default, is disempowering, inequitable, exhausting, and oftentimes nonsensical. Why should a supervisor, who often only sees a fraction of the frontline work, get to have final say in programmatic matters? Why should I, the ED, who spends most of my time outside the office talking to donors and funders and napping in my car between meetings, get to have ultimate decision-making authority on programs, operations, and other areas that I don’t oversee everyday? We need a different, better, more rational way of making decisions in our sector. 

Luckily, there is an amazing alternative. These past couple of years, my organization Rainier Valley Corps has been experimenting with a decision-making model called the Advice Process, introduced to us by our Managing Director, Ananda, who has introduced many pivotal new philosophies and practices at RVC. Ananda wrote about the Advice Process here (and provided feedback for this post) but I want to elaborate on it a little as an ED who was used to being the ultimate decision-maker who is now not making many decisions at all at his organization and who is actually very happy about it.

By the way, “Advice Process” is a terrible name. Sorry, people who created this concept; you invented an amazing and game-changing model, but gave it an unimpressive name. So I spent weeks coming up with a new name for it: The Feedback-Informed Networked-Autonomous Lateral (FINAL) decision-making process, which sounds cooler, I hope you will agree.

In the FINAL decision-making process, whoever is closest to the issue area is the person who makes the decision, provided they do two things: Check in with people who will be affected by their decision, and check in with people who may have information and advice that might help them make the best decision.

At RVC, for instance, Ananda has final say in our operations decisions, including hiring staff and interpreting strategic direction alignment with program plans. Abesha, our program director, has final say in how our fellowship programs are run. Other team members have their areas where they make the final decisions. Supervisors, including me, cannot override another team member’s decision, if they have done the required due diligence; we can only provide advice and feedback.

Of course, there are checks and balances built into this model. Let’s say our Development Director Chris wants to host a house party where all guests have to dress up in unicorn onesies. I cannot veto that, because that is his decision. But if he follows the process, which involves checking in with everyone who will be affected by this decisions (staff members who will have to dress up in the onesies, the donor hosting the house party) as well as people who have information that might affect his decision (like other development professionals), he may realize that this would be an overwhelmingly bad idea (or a great one; who knows).

After a couple of years of experimenting with this model, I can say it is awesome, and I highly recommend it. Here are several benefits of this model:

It leads to better decisions: When people who have the most experience and expertise in their areas get to make decisions in those areas, they generally make better decisions than when people who have less experience and expertise. This is something we all intrinsically understand.   

It is incredibly empowering. One of the most frustrating things we experience at work is our decisions being overridden by higher ups who have less experience and knowledge in an area than we do. It can be demoralizing and lead to burn out. Having decision-making authority and having colleagues respect our decisions creates a sense of ownership in each team member.

It strengthens critical thinking: Not all decisions will lead to desired results, and it is the responsibility of the decider to take responsibility for the consequences of bad decisions. If you are the decider, the buck stops with you, not your supervisor or anyone else. Because of this, people become more thoughtful, analytical, and critical when making decisions.

It builds relationships: The process of gathering advice and input from those affected by decisions and those who may have helpful information can strengthen relationships both internally among team members, as well as externally due to the need to sometimes seek advice from colleagues outside the organization.  

It shifts supervisors’ roles to coaching and support: Freed from having to affirm or veto decisions, supervisors can focus on a pivotal but often neglected role, which is to provide coaching, advising, and support in order to help their supervisees make the best decisions in their issue areas.

Of course, this model is not without its challenges. Here are a few things RVC encounters frequently in our implementation of the FINAL decision-making process:

There can be ambiguity in who the decider should be: Certain areas are very clear cut. If you are the Communications Director, for example, only you can make decisions on the frequency and content of the newsletter (You may also delegate the final decision-making authority to another member on the communications team; but then you have to respect their decisions and not override them). But sometimes it is not really clear whose decision it is. As the ED, for instance, I work with a lot of donors and am heavily engaged in fundraising. But we also have a Development Director, Chris. So who has final say in which grants we apply to, or at our fundraising strategies are? Communication is critical. At RVC, I work closely with Chris to shape our fundraising strategies, but generally defer to him when it comes to decisions on individual donor strategies, while I tackle major grants.

Some decisions seem too big to be made by an individual: RVC recently had to move to a new office location. Whose decision was it to select our new location? We are also now starting our strategic direction process. Whose decision is it to select our strategic directions? In these circumstances, it is important to choose a single owner of a particular decision, but make it clear that the process is collective. This parallels the current default top-down process anyway, except that the single owner of the decision defaults to the ED/CEO. The FINAL process at least shifts us all to being more thoughtful about who gets to be the ultimate decider of these major decisions. It might be necessary for the decider to go meta: “As the holder of this decision, I am deciding that we do this by consensus.” This is a tricky situation, and we’re still exploring this.

Sometimes you have to go along with decisions that you know are terrible: On occasions, I see decisions heading in directions that I know from experience would be bad. (“I agree that we should make our gala more exciting, but I am not sure a hot soup dash is a good idea to replace the desert dash.”) In the past, I would just use ED veto authority. In the FINAL process, though, unless it’s a matter of safety, we have to respect one another’s decisions after giving advice and even strong recommendations. Sometimes this leads to failures. On the other hand, the failures usually lead to amazing learning opportunities and professional development. Once you make a decision that sucks, you are much more likely to be more critical and deliberate in the future. Supervisors can help in the learning process by providing coaching on what happened, whether the right type and amount of input was sought, whether everyone actually provided honest feedback at the right time, how would things be done differently the next time, etc.

It requires everyone to be good at giving and receiving feedback: This process works best if everyone on the team is skilled and experienced in both giving and receiving feedback effectively. This can be tough, as many of us struggle with this. At RVC, we continually work to develop these skills and create a culture where giving and receiving feedback is not just normal and expected, but valued. Feedback is important not just before a decision is made, but also throughout its implementation and afterwards, as learning from decisions and related mistakes are critical.

Many staff are not used to having this level of decision-making power. Society trains us to accept that our supervisors are the ultimate decision makers, and this is how most organizations and corporations operate. So it can be really jarring to think that we actually have the autonomy to make decisions, or that we can refuse a suggestion from a supervisor. Supervisors must be very careful to constantly affirm that this is a team member’s decisions; they also have to regularly remind their team that suggestions are not mandates. EDs in particular have to be careful because staff have been trained to see our ideas as mandates when, unless they are in our agreed-upon areas of decision-making, they should only be suggestions, and it is up the actual decision maker to follow through or ignore our ideas.

Sometimes you can’t check in with everyone: On occasions, decisions have to be made fast, which makes it challenging to get sufficient input. Also, who determines what the threshold of people you need to check in with before making a decision is? Five people? Ten? Sometimes a decision will affect dozens or hundreds of people, and there might be no possible way to check in with everyone. But I think this is a problem that we have in all decision-making processes, and we just have to learn how to balance gathering as much input as possible, with expediency.

There are still power dynamics to content with: The FINAL process is still affected by power dynamics. Sure, someone could be told that they have autonomy to make a decision, but there may still be a lingering reality that if they don’t make the decision that aligns with their supervisor’s recommendations, they might get punished. This model works best when there is a high degree of trust and respect among team members, and power dynamics are openly discussed so they can be mitigated.

For all the challenges we’ve experienced, and continue to experience though—including still trying to figure out how to translate this to our board, and not confuse our partner organizations—after a couple of years of trying this out, I am convinced that it has led to better decisions and a stronger, more invested team. And personally, as the ED, I feel much happier; freed of the responsibility of being the ultimate decider for everything, I can focus on my work and the few critical areas where I have decision-making authority.

The Advice Process, aka, FINAL decision-making process, is heavily informed by constant feedback, allows team members to have autonomy but in an interdependent, networked setting, and allows decision-making power to be lateral instead of hierarchical. It is not perfect by any means, and we are failing and learning things as we go along, but I like it, it’s worked great for RVC so far, and I hope you will consider it. Maybe I’ll convince my partner to implement this at home and we can stop staring forlornly at each other next time we have to choose what to have for dinner.

Our Default Organizational Decision-Making Model Is Flawed. Here’s an Awesome Alternative!Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears monthly in the GuideStar Blog. This article is a cross-post of an December 2, 2018, piece from his blog, Nonprofit ... And Fearless. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.

Topics: Nonprofit management
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