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Satnavs & weathervanes: Direction, dependency and decision making

Sat Nav

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the quality of decision making is the difference between an organisation succeeding or failing. And it is not just the strategic, direction-setting decisions that matter; the myriad of mundane, tactical decisions that are regularly made up, down and across our organisations are equally, perhaps cumulatively, more important in determining success. But this we know; we’ve always known. We also know that we do all we can to recruit and retain smart, conscientious people who want to do a good job.

And yet, despite knowing how important decision making is and spending a lot of time and money on finding the best people, we are all too familiar with decision making that is far from ideal and clever, highly trained people acting in mindless ways.

One type of mindlessness we might call ‘Satnaving’. By Satnaving we mean that all too common observation that individuals fail to take responsibility or show initiative around a decision. Instead, they rely on instructions or on existing ways of doing things to inform their actions. Like someone slavishly following the directions of a Satnav without any regard to where they are actually going, they truly fail to see the big picture.

Examples of this form of dependent behaviour are as common as they are infuriating: sending a template email or letter instead of drafting a better alternative to suit a client’s needs, being told that the computer ‘says so’ rather than challenging the process, running a meeting because a meeting has always been run rather than identifying its purpose and output, etc. If Satnaving sounds like the preserve of more junior staff, then ask yourself how often you’ve challenged process and practice in the last week. Satnaving is no respecter of rank or seniority because it describes issue around ‘Decision Rights’ – how these are allocated, understood and exercised by everyone in the business, irrespective of their seniority.

If Satnaving is associated more regularly with more junior staff, then ‘weathervaning’ is perhaps most easily recognisable in leaders. This is a leader whose decision making, like a weathervane, is at the mercy of their environment. At times, the weathervaning leader procrastinates, leaving important questions unanswered or passed on. At other times, they appear to ‘precrastinate’ – arriving at decisions without apparent analysis; often they seem to be inspired by the most recent issue that has occupied their thoughts, what is sometimes called ‘last in, first out’ thinking.

Where Satnaving raises the issue of ‘Decision Rights’, Weathervaning raises that of ‘Decision Advantage’; in particular, how well do we prepare decision makers – at all levels – to exploit the decision at hand to the best advantage of the organisation? Because in order to make the right decisions the decision maker needs access to the right sort of data, to appropriate recommendations and to focused and progressive advice. We shouldn’t be surprised that when leaders don’t have these, they are prone to weathervane. Rather, we should look to wider organisational practices, and, perhaps, to ourselves and how well we provide decision advantage to our colleagues.

Exercising Decision Rights and Creating Decision Advantage: what helps, what hinders?
Exercising Decision Rights and Creating Decision Advantage are at the heart of how decision making drives organisational performance. So, we assembled a roomful of business professionals at the Ivy a few days back – senior leaders, HR professionals, L&D specialists. All share a common interest: getting the best out of our people and our organisations. We set them a series of questions to discuss, and you can read the headlines from those discussions here

Now what?
It was clear that were was a good deal of consensus about the scale and significance of the problem – poorly exercises decision rights and a failure to provide decision advantage consistently have serious implications. They hinder performance, contribute to an unhelpful work culture and serve to demotivate many individuals. There was also broad agreement about how to remedy it. But these remedies at stage are – necessarily so – at the level of aspiration or ‘good idea’. The next step is to ask how in practical, specific terms we could begin to address these issues. Of course, individual organisations have their own particular issues and culture, but even so there are, we suspect, common actions, processes and practices that we could identify. So, over to you.

Whether you attended our initial breakfast discussion or whether you’ve just landed on this blog, we’d love to hear your views, experiences and ideas. Clearly these are common problems, is there a common solution?

Continue the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter using #kaplanleadership.

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Dr Ian Stewart, Head of Leadership and Organisational Practice, has over 25 years’ experience of leadership development in the public and private sector. Prior to joining Kaplan, Ian ran the Behavioural Science department at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

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