Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on July 3, 2018
How often have you faced a situation within your organization where the decision-making process was not effective in determining the best course of action?
When the results are less than what was desired, everyone wonders, “Why did we proceed down this path? Why weren’t alternatives fully considered?”
In his 1974 book, “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement,” Jerry B. Harvey, professor emeritus of management at George Washington University, describes a situation where a father-in-law suggests to his family that they all drive to Abilene for dinner, and everyone agrees.
No one shared their reservations about going to Abilene, so off they went. After having a terrible meal, each family member reveals that they personally thought that the other members of the family wanted to go.
Harvey writes, “The inability to manage agreement, not the inability to manage conflict, is the essential symptom that defines organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox.”
Many companies face decisions that are more complex than the example described above, with ramifications significantly more impactful than a bad meal. How do you cultivate a culture within your organization to avoid the Abilene paradox and other more serious flaws in the decision-making process?
Whether the leader is the CEO of a large organization or a sub-unit of that organization, the quality of the decision-making process will depend on the organizational culture established by the leader. Direct reports quickly pick up on that culture and how the leader responds to contrary points of view.
It is critical for a leader to welcome open discussion and ask for opinions. When this is effectively done, better alternative strategies often emerge, different than those originally considered, allowing for a superior decision to be made.
When a leader expresses their opinion on a course of action early in a discussion, it is more difficult for other alternatives suggested by their team to be seriously considered. This is especially the case when the leader has a reputation for being opinionated and not listening to other points of view. Therefore, meaningful discussion does not occur, and the best strategy may not be pursued.
A leader should hold back their personal opinion until the team members have discussed their ideas. This should also be a time for leaders to listen to their direct reports and see how they approach the situation.
After discussing an important decision, come back to it in a few days to allow team members to reflect on their individual positions on the subject. Never criticize anyone for changing their mind.
Beware of the comment, “We need to move fast on this.” It should send up red flags and should not force a decision before the ramifications are carefully considered.
The worst thing for any organization is to have it populated by “yes-people,” or those who are reluctant to express their views, especially if they are contrary to the thinking of the leader, or of the group.
Having a contrary view when everyone else is leaning in another direction on an issue is difficult, but necessary to arrive at the best decision. These individuals may be labeled as not being team players, so it takes courage to be the lone wolf.
The view of the contrarian may not be adopted, but that view provides an alternative to which the popular view can be tested and confirmed as the best course of action.
To the lone wolves – how you express your contrary views is important to whether or not they are considered, as well as to your credibility within the team.
Research in Motion Limited (RIM), now known as Blackberry Limited, was the company that pioneered the personal digital assistant in 1999, and forever changed how people in the business world communicate with each other. They owned the market with Blackberry PDAs, which had email, text and phone capabilities.
A few years later, Android and Apple PDAs were introduced, aimed at the underdeveloped consumer market. These devices not only had an improved user interface and a much higher resolution camera, but also had the ability for users to add apps, increasing the functionality of these PDAs many-fold.
Blackberry did not respond, thinking that Androids and iPhones would be viewed as recreational devices and would not interest the business community. Blackberry spent time making minor improvements to their PDA. What they didn’t do is face the brutal fact of reality that they needed to make major changes to compete with Android and Apple in giving customers what they wanted – a PDA with significantly improved functionality.
Today, the business and personal PDA market is dominated by Androids and iPhones, while Blackberry is now an insignificant player in this market. Blackberry underestimated its competitor’s ability to recognize and provide what the marketplace does not yet know it needs. Andy Grove, former chairman and CEO of Intel Corporation coined the phrase and wrote a book titled, “Only the Paranoid Survive.” Apparently, Blackberry wasn’t listening.
Follow the decision-making principles above and you will increase the probability of making the right decisions for your business.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.