Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 28, 2015
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. After having a terrible meal, each family member reveals that they personally had reservations about going to Abilene, but did not say so because each thought that the other members of the family wanted to go. No one shared their reservations, and off to Abilene they went.
Many companies face decisions that are more complex than the example described above, with ramifications significantly more impactful than going to Abilene for dinner. How do you cultivate a culture within your organization to avoid the Abilene paradox and other more serious flaws in the decision making process?
Face the brutal facts of your reality
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 Apple iPhones would be viewed as recreational devices and would not interest the business community. Today, the business and personal PDA market is dominated by Androids and iPhones, and Blackberry is now a small player in this market. Was it overconfidence or arrogance that kept Blackberry from facing the brutal facts of their reality, and prevented it from keeping pace with the changing market? Where was the failure in Blackberry’s decision making process? Andy Grove of Intel Corporation coined the phrase, “Only the paranoid survive.” Apparently Blackberry wasn’t listening.
Understand your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
A SWOT analysis of your company along with an honest and frank situation analysis will give you the framework to make decisions. These should be updated periodically. Where is the market for your products and services heading? How does your company stack up against the competition? Your company has just launched a new app that is taking the market by storm – what is the next “new thing” that will replace it? You want your company to develop it rather than the competition. Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were the word processing and spreadsheet programs of choice before Microsoft introduced Microsoft Office Suite. Within a short period of time, Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were relegated to the dust bin of history, surpassed by a superior product. Don’t let that happen to you.
Establish a culture that values discussion of alternatives
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.
Remain neutral until all opinions are expressed
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 for not listening to other points of view. Therefore, meaningful discussion does not occur, and the best strategy may not be pursued.
Value the “lone wolf”
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.
So, how do you cultivate an effective decision making process within your organization? Don’t underestimate your competitor’s ability to recognize and provide what the marketplace does not yet know it needs. Surround yourself with direct reports with good critical judgment who are not afraid to be the lone wolf and will argue their points when everyone else favors a different path.
Create a culture where the brutal facts of your company’s reality can be openly discussed. Remain neutral on possible strategies until all alternatives are presented and debated. Avoid going to Abilene. You will reach the best decisions, and your employees will feel that they have every opportunity to participate in the process. And remember, only the paranoid survive.
Stan Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership. He is the Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.