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6 Essential Guidelines for Making Better Decisions, Virtually

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Let’s face it. We’ve all made some pretty poor decisions. Sometimes it’s because we feel we have to keep moving, in any direction. Other times we just don’t want to have to think too hard, so we make the choice that requires the least scrutiny. When we make a bad decision that has fairly minor consequences, we may be able to sleep through the night just fine. But when the stakes are high, and the effects of a bad decision reverberate outside of our own worlds, we stand to lose a lot more than sleep.

Teams that work virtually have a particularly hard time making tough, complex or strategic decisions. Why? Too little time is allocated to having the kinds of rigorous discussions that inevitably lead to well-informed decisions. Navigating through conflict from afar requires special skills many leaders haven’t learned. Team members can’t spare the time to gather the right data. Too many of the wrong participants (or too few of the right ones) happen to be available at the same time. The list goes on.

In this edition of Communiqué, I explore how virtual teams can overcome some of the greatest challenges when it comes to making sound strategic decisions. (My thanks to Harvard Business Review for “A Guide to Making Great Strategic Decisions” in the June 2011 issue, which sparked my thinking.)

  • Define what needs to be decided, and be explicit. When a team doesn’t have many opportunities for real-time interaction, define the decision both verbally and in writing to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Instead of assuming that everyone knows your project team needs to agree on a new organizational structure, for example, list each decision point clearly: We will decide who each team member will report to directly and indirectly for the next two phases of our project. We will identify which members are part of the core team, which are on the extended team, and the differences. Finally, we will decide how best to track and report progress across the team, and how frequently. Give everyone enough of a heads-up so they can ask questions, surface concerns and prepare for the decision-making conversations in advance.
  • Set expectations for who needs to be involved, and how. For example, is this an entirely democratic process, with the whole team making this decision on the next team call? Or will everyone simply provide input on the call, followed by the senior leaders caucusing offline to make the decision? Will the decision be made via vote, or by consensus? Consider which aspects of the decision-making process can be covered asynchronously (e.g., inviting the extended team to offer input in an online conference area), and which discussions need to take place, among whom, in a real-time conversation. Also think about how you will invite comments or seek approvals from those not involved in the decision-making conversation, tapping into both asynch and synch participation methods.
  • Create a plan for assembling the needed data and assign logical tasks. For strategic decisions that will have a big impact on your team, many different kinds of information will be needed from a variety of sources. As a team, determine up front what information will be needed to make which decisions. For example, to decide which 2-3 of a dozen great new money-saving ideas to implement first, you’ll probably need to know the relative cost to implement each idea (measured by money, time and people), the potential savings, time to implement, and risks and dependencies. Divide and conquer by assigning small groups of people to gather a consistent set of information related to a few of these ideas and ask them to share their findings before the discussion. (Assigning small teams has the added benefit of cultivating trust among team members who may not know each other well.) The result: Everyone will come ready for the discussion with a shared sense of the relative upsides and downsides of each idea and can jump right into a spirited, well-informed debate.
  • Make sure you’re in synch about the criteria. Even if you’ve amassed all the needed data with plenty of lead time, your decision-making process can fall apart if you haven’t agreed on the criteria in advance. Especially with a virtual team where discussions are typically kept short, everyone needs a shared understanding as to how options will be evaluated before you start the discussion. Otherwise, conversations can degenerate quickly into unresolvable arguments. Many virtual meeting tools allow for weighted voting, making it easier for people to assess options objectively, either ahead of time or during the conversation. (These tools can be a boon for face-to-face meetings too, replacing the time-consuming, tedious process of raising hands, submitting ballots, or verbal voting.) With a shared definition of the criteria, debates about the best options will be more objective and ultimately, far more productive.
  • Don’t underestimate how long the needed conversation will take. An hour-long call is unlikely to yield the kind of rigorous debate and discussion that can lead to a smart decision about a new organizational model or a launch plan for a new product. Yet many organizations limit even crucial calls to 60 minutes, based on hectic schedules and competing priorities. If 60-90 minutes is all you have at any given time, consider how you can spread the decision-making process over multiple conversations. Not everyone need be involved in every aspect of every decision. For example, you may invite HR, IT and a few representative business leads to decide how best to monitor success metrics in your new organizational model. To decide whether you need an additional headcount for your new group, it might be Finance and HR who need to have a virtual sit-down. Be realistic about how long it will take the right people to have the right conversations, and plan accordingly.
  • Communicating your decisions across the team. Even if you have the chance to grab those closest to you for a quick cup of coffee before you share the news with others, resist the temptation. Instead, make sure that everyone finds out at the same time. Best to do this via a team call, especially if the decision has significant implications for most people. (If one or two on team will be more affected than others, schedule a call with them right before your team call to answer questions and assuage their concerns, which may go a long way towards acceptance.) Explore the implications of these decisions from multiple perspectives, to make sure that everyone understands what changes lay ahead. Invite team members to brainstorm ideas for implementing the decision, either on a call or using a virtual conference area, or both. If the decision is likely to be contentious, set up a virtual conference area where people can ask questions or surface issues anonymously. Find ways to engender commitment and spark action.

In a world that favors speed and efficiency over deliberation and reflection, many virtual team leaders struggle when it comes to making complex decisions. It takes careful choreographing, the right combination of tools, and more time than most leaders think they need, but in the end, taking the time to make a thoughtful decision that inspires action saves much more than just time in the end.

Links

Navigating through conflict, building trust across borders and managing performance from afar are just some of the topics covered in Leading Virtual Teams, part of a series of Bridging the Distance virtual workshops by Guided Insights

Making Decisions That Stick and Communicating in Times of Change, white papers by Nancy Settle-Murphy

Related Communiqués: To Speed Decision-Making, Get Rid of the Noise and Get and Give What You Bargained For with Clear Agreements that Make Sense.

Harvard Business Review, Before You Make That Big Decision by Kahneman, Lovallo and Sibony, June 2011