To speed decision-making, get rid of the noise

To be, or not to be? Not all decisions are as profound as Hamlet’s, but some team decisions can be real game-changers. Making tough decisions can stress out members of any team, but when you’re working as a geographically-dispersed team, the decision-making process can be especially draining.

Why?  Simply put, the decision-making process for virtual teams tends to be murky. Team meetings are typically too brief to talk through the pros and cons of different options, leading most people to revert to email, instant messaging, or other kinds of asynchronous communications to get decisions made. The result: Too many ancillary people tend to get involved, decisions are often made with incomplete information, relatively little time and attention are given by the right people, and well-reasoned decisions tend to take longer—if they get made at all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This issue of Communiqué provides some practical tips to improve the ability of virtual teams to make sound decisions, with less effort and in less time. A caveat: You do need to invest time up front, as a team, to create operating principles as to how your team will make decisions. We promise, the ROI will be enormous.

  • Establish ground rules about who, exactly, makes what decision. Do this as a team, not unilaterally. Use specific criteria for clarity when you can. Articulate the rationale if you suspect it may not be obvious to all. Examples: When decisions lead to expenditures of greater than $25K, our CFO has final approval authority. Regional marketing managers determine the best time to launch new marketing programs in their venues. All hiring decisions are made by local business managers, with optional input from HR. Letting go of decision-making authority can be hard for some people, despite complaints about excessive emails. When in doubt, double-back to make sure that everyone agrees.  Make these ground rules explicit in the form of a decision-making matrix for everyone on the team. Revise as needed over time.
  • Determine who else needs to be in the loop. Before you cc: every single person on your team, be clear on your intent. Are you copying everyone simply to keep them informed? Are you soliciting input? Are you just making sure you’ve covered all the bases? Whatever your answer, make your intent clear to everyone whose name appears someone on your distribution list. Example: “I am seeking a decision from all those in the “to” list. For those who are cc’d, I just want to keep you informed. There is no need for you to reply or take action.” A simple directive like this can save a lot of time for people who otherwise might have stopped whatever they were doing to respond, rather than giving it a quick glance and filing it away. Meanwhile, those on the “to” list are put on notice that they need to respond to you with a decision.
  • Establish a team norm governing response times. Just as you need to be specific about who makes certain kinds of decisions, you also need to agree on a reasonable time by which you need a decision. Likewise, you need to give decision-makers sufficient time by which they can realistically make a decision. The more complex and weighty the decision, the more time you need to allow people to mull it over.A decision that’s likely to reverberate across the organization will need more time than one that will affect a relative few. Make sure to factor in time zone differences, national holidays and vacation schedules. This often requires weeks of advance planning, especially during the winter and summer holiday seasons. Indicate clearly the day/time by which you need a particular decision.
  • Be clear about what you’re asking. Have you already made a decision on the concept, and simply need agreement on details? Are you asking for money to support a decision you and some of your colleagues have already made? Or are you looking for a champion to visibly support your new program? Set clear expectations about what kind of decisions you’re seeking, from whom. Otherwise, you can waste a lot of time when people weigh in on decisions that have already been made. Worst case, you may need to spend time and money revisiting decisions you thought had already been made, especially if your team leader mistakenly assumed that you were seeking approval vs. validation about a particular point.
  • Provide enough information to enable decision-makers to act quickly, not rashly. Anticipate what information people will need and what questions they may have before making a well-thought-out decision. Include links to needed content in your email (or wiki, blog, portal posting, etc.), indicating its relevance. Clearly state the implications of the decision you’re seeking, especially if you think they may not be obvious or if the decision is contentious. (Example: If approved, this new customer loyalty program will require an average of four hours per month from our senior leadership team for the first three months.) To help your decision-makers focus, seek to strike the right balance of complete and succinct content. Better to take the time up front to think through what information people will need. Otherwise, a flurry of time-consuming and unnecessary emails will ensue.
  • Inform those with a vested interest in the outcome. Once you have a decision, relay it to those most likely to be affected. This may be everyone on the team or just a subset. Make sure to spell out the implications, especially if they are not immediately apparent. For example, when launching a new orientation program, let people know how it will be different from today’s program, including how it will work, when it begins, the role of direct supervisor, responsibilities of Learning and Development, what’s covered and what’s not, duration and resource requirements. You might try sending a brief email with a few anticipated FAQs, pointing people to a place (e.g. HR rep, portal, wiki, website) where they can get more details. Creating a “decision communications” template can help everyone think through what content is most salient to communicate right up front. Of course, you may also want to allocate a chunk of time on your next team call to review the implications as well.

Any team, regardless of location, tends to suffer when its decision-making process is fuzzy. But when a team is geographically dispersed, members need to be achingly explicit about decision-making roles, processes, criteria, timing, and communications. That’s because virtual teams usually do not allocate the kind of time they really need to debate and discuss trade-offs and options, leading to thoughtful decisions that all can commit to. With explicit ground rules in place, virtual teams can make well-informed decisions more quickly, by fewer people, even when they can’t allocate the needed time for team discussions.


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