Decision making

By Ross Chaldecott — Published

Right now, our team is small and nimble. They’re also really good at making decisions; as with most early stage companies. That’s why startups can often outmaneuver larger, more incumbent businesses.

As businesses grow and scale, the first thing that suffers is often decision making velocity.

Don’t get me wrong, most big businesses still typically make good decisions – they just make them slowly. If you look at most effective teams, the thing that sets them apart is their ability to make high quality decisions – and to make them fast.

As we grow and scale our team at Kinde, we don’t want our decision making ability to suffer. And so we’re building in some mechanisms early to make sure we can continue to be good at this. These are not new ideas. They are the same one’s that you see in place at companies like Atlassian, Shopify and Amazon – companies that excel at making high quality, high velocity decisions.

Give ownership

Every person in our team has shares in the company. To us this was essential from the very beginning. This is partly so that they can share in the value generated by the work that they do. But more importantly, because of the way that it changes their behaviour. When people are owners of the company, it changes the way they think, and the way they make decisions. When you own part of a company, you make decisions like an owner. Because ultimately those decisions directly impact your life also.

This makes it a whole lot easier for the small decisions, like expenses and time off, but also for the big things, like what should we build right now? When you’re an owner it’s obvious, build the thing that will result in the most customer value. Which in turns translates to the maximum value to Kinde, and ultimately, you.

Give autonomy and context

Ownership is worthless if people aren’t truly enabled to make their own decisions. A critical part of how we operate is to provide the maximum autonomy to every member of our team. This means not having to go to a manager for a decision. Not waiting for others before being able to act. Knowing that you are trusted to do the right thing. The decision lives with you. Autonomy multiplies decision making because it allows increased velocity in everything our team does. It also makes for happier teams who feel trusted and empowered.

But there’s a catch with autonomy. If you give people autonomy, but you don’t make sure they are deeply aligned at all levels, then you end up with a whole lot of people feeling super productive but not all working in a common direction. Alignment is absolutely critical if you want to create an autonomous team working with focus and direction. This means alignment at every level – making sure every person understands the company strategy, the team strategy, the team goals, and their role in the company. They should also have deep understanding of the problem they need to help solve, and why it matters. This means communication. A lot of communication. Being super open as a company and making sure people have as much context as possible to be able to make smart, educated decisions. Context is the key to autonomous teams.

But be careful. Autonomy can sometimes leave people feeling unsupported and adrift. If you want an autonomous team, it needs to be clear to everybody that when they do need help, you are there to give it. You have to banish fear of asking. And fear of failure.

Encourage failure

The quickest way to kill autonomy and decision making, is to punish people for failure. We talk a lot about anti-fragility at Kinde. The concept that, like muscles in the human body, we get stronger as a team and company by actively seeking out things that might weaken us, in order to become an organism that better responds to change and potential threats. This means actively encouraging failure tolerance. Note the wording there - it’s deliberate. We don’t actively encourage failure. Failure is never the goal. But we do actively encourage failure tolerance.

This means that, when things go wrong, as they often will, we are ready and willing to fix the problem – together. This is the time we pull together and get stronger as a team. We never look to cast blame or put people down. Failure, while not the desire goal, is a good thing. Failure is growth.

Disagree and commit

Sometimes you can’t come to a clean decision. Sometimes there are just too many opinions and too many variables for there to be an obvious and clear path forward. When it comes to high velocity decision making, the greatest tool at our disposal is to disagree and commit.

I believe this is something that is particularly useful for leaders. Often the people closest to a decision are the ones who should be making the decision. It’s easy to forget that. But it means that in our decision making, often the leader involved needs to defer to the team to make the right call. This means creating an environment where people are trusted. One that cultivates and enables humility in every part of the team - especially leadership.

Disagreeing and committing allows recognition of the objection, but provides a clear path forward for the team.

Reversible decisions

At the end of the day, most decisions are entirely reversible. When it comes to reversible decisions it’s okay to fumble and potentially get it wrong. We can work on less than perfect information and we can almost always walk them back if they turn out to be wrong.

The decisions we need to watch out for are the non-reversible decisions. Sometimes tricky to identify, non-reversible decisions close all other doors once we make them. These decisions are rare, but should be identified and reacted to early. Typically non-reversible decisions tend to involve leadership. In which case, don’t jump into them lightly and make sure you’re weighing up as much information as possible. You still may get it wrong, but make sure you’re at least making the decision with the maximum amount of context.

Escalate quickly

All of this makes it sound like the pressure should be on the team alone. But actually, one of the secret keys to high velocity decision making is in escalating quickly. A team stuck on a decision is a blocked team. Which means all work stops while the decision is in the way. Which also leads to an unhappy team living with friction. Help your team to understand that escalating a decision as soon as it’s clear that they are blocked, is actually the smart and desirable thing to do. This isn’t a sign of weakness – rather a sign of smart thinking.

Make sure you’re not bike-shedding

The concept of bike-shedding illustrates the tendency we have to spend way too much time on trivial matters and gloss over important ones; like the $350 bike shed in a $10 million power plant. People gravitate to topics where they feel knowledgable and comfortable voicing their opinions. Most people don’t know much about power stations, but they feel they can contribute on a topic like bike sheds and don’t want to look foolish for not weighing in on a discussion about one. Everybody weighs in and the conversation drags on. Often these discussions could have been solved and decided by a single person, or small group, relatively quickly. Instead we end up with lengthy discussions that distract everybody from what really matters.

The trick to avoiding bike-shedding is to be clear in what needs to be discussed and what doesn’t. Don’t have meetings where you try to cover all manner of topics at once. Assemble the right team who will have relevant experience on the topic at hand. Keep a look out for signs of discussion breaking down into smaller, less relevant topics, and pull those out for separate discussion. It can also help to designate a decider who will make the call if all else fails. Similar to disagree and commit – sometimes somebody just has to make the call and have everybody else go along with it.

Rock, paper, scissors

As with all things, decision making is an evolutionary process and we’re constantly adapting. Teams are made of humans and humans are all unique. The way one team makes decisions is guaranteed to be different to the next. Find the ways that work for you and your business. Throw the rest away. If all else fails, there’s always the classic fallback: Rock, paper, scissors.

I call rock.

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