Friday, October 29, 2010

Deciding to Decide

First of all, to my millions of readers (Haha!), I find myself in that awkward position of having to once again apologize for not keeping up with this blog. I know I have not posted anything in a few weeks and for that, I have no excuse. Although I will admit, the demands of the job here in Afghanistan have been taking a toll. Something about these 90-hour work weeks seems to squeeze out any extracurricular activities! excuses. Let's talk about the business of leaders!

One thing that there is no shortage of here for me is the opportunity to make decisions. Some big, some small. Some involve minor issues like who to meet with or what projects I need to visit, while others involve larger issues like whether we should take on certain projects, how to prioritize our resources, or what we need to do to execute a multi-billion dollar construction program.

One thing that is common among all of these issues is that as leaders, we must "decide to decide." That is not to say that we have to make decisions immediately. Clearly there are times for immediate action. But the key leader skill that I practice regularly with my teammates is to identify when decisions must be made, what possible alternatives should be considered, and how those alternatives will be implemented.

During previous assignments as a trainer at the Army's National Training Center, one of the most important decisions a training unit leader often would make during a mission was when to commit his reserve force. They would usually hold some component of their force out of the engagement, but ready to respond to the enemy's attack or to reinforce any successes during the battle.

Unfortunately, few leaders were successful in getting their reserve forces to the place they were needed on the battlefield in time, usually missing the opportunity to make the difference in the mission that was envisioned for them. Commanders failed to decide when to decide ahead of time, with a good analysis of how long it would take to get that reserve element moving, or of how much time it would take to get to the place where they could engage the enemy from a position of advantage. They usually failed to understand exactly what event would trigger their decision, and got their forces moving after it was too late.

We call those triggers decision points. They are the point in time or space when we must decide. They are the point of no return, where experienced leaders understand that they must either commit immediately, or deal with the consequences of not having done so.

Leaders must review decision points regularly with their team. When we don't, we become informed of important milestones in a project -- after we miss the milestone. All too often, someone on the team knew we wouldn't hit the milestone much earlier, when we could have taken action to still meet the mission requirement. We could have reallocated resources, reprioritized our work efforts, and certainly informed our customers about any possible fallout well before the project went south. Those decision points are where we must decide to decide.

In the lifecycle of a project, there are many of these decision points. As leaders, we have to be able to work backwards on a timeline, identify when events will happen, and then move further back to determine when we will know that those particular things will happen. Those are the triggers, much like with the combat leader, when we must either decide to decide, or find ourselves arriving at the battle too late to influence the action. It is much like the fork in the road in the picture above. You don't wait for the actual fork to decide which path to take. You make your decision, you decide to decide, well ahead of the fork, when you see the road sign that there is a fork ahead.

As leaders, we need to work with our staff to identify those signs early. We need to constantly review our situation and look for those triggers that will indicate that a decision must be made, as well as formally detail the information that will be the basis for that decision. When we do that, we will be much more prepared to make a decision when the inevitable fork arrives. We can commit early enough to still influence the action, not after it is too late to make a difference.

Following this approach will not guarantee that our decisions will always be right. But they will be timely, with a solid basis (those triggers) upon which to make them, such that, more often than not, we will take the right fork. That makes "deciding to decide" -- Leader Business!

1 comment:

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