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Sick of Both Consensus and Hierarchical Decision-Making? There is a Third Way

In a past work life, I participated in an excruciating process of clarifying Who Decides What, When, and How facilitated by a well-meaning consultant using some iteration of the DARCI grid. As a mid-level team member, it was an incredibly demeaning process. Up until that point, I had felt true ownership over certain spheres of work, and confidence in my ability to manage them well. But over the course of mapping decision-making power, it was made abundantly clear that this work was being delegated to me by the true “Decider,” who actually made all the decisions. My role was to get the work done, guided by their decisions.

Not only did I find myself questioning my own self-worth as someone apparently lacking in the skills to own the decisions related to my everyday work, but I also found myself checking out, shrugging my shoulders, and letting go of real responsibility – because it was someone else’s decision, not mine.

I know that these kinds of accountability grids can be useful. They clarify roles and responsibilities and help everyone get on the same page. For example, if you have a bunch of people involved in a complicated process that has to be repeated regularly, this kind of tool can make a huge difference. But they can also trap people into modeling an organization hierarchically, looking up the chain of command to who the “real” decision-maker is.

Which is not to say that I’m in favor of the Tyranny of Structurelessness. Nor am I advocating for consensus-based decision-making, although I do feel that it is an impressive format for certain situations, as the Quaker community has shown us.

I believe there is a third way. Over time I developed my own sense of this, but it didn’t come together perfectly until I read Reinventing Organizations. There it was! The advice process. Their wiki lays it out beautifully, so I’ll just give you the short version:

Is there a decision that needs to be made? Who is “the person most closely linked to the decision, or the person with most energy, skill, and experience to make the decision?”

That person needs to go out and seek advice from the following:

  1. Everyone who will be significantly affected by this decision
  2. People with expertise in the matter being decided

And then that person makes a decision!

Simple, right? Well, no, often this is way harder. If you’re the decision-maker, you find yourself having difficult conversations with people who you don’t want to face: clients who are mad because you’re thinking about changing their favorite program’s structure, or coworkers who don’t want to cut the snacks budget. You’re forced to talk to the very people that your decision impacts, face to face, and understand how they feel about it before you make the decision. You have to be humble by finding people who know more than you do about the topic and asking their advice, which often includes supervisors, mentors, and community partners. You can’t go on a power trip and offhandedly make a bunch of big decisions without truly exploring the ramifications.

But it’s worth it. It changes the texture of the conversations. And it doesn’t require intensive organizational restructuring. Anyone with management power can set these rules in place, even if it only can affect their own team. It requires serious delegation of decision-making, and constant self-management to ensure you are letting go of power, while simultaneously holding your team accountable to the power that is now in their hands.

And it centers communities of color and other marginalized communities; as the clients of your services, they must be engaged with before a decision is made, not after. It ensures their voices are heard, loud and clear.

For me in a management role, it involves a lot of, “No, this is your decision to make. How can I help you get the information you need to make this decision? Who do you need to talk to?” And it’s painful at times to see someone having to sit with the ramifications of a big decision gone awry, now that the responsibility is squarely on their shoulders. But this is how we build a culture of learning that helps us make far stronger decisions overall, because the person most well-equipped to make a decision is the one doing so, instead of that person high up in the chain of command who “should” make the decision, despite having little to no sense of what’s actually going on in that particular realm.

Built into an organization with strong shared values, where everyone shares a passion for the same mission and vision for societal change, this decision-making model forces us to have the right courageous conversations and recognizes that we’re all constantly learning and improving. We still mess up, but when we do, we name that openly, talk about it, and learn how to do things differently next time. This model doesn’t work if your organization is not explicitly a learning organization, where everyone feels comfortable speaking up when things go wrong, sharing feedback, and openly reflecting on how to improve things.

How are decisions made in your organization? Could you envision this model working well? Share this article with your team, and have a different kind of conversation about decision-making.