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Liberatory Decision-Making: How to Engage in a Healthy Process

Have you ever been in a group that’s trying to make a decision, and struggling? Something as simple as choosing a restaurant for dinner can become incredibly frustrating. The same is true for organizations — we’ve all been in that meeting where a seemingly simple decision seems impossible to make. This is normal! And annoying. So we’ve been supporting organizations in figuring out clear decision-making processes, and have witnessed how much of a difference it makes in building a healthy organizational culture and shifting how power is held and distributed.

As a society, our thinking about decision-making tends to fall into one of two classic paradigms: Either the person who’s in charge makes the decision on their own, or a group makes a decision together. But it doesn’t have to be that way! At RVC we’ve chosen to walk a third path: the Advice Process. 

I’ve written about the Advice Process before, so I’ll just summarize it briefly: While no one person makes a decision in isolation, ultimately there is one person “in charge” of every decision. The person closest to a decision — or who has the most energy, skill, or experience — makes the decision. But before that person makes the decision, they have to seek advice from the following:

  1. Everyone who will be significantly impacted by this decision
  2. People who will help them make a better decision (due to particular knowledge/expertise/lenses they may have)

When we adopted the Advice Process at RVC, it was hard! It took us years of unlearning — we gave our staff significant power over decisions, and that didn’t always go so well. Sometimes a staff member would go off on their own and do whatever they wanted or deemed best, without talking to the people most impacted both internally and externally. This is understandable, since many of us weren’t used to being given decision-making power, and we didn’t have many past role models showing us healthy ways to make decisions. And this was not good. We changed programs in ways that negatively impacted the folks we served, staff were getting frustrated with each other because they weren’t checking in with each other about the impact of important decisions before they were made, and internal coordination was becoming disjointed, as separate parts of the organization went running in different directions.

For the Advice Process decision making approach to be effective you need to build a culture of feedback, invest in role mapping, and take time to build decision-making skills throughout your organization.

Laying this foundation requires building a healthy organizational culture where folks feel comfortable giving difficult feedback in a direct and timely manner. If I ask you for feedback on a decision and you don’t feel comfortable giving it to me or aren’t sure what type of feedback is useful, I’m going to make a worse decision because I lack your perspective! 

Investing in role mapping clarifies exactly who is responsible for what realms of work, and thus who is the decision-maker over a given realm. Otherwise, it can get really confusing figuring out who should be the lead on a decision.

Finally, over the course of years, we developed and iterated a set of decision-making tools, which we’re thrilled to unveil for you to use. We discovered that knowing how to make healthy decisions is a skill of itself, and we need to help people build that skill.

Those tools are as follows:

  1. Step by step process for making decisions [Spanish version]: Making good decisions is a practice.This worksheet helps anyone make decisions well, by walking them through each step they should take and having them document it, so that others can understand how and why they made the decision.
  2. Options for how to make the decision [Spanish version]: Choosing the right process(es) for making a decision can make all the difference. This document outlines different decision-making processes, with some context to consider when you decide what process to use.
  3. Assessing the importance of a decision [Spanish version]: In order to make a decision well, we need to understand the impact it might have. This decision screen helps anyone use a variety of strategic lenses to clarify their criteria for decision making and analyze the potential impact of a decision.

Not every decision will require you to use all three tools. We recommend filling them out for important decisions, and using them heavily when you first start learning how to use the Advice Process, until the steps become second nature for you. Practice using these tools as a staff skill-building exercise. This regular exercising of your decision-making muscles will strengthen you and contribute to a better organizational culture. 

One final note: When RVC transitioned to its current Co-Executive Director structure, I became a Capacity-Building Strategist, where I supported our partner organizations and devoted time to writing blog posts like this one. However, as we had long planned, my time at RVC is now coming to a close. While you’ll still be hearing from me time to time on the RVC blog, I’ll be shifting to doing professional interim executive director work and independent consulting focused on alternative leadership/organizational structures. And I will continue to update these tools, so if you have feedback on how they could be improved, please reach out to me directly at [email protected]. I’d love to stay in touch! Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.