Independent Decision Making

Last fall I had a blog post on the concept When Adaptability Outperforms Efficiency from Team of Teamsa book by Gen. McChrystal et al that focuses on achieving organizational change.  In this post, I'd like to focus on his concept of decentralized decision making, in which the direct report keeps the supervisor informed instead of asking permission.

The two concepts go hand-in hand. The authors cite Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School, a pioneer in the study of workplace empowerment and the business imperative to extend authority downwards.  They note "Kanter foresaw that increased disruption and unpredictability would necessitate increased agility and adaptability, which could be achieved only by loosening control."

Under Naval command, the concept allows a subordinate officer the freedom to operate as he or she thinks best, keeping authorities informed of actions taken, until or unless the senior overrides the decision. The acronym is UNODIR; e.g. UNless Otherwise DIRected. The concept pre-dates wireless communication when ships were at sea and out of communication range for extended periods of time. However, the concept remains relevant in modern context in which new information flows in quickly and voluminously and at times requires quick action. 

Gen. McChrystal notes, "I came to realize that, in normal cases, I did not add tremendous value, so I changed the process. I communicated across the command my thought processes on decisions like airstrikes, and told them to make the call. Whoever made the decision, I was always ultimately responsible, and more often than not those below me reached the same decision I would have, but this way our team would be empowered to do what was needed."  He uses the analogy of a manager to a gardener. A traditional gardener cannot grow vegetables. S/he can only foster an environment in which the plants grow the vegetables. 

With a lot on our operations team plates, and in an effort to improve my own management skills, I have been seeking to bring this concept into our legal ops team.

I was attracted by the outcomes as described by Gen. McChrystal: "I found that by...containing my desire to micromanage, I flipped a switch in my subordinates... It is one thing to look at a situation and make a recommendation to a senior officer...Psychologically, it is an entirely different experience to be charged with making the decision...Eventually, a rule of thumb emerged: 'If something supports our effort, as long as it is not immoral or illegal,' you could do it. Soon, I found that the question I most often asked my force was 'What do you need?'....We had decentralized on the belief that the 70 percent solution today would be better than a 90 percent solution tomorrow. But we found our estimates were backward - we were getting the 90 percent solution today instead of the 70 percent solution tomorrow."

Along the way, however, working in a somewhat traditional office culture (as is not unexpected in a 136-year-old company), I’ve realized the nuance makes implementation more complicated than it seems on the face. First and foremost, the extent to which I can delegate runs up close to but does not exceed my own limited decision-making authority.  In working towards finding the right balance within the ops team, issues I've run up against can be organized roughly as follows:

1. "Keep Informed" Timing: What is the right timing for keeping informed up the chain? I've adopted the mantra "No surprises." The manager and leadership team should not be taken by surprise by a question about a course of action or activity, or have insufficient knowledge to respond. Towards that end ops has become better at keeping a cadence of updates in our weekly one-on-ones and maintaining project status notes.  Asynchronous communication channels help.  In my own communications up, I text brief updates noting the project, stakeholder, concern and solution.  I'll then provide the date and time of our next scheduled conversation for a touchbase or note I've reached out to schedule a touchbase before then.

2. Experience and Expertise: Gen. McChrystal is at the top of a food chain in which his direct chain of command already has considerable experience and field training. By comparison, legal operations is only about 30 years old. Legal operations managers also have functional area expertise but frequently in more narrow lanes with fewer years of documented industry process to build on. While it is possible to learn from others' experience through well-established legal departments and professional organizations, it is safe to say there is as of yet nowhere near the field training and body of knowledge there for military operations. 

Also, good business judgement is contextual to your company. If you work at a company where cultural norms are largely tacit and undocumented, unlike the military, exposure and conscious recognition of cultural norms is needed. One change I've made is to regularly invite team members to sit in my weekly meeting with the leadership team to get leadership exposure, as well as a better sense of the guidance I receive, and leadership questions I field about our team's work.

And to some extent we learn more from doing than from others' experience. In a business context we are surrounded by colleagues with different perspectives. By drawing on those perspectives heavily we minimize mistakes.  In a military context a gate is the call is needed to create action. In a business, once the budget has been approved, the path to deployment, particularly in a service environment, can be a lot more decentralized and informal. When the supervisor is removed from the immediate decision as a second set of eyes, the manager needs to ensure s/he still leaves room to gather additional perspectives to avoid mis-steps. The Nordstrom One Rule applies well: "Use good judgement in all situations. Please feel free to ask your dept. manager, store manager  or HR officer any question at any time." 

3. Asking the Right Questions: Gen. McChrystal notes there is an art to asking questions to provoke long-view perspective. He recommends asking broad questions, along the lines of "Why are you thinking x?" instead of data point questions like "How many x do you need?"  He also stresses the importance of not overpacking meeting schedules in order to leave enough time to get answers to the questions you ask.

    One of his recommendations I struggle with is to ask questions before the group to allow team members "to see problems being solved in real time and to understand the perspective of the senior leadership team." In my experience team members prefer being asked questions in one-on-ones so as not to be put on the spot, and some tend to multi-task when the agenda is not focused on their project so not always absorbing the information. Where possible I preview updates in one-on-ones then have the team member recap in the ops group meeting, then -where merited- present in the leadership meeting.

    Team of Teams is a great book. It focuses on how to achieve organizational change in a dynamic environment in which one is required to process a large volume of information quickly to take decisive action. Military culture transfers imperfectly to most business environments and may run counter to the interpersonal dynamic one is fostering. At the same time in my experience there is a lot that is transferable to the business environments of most large well-established companies.  While one could argue the lessons are most applicable when there are well-established processes that need to change, as opposed to a start up where a defined process is not yet established, I suspect newer companies can learn from the practice of defining processes and pitfalls to avoid.

    If you have read Team of Teams, I'd welcome your comments on what you have found most useful.  Is there another book you draw on for organizational change?  Would love to hear about it.