Traditional decision processes and why the new does not have to be perfect

In an article Yordan Athanassov presented a tool for agile culture. He also discussed how agility can be legitimized in top management. This is a crucial issue, as something new often needs to be legitimised twice. The new solution must not only be better than the existing system, it must be perfect as well. As an egg-laying wool milk sow, it has to solve all utopian problems. One reason for this may be that it is a risk to deviate from the old. The old solution works. The new is unknown and it takes a process of change to get there at all. That may be true. But this ignores the fact that insisting on the „tried and tested“ is also a conscious decision and therefore involves risk. Mark Zuckerberg said that the greatest risk is not to take any risks. This may even be true in view of the increasing dynamics of change.


Do not compare the new with the old, not with a perfect condition

I don’t want to proclaim the new as always the better solution. But I would like to encourage that the new is not only tried out when there is no alternative. Or when it’s seemingly perfect. Rather, one should consider for the introduction of something new: Is the old system really better? Or is it just settled and we’ve resigned ourselves to it?

Example: The Decision Process in Organizations

The decision-making process in agile structures is a fine example. When I argue for more personal responsibility and for delegating decision-making authority, then counter-arguments follow such as: Not all employees are able to make their own decisions; not all of them want to do so; the superiors have a better overview; someone has to keep an overall view of the situation, and so on.

These are all plausible assumptions that cannot be verified without trying them out. There are many examples where such fears were unfounded. But that doesn’t have to be the case with organization Z. And if doesn’t work there, then it does not necessarily have to be the fault of the people, but it can well be a socialised phenomenon.

Delegating decision-making authority should therefore not be judged by whether it is completely problem-free. It should be weighed against the existing decision-making process. And those processes still looks like this in many (big) companies:

  • Specialist A is working with the affected business unit to develop a concept for the introduction of X. The unit is looking forward to this support. A needs 20h for the concept, but still has to wait for the decision of the steering committee to be implemented.
  • Before A can go to the committee, she has to ask her superior B. He’s on holiday and won’t be back for another two weeks. A is waiting.
  • When B returns from the holidays, he reads concept X crosswise on his way to work. He doesn’t have more time, after all there are 100 mails in his inbox. In any case, the concept is far too complex and too extensive. A must therefore summarize everything on one single slide.
  • A needs about 20 hours for this trivialization. After all, Concept X is supposed to be so simple that the own grandmother or the child in kindergarten understands it. B now understands the basics, but he sees a few typos and doesn’t like the color scheme.
  • A revises the simplified concept in about 5 hours and waits until the next „1:1“ so that B can approve the concept. Now A is allowed to present it to the Steering Committee. However, she cannot go on Friday, because advance documents have to be submitted one week before the meeting. A will put her topic on the agenda for the next opportunity in four weeks.
  • A prepares the preliminary documents in about 2 hours and waits. Four weeks later, however, the other agenda items on the board of directors take longer than planned and urgent issues are messing up the whole meeting. A has to wait another four weeks.
  • After about 3 months, A can present the simplified concept to the steering committee. There, the executives ask for a few changes. These stand somewhat controversially to the overall picture and the business unit explicitly rejected those ideas at the beginning of the co-creation process. However, the committee insists on it.
  • A needs another 5 hours to make the adjustments and finally wants to implement the concept together with the unit.
  • In the meantime, however, the line has already found another solution, because more than 3 months have passed since the kick-off. In addition, the new proposal is no longer comparable with the solution worked out jointly at that time, which upsets the unit.
  • After a few more loops in various committees, the concept is officially implemented, but the line does not live by it. A few years later, someone else takes up the subject again, because concept X is not lived by at all.
  • And the cycle begins anew.

Would you introduce such a decision-making process? I don’t think so.

Admittedly, the description is a bit exaggerated. But in many large companies, this image is not far from reality. The business unit is unhappy because it has not received any support and is now to implement things that do not offer any added value. The specialists are unhappy because they worked many hours for the gallery. Supervisors are unhappy because they have to run from meeting to meeting and make decisions with incomplete information that are then not implemented correctly. And the organization is unhappy because a lot of money is wasted.

Taking no risk is the biggest risk

So if we want to try something new, such as agile structures or other agile practices, we should not compare these approaches with a perfect world. Rather, we should ask ourselves: is the current system really better? And therefore Zuckerberg might be right. Because taking no risk due to the assumption that the „old“ has become established, that is the greater risk in a changing world.

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