Executives typically spend about 40% of time making decisions — and the majority of them believe that time is poorly spent, according to research from McKinsey & Co. As a CEO and simplification expert who believes in delegating decisions to the lowest possible level — also known as the principle of subsidiarity — I’ve seen the benefits of wise and timely decision-making on organizations in every industry.
From first-to-market advantages to higher levels of trust and more blocks of free time on employees’ calendars, the ripple effects of a good decision process can be seen across an entire company. To transform the quality and frequency of decisions in your business, explore the four pro tips below.
1. When you need to make a decision, plan your next step to produce that outcome. Start by questioning whether a meeting is actually necessary to make the decision. Would a document from subject-matter experts be the most efficient route to a well-considered decision? Or is it best served by inviting people from relevant areas of the business for a productive debate? If one person can make the decision, delegate it to her — no meeting required. Either way, assign a reasonable date by which to review viable options and different perspectives in order to reach a decision point.
And speaking of options, more is not merrier. A co-authored study from Stanford and Columbia Business School found that when five or more options are on the table, subjects have a harder time deciding and often deferred any decision. To enable more efficient decision-making in your business, limit the choices to fewer than five.
2. Assign decision-making to one or several qualified individuals, not an entire group or business unit. The failure to clarify who should make which decisions can slow down decision-making and continue the cycle of unnecessary meetings. By delegating the decision, it doesn’t mean other voices shouldn’t be consulted. It simply means that all those voices don’t need to be present when the decision is made.
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When a consumer-goods company tracked their decision-making process and the contributions of each person involved, they realized that around 40% of the people included in most decisions weren’t relevant. As in, when H.R. decisions are being made, the R&D team doesn’t need to be in the room. Trim your own meeting invite list accordingly.
3. Confirm that the Decision Maker/s will be in attendance. Many large organizations rely on a Chief of Staff to coordinate executive meetings and ensure that decision makers are attending. If this role doesn’t exist in your company, sharpen your own skills in this area. Are you and your team attending meetings in order to contribute a vital perspective? Or out of a need to feel informed or important?
Personally, I subscribe to the empowerment rule used by pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb. It’s called “Who’s the Decision Maker/s?” and it’s designed to stop a time-wasting meeting from being held if there’s no decider in attendance. When you receive an invite to a new meeting, inquire about which Decision Maker is attending. If there isn’t one, politely decline — and spend that hour doing something decisive instead.
4. Structure the meeting itself for better decision-making. Meetings where decisions are made shouldn’t look and act like information-sharing or status meetings. First, consider the element of pre-work that’s necessary for a decision to happen in the room: A meeting agenda and often, a pre-read document prepared by relevant experts.
Share those documents in advance so attendees have the opportunity to thoughtfully digest the information instead of speed-reading it — or worse yet, reading it after the meeting has started. Consider adding an etiquette note in the agenda to set a decisive tone: “Multi-tasking runs counter to the goal of this meeting, so if you aren’t able to do the pre-reading or will be less than 100% present, please kindly decline.”
During the meeting, allocate equal time to competing viewpoints — and be rigorous about monitoring crosstalk. Instead of allowing the loudest voices in the room to hijack the meeting with phrases like “This is what I think we should do,” remind everyone to make a note of any unanswered Qs and raise those in the Q&A portion of the meeting.
Throughout the Q&A phase, redirect people who go on tangents and gently interrupt anyone who’s merely repeating something another attendee said. While course-correction isn’t pleasant, many of us have picked up unproductive work habits and need retraining on how to act in decision meetings. In my experience, the discomfort of being called out for a redundant or tangential point not only prevents repeat performances by the offender but by everyone present.
Once you reach the decision point on the agenda, each decision maker should be asked if they can commit to this decision. Their answer shouldn’t be reactive or a gut instinct because the previous steps — identifying the decision makers, consulting experts beforehand, even the number of options being weighed — are designed to bring a balance of expertise and data into this moment. Ideally, leaders will lean into responsible decision-making and gain wisdom if it brings about an unexpected outcome.