Decision drivers are a powerful tool for:
- aligning the business actions of a disparate group of people;
- building coherent arguments from messy foundations;
- making confident decisions in complex situations.
Our natural tendency as action-oriented, goal-focused business people is to make instant decisions in the pursuit of driving forward. But when a group of people attempts to leap into decision-making without clarifying what makes a good or a bad decision, mayhem is often the result.
Decision drivers are a way of streamlining the process while generating consensus around robust decisions and solutions. As the name suggests, they are the principles, criteria and values that lie behind and above every decision. Spending time on ensuring that these are solid (relevant to the problem at issue) and agreed (everyone will support them) can remove a massive amount of unproductive noise from the most difficult business situation – and enable a smooth transition to the best possible solution.
Decision drivers have other potentially significant benefits:
- Once a set of decision drivers are agreed, it is much easier for individuals to work on their part of the solution without close supervision. Having a set of decision drivers that underpin a strategy (or a desired culture) is a useful way of communicating how people are expected to work.
- Documentation of decision drivers and how they generated an agreed solution provides a strong audit trail both internally (eg for board approval of a decision) and externally (eg regulatory oversight).
Some examples of how decision drivers have been used successfully in the past:
- A board wanted to make the right strategic decision for a business but were constantly dragged into unproductive conflict about their differing personal viewpoints. A facilitated board exercise to establish the decision drivers of the situation won support and enabled the directors to engage with each other at that level while maintaining their own personal positions.
- A major professional body knew that its governance and management systems were no longer fit for purpose in the modern world. The organisation was seen to be incapable of reacting to issues where it would have been expected to take a strong view. The development of a set of decision drivers around good management practice (for example, the importance of delegation) enabled the creation of a new and far more efficient governance and management structure.
- A trade organisation was concerned about the potential negative impact of knee-jerk reactions from politicians to perceived weaknesses in its industry. It constructed a manifesto from the perspective of its members and their customers, using decision drivers, to make the realities of the situation comprehensible to non-experts. The result was a clear, concise and coherent document that was warmly received by Westminster and helped policymakers shape their decisions in a more constructive way.
- An insurance company was concerned about the possible impact of new regulation on its business strategy. The project group developed a set of decision drivers from the data available, and converted it into a simple matrix against which various potential solutions could be evaluated. The exercise generated consensus amongst the project group and a straightforward decision about the optimum way forward was made.
Constructing the drivers
In any situation the decision drivers already exist – but they are usually implicit, leaving considerable scope for misunderstanding and inconsistency. Constructing a set of drivers is about searching for those that already exist and making them explicit for discussion, modification and agreement.
The most efficient way is for a facilitator to sit in on work group conversations and actively listen for, and seek to clarify, the drivers. The conversations that people have about a subject automatically reflect the drivers that underpin their thinking – they just need to be listened to actively (and played back for confirmation).
The three main places that drivers will emerge from are:
1. The problem itself
A large proportion of decisions are required in order to solve problems, which are usually expressed in negative language, eg: “we want to stop x from happening”
A discussion about the nature of the problem, when structured properly, will generate some of the decision drivers fairly rapidly by asking some key questions:
- what precisely is x, and how do we know that it is happening now?
- what impact does this have on the organisation, and how is this important?
- how would we know that the problem has been resolved, and be sure it will not recur?
2. Organisational requirements
Business problems sit inside a universe of wider considerations that will determine what solutions are acceptable and what solutions are not
By listening to conversations about the strategy, personality and culture of the organisation it is possible to elicit the decision drivers that underpin them. The sorts of things that are actively listened for are:
- What is important in this organisation?
- What constitutes success and failure: what gets rewarded and what gets punished?
3. Personal preferences and values
Personal preferences and values are important because they will determine the level of support that a decision driver gets. Decision drivers that are consistent with personal values will not need to be enforced inside the organisation, and solutions that flow from them will generate maximum support and motivation from the group.
Examples of things to listen for are:
- “That’s a great idea!”
- “I’m not comfortable with that”
- “Are you sure that is right?”
Pulling the drivers together
Once the data has been collated, the information about decision drivers needs to be presented back to the group for discussion and confirmation. What is presented is a simple list of truths, requirements and desires about:
- the problem,
- the organisation, and
- the people
put into an understandable structure. The precise format will depend on the nature of the issue being considered.
Some real-life examples of decision drivers (from completely different pieces of work) are:
- Before work is undertaken or supported by the organisation it will have a clear statement of its intended purpose, and details of the expected costs, time and resources involved (whether staff, volunteers or others).
- Consumers must be able to obtain fair, expert advice from financial advisers in order to become well-informed about the decisions and actions they need to take to improve their long-term financial situation.
- Advisers must be paid fairly for the work they do.
- We want to avoid constraints being placed on the use of our capital by precedents being set by agreements between the regulators and other firms.
This should be a straightforward exercise because the group is being presented with a list of things that they largely agree with, in an explicit format that can be applied constructively. However, there is scope for fine tuning in order to eliminate misunderstandings and reach strong consensus.
Once the set of drivers is agreed, it is time to generate solutions. This can happen in three main ways:
- The set of decision drivers is so clear and explicit that the obvious solution leaps out.
- A solution can be designed from the drivers now that they are clear, and a straw man tested with the group for accuracy of fit.
- A number of different solutions might be available, and each one is then evaluated against the decision drivers using a simple scoring matrix.
Whichever solution is selected, it is worthwhile to run a sense check on it to ensure that the group feels it is a good fit with reality. Provided the process has been followed properly, any weaknesses can be tracked down to either:
- the fact that the solution is not consistent with the decision drivers, or
- the decision drivers are not accurate or complete, and need to be tweaked.
Either way, it is possible to take explicit action to rectify the issue.
- Decision drivers are a great tool for streamlining decision-making in groups of people, particularly where the issues are not blindingly obvious.
- As well as generating better decisions, they build a strong a sense of consensus and motivation within the group.
- Sufficient work on the drivers will often go most of the way towards generating the right solution. Even when this doesn’t happen, the path towards selection of the solution is much more straightforward.
- It’s important to do a sense test of the chosen solution. If something isn’t right, it is either a bad fit with the drivers or there is a weakness in the drivers themselves. The route to resolution is clear.