Nothing slows down progress like indecision. When a lone individual is responsible for making a decision, they may stall, worrying about the consequences of making the wrong decision. But when you ask a group to form a consensus and make a decision together, the formula is far more complicated and the process can take much longer.
But, organizations must make decisions all the time. And product management—as the hub where many parts of the company intersect—makes many big decisions. Given that a product manager has more to do than simply facilitate deliberations and prod people toward an outcome, many organizations turn to scalable decision making frameworks. When used effectively, these can help ensure decisions are made as quickly as possible without cutting corners or missing the input of stakeholders.
The benefits of a defined decision making process
“Ultimately, a company’s value is no more (and no less) than the sum of the decisions it makes and executes,” explain Michael Mankins and Paul Rogers of Bain & Company. “Its assets, capabilities, and structure are useless unless executives and managers throughout the organization make the essential decisions and get those decisions right more often than not.”
With so much riding on the choices companies make, and so many individuals tasked with making those decisions, a predefined method for reaching consensus can greatly improve an organization’s efficiency and interpersonal dynamics while also ensuring the ideal outcome.
Clearly defined roles
Decision making frameworks help teams maintain momentum. They help teams reach consensus faster by removing potential points of friction related to ambiguity around ownership. When properly defined and adopted, decision making frameworks ensure everyone knows exactly what their role is in the decision making process.
Defined processes for making decisions as a team ensure questions about roles and responsibilities are addressed during the process definition phase and the kick off of any particular project. This means there’s no mystery about who should be doing what.
Closing the gaps
Decisions made in a vacuum can suffer from a lack of context as they don’t take advantage of the strengths and perspectives of an organization’s individuals. Using a set process ensures knowledge gaps are closed by soliciting input from those with relevant information, understanding all potential consequences of a decision once it’s made, and getting everyone aligned regarding why a decision was made and what needs to happen next.
As teams and companies grow, silos form and different groups start doing things their own way. While that’s not always a problem, when it comes to big decisions it’s important that they are all made with a full consideration of their impact and leveraging all of the resources and institutional knowledge available.
A decision making framework can create some guidelines to guarantee everyone is properly informed and consulted while bestowing final decision making authority to the appropriate people.
Optimizing team resources
Decisions are important, but everyone has other things they need to do, too. With a scalable model for decision making, team members will spend less time deliberating and more time executing, without sacrificing strategic thinking.
By adopting a framework that includes clearly defined roles, personalities can take a backseat to the process and staff won’t spend time on tasks they don’t really need to worry about.
Scalable decision frameworks
Although this might be a little “Attack of the Acronyms”, there are a variety of ways an organization can simplify the decision making ordeal with a well-defined process. Here are some of the popular decision making frameworks for making decisions at scale:
DACI Decision Framework
DACI is a scalable, collaborative decision making framework. It was specifically devised to help groups quickly make a decision. DACI stands for Driver, Approver, Contributors, and Informed. This speedy process starts by deciding who should fill each of these roles for the decision at hand:
- Driver: This lone individual gets all of the information and gathers the stakeholders to make the ultimate decision.
- Approver: This person makes the final call.
- Contributors: They provide relevant information, but they don’t make the decision.
- Informed: They are made aware of what’s decided.
After spending about ten minutes defining the roles, it’s time to create an action plan, answering questions like when must the decision must be made, why you’re deciding something, and what the current situation is. For each option being considered, you’ll want to call out the pluses and minuses of each choice, as well as any potential risks or trade-offs that come with it.
Next the Contributors have their chance to provide any additional relevant information, at the prodding of the Driver. If necessary, some in-person debate between the Contributors can happen at this point. Then, with all the data and opinions at their disposal, the Approver makes the call and the Informed are told the verdict.
RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. In this matrix, each row is for a particular task, and there is a column for each person/role in the organization (i.e. project manager, engineering manager, developer, sales executive).
Within the matrix itself, each person for each task is assigned one of the four options:
- Responsible: They’re actually doing the work. In this context, they’re either doing the research to make the decision or actually making the decision themselves.
- Accountable: They own the work and are the only one who can say it’s “done.”
- Consulted: All of these people should be given a chance to provide their input before the decision is made.
- Informed: These folks are told what’s happening and what was decided, but they do not provide any input or have any responsibility.
The exercise of defining the matrix is almost as valuable as using it, since it clearly lays out who is responsible for what in the decision making process. It might bruise some egos, but it also plainly states whose opinion matters and whose does not.
Originally developed by Bain & Company, the RAPID framework is yet another decision making process intended to speed things up while being inclusive by clearly defining individual responsibilities before the process begins. The acronym itself doesn’t follow the order of operations that’s typically used:
- Recommender: They kick things off and are the facilitator tasked with ensuring the process concludes with a decision.
- Input: These people are consulted because their opinion or knowledge is valued, but they don’t make the actual call.
- Approve: These are essentially the same as Inputs, but they are also expected to agree with the final decision and possess veto power.
- Decide: This is the person (or group) who makes the final decision. Nothing moves forward without their OK.
- Perform: Once the decision is made, these are the folks who need to execute based on the outcome of the process.
LinkedIn’s Performance Team uses this one for important decisions that have urgency, require horizontal collaboration across the organization, and represent a significant ROI.
“Projects that require cross-team effort are expensive for the company and disruptive for the team,” says LinkedIn’s Haricharan Ramachandra. “So it is important to have clear selection criteria that ensures high ROI for the organization from such projects.”
SPADE Decision Framework
Developed at Square, the SPADE framework is also predicated on breaking down each step of the decision making process so it is clear to everyone what’s happening, who’s doing what, and why a decision was reached.
- Setting: Answering the What, When and Why of each decision—What are you trying to actually deciding on, When must that decision be made (and why by that date), and Why are you making this decision in the first place.
- People: Doling out accountability, responsibility, and identifying who should be consulted for each decision.
- Alternatives: What are the possible choices that can be made for the decision in question?
- Decide: Making the choice, usually with private voting so people aren’t worried about politics and personalities.
- Explain: Once the decision is made, the decider then has to tell everyone else what the decision was and why it was selected. This includes both in person in a group setting as well as summarized in a one-page memo.
“Go around the room and ask each one of them to support the decision one at a time,” says Square’s Gokul Rajaram. “Commitment meetings are really important, because when you pledge to support a decision in the presence of your peers, you’re much more likely to support it. As the decision maker, you’re responsible for executing on that decision, and so you need their support to help to move forward.”
Making a decision is a process, and process mapping is always useful for ensuring all relevant information and people are considered while creating a consistent, repeatable model. And, when it comes to decision making in particular, it can also serve as an extremely useful and insightful tool for auditing how decisions are currently being made.
Pick a few important, recent decisions. How did they come to be? Outline the steps taken and who filled which roles during that process. You can then ask:
- Was the same general process being followed?
- Were any groups or individuals left out that should have been included?
- Was there a clear owner of the process and a “decider” at the end of it?
- Were both the final decision and the rationale clearly communicated to relevant parties?
- At the end of the process was their full buy-in to the verdict across the organization?
If the answer to any of these was “no” then you know there’s some work to do to round out the process. If it was a perfect report card, then it’s just a matter of documenting what works and ensuring others understand how they can use it themselves when the next big decision needs to be made.
Gradients of Agreement
Sometimes the options for a particular decision aren’t binary. When there are many possible ways to go, one way to collect input and generate a consensus that most can live with is to ask for a ranking of the options that is more nuanced that a simple yes/no.
When using gradients of agreement, those casting a vote can signal their enthusiasm by selecting from multiple options along a scale of declining approval.
- Full Support: “Fantastic idea; this is THE choice”
- Support with Concerns: “Seems pretty good to me, but I am worried about X”
- Agree with Reservations: “I can live with it, but I’m not happy about X”
- Abstention: “I don’t really have a strong opinion”
- Stand Aside: “Don’t love it, but not enough to put up a fight”
- Grudging Acquiescence: “This is not the right decision, but I will go along with it”
- Disagreement: “I really don’t think we should do this, and I’m not interested in being involved if this is the choice we make”
- Opposal: “We should absolutely not do this”
With this more nuanced input, the person or group can tally up the responses and make the final decision, weighting each opinion appropriately. This process moves beyond an up/down vote and lets you sense what kind of ongoing support a choice will really have it it’s selected.
“If everybody whole-heartedly endorses the proposed decision, then you have unanimous agreement. That’s great but often not necessary,” says Roman Pichler. “I find that it is OK when some people agree with minor reservations. But if several individuals are neutral or can’t support it, then you should continue the discussion and look for a solution that everyone can agree with.”
Before you dive in
A word of caution about decision frameworks… they aren’t magic. Decision making frameworks don’t replace hard work, research, discussion, and debate. Instead, they provide a common setting for decisions to be made, and a process that should create speed and consistency while still covering all the bases.
Relying on a framework for every single decision is overkill; they should be reserved for important decisions that impact a large swath of the organization. Overreliance can destroy everyone’s sense of autonomy and create its own share of bottlenecks.
You should also start slow when you’re ready to get started, so the process doesn’t stall. Focus on decisions that have major strategic importance or cut across many parts of the organization.
“Your organization won’t miss the irony if the exercise to improve decision making suffers analysis paralysis,” says Jon Huggett and Caitrin Moran of The Bridgespan Group. “But if you can fix the critical decisions, then everyone will know that you can fix others too. If your team finds the process useful, they will incorporate it into how they work. It will become part of their toolkit for running their parts of the organization.”
Commonalities exist for a reason
Regardless of whether you adopt any of the methodologies outlined above, you’ll notice they all share some common characteristics:
- Transparency—No smoke-filled rooms here; everyone knows exactly how the decision was made and who made it.
- Common Understanding—By pulling information and expertise from across the organization, a baseline is created to inform the decision as well as those impacted by it.
- Defined Roles—While often the longest and most contentious part of every process, it is clear who gets a say and who doesn’t and removes the illusion that business decisions are reached in a democratic forum.
- Momentum—Although they facilitate a thorough approach to the decision, they are all geared toward getting to an answer as quickly as possible.
“Once you do a quick assessment of the importance of your choice and start using the decision-making framework over and over, something happens. You realize that making decisions doesn’t take days,” says Rajaram. “A fast decision means you can conserve energy for the important work that comes after making the choice.”