Posted on
February 24, 2023

Communication starts well before a decision is made

Over the past two weeks, we’ve covered decision making speed and quality - this week, we’ll take a look at something that feels intuitive, but often overlooked - communicating decision making

What does a well-communicated decision look like? What does it even mean to ‘communicate’ decisions?

These feel like they should be easy questions to answer. We’re constantly communicating decisions in some way - otherwise nothing would get done. We currently think about this in two groups; the activities and processes before a decision is made (that is often overlooked), and those after a decision is made.

  • Pre-decision: Communicating ‘how we decide’ to build buy-in. This is all the work to build ‘shared cognition’ across the team in alignment to strategy and goals.
  • Post-decision: Communicating to inform or incite action/change. This is what we might typically think of as decision communication, alerting others that a decision has been made and dealing with the fallout.

Being explicit and systematic about how we decide builds the scaffolding that frames strategy - ultimately cultivating buy-in, alignment, and agency to keep moving forward.

“Strategy is a decision making model that we share within the team - and within that team, we're trying to get people making similar tradeoff decisions all the way from very high level decisions to very low level ones. It’s about making hard decisions easier for everyone else” - Chris Butler, Lead Product Manager at Google, Strategy is now

In the name of brevity, we won’t cover post-decision communication in this post, but not due to laziness. We believe the pre-decision activities have a tremendous impact on improving what we’d typically experience post-decision.

Ideally, the work that we do pre-decision shows the context around how we decide, who was involved, what information was available, and which points of view were represented.

“Misunderstanding often arises when people don’t know how the decision is made—most commonly because information is missing … It’s the decision maker’s job to create context and set it for others when they communicate.” - Barry O’Reilly, Better Ways to Communicate Tough Decisions

Communicating ‘how we decide’ to build buy-in

We see the phrase ‘disagree and commit’ (made popular by Amazon’s leadership principles) too often used as a scapegoat for not putting in the effort to productively disagree. This is not the intent of the principle, but unfortunately it can be interpreted as an excuse to ignore dissenting opinions.

Decision making does not correlate to popularity. A good decision is often not a popular decision, but a decision without commitment, especially from those who dissent, may not be a good decision.

Making unpopular decisions without buy-in isn’t just unpleasant, it’s bad. It breaks culture.

Coming back to the phrase ‘productively disagree’, an effective decision architecture makes the way we decide explicit - and can therefore be scrutinized out in the open. This means that building that commitment with dissenters is a pre-decision activity.

We can disagree when we don’t get what we want, but still respect the rigor of the system.

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This is additive to some of the communication/alignment models already in use at high-performing organizations today - Google’s OKRs, Amazon’s 6-pager, Salesforce’s V2MOM, etc…

These models, in essence, create guardrails for decision making.

Every team, company, and individual is already operating with some kind of decision making model, it’s just implicit. Unfortunately, this implicit model can lead to the scrutinizing of individuals that dissenters believe ‘didn’t listen’ or ‘don’t understand’, and perpetuates the fear of making consequential decisions.

Creating a decision log to share, learn, and iterate

Making this process explicit is an important, impactful step towards building the capability to learn from decisions. We can only learn from what we can observe.

Yet, we don’t see many teams documenting decisions. Research suggests many of these benefits rely on structured decision documentation (or decision logs) to revisit, evaluate, and update our models based on the outcomes we observe.

We think this will change as more teams operate in fully async or hybrid workflows - and as more techniques are available to pull decisions from unstructured data.

“Whenever you’re making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally…
The key to doing this is that it prevents something called hindsight bias, which is no matter what happens in the world, we tend to look back on our decision-making process, and we tilt it in a way that looks more favorable to us… So we have a bias to explain what has happened.” - Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate