Making Fast Business Decisions

October 2, 2019 Tim Gallagher

fast business decisions - lines converging

Most business decisions—particularly at senior levels—are made on timespans measured in days, weeks, and even months. However, there are many environments where the day-to-day cadence is much faster. Think newsrooms, airline operations centers, customer service centers, and hospitals. In these environments, it is not uncommon for highly consequential decisions, involving many people’s input, to be made in a matter of minutes.

Both big and small company executives know they need to move quickly. Many have adopted new tools and technologies to foster greater organizational agility. But for most companies, the difference between being making good decisions in minutes-hours-days versus days-weeks-months isn’t technology or data. It’s about some very basic management practices and mindsets. And accelerating that cadence is one of the toughest challenges a team can face.

“Everybody, start doing things faster!”

Most teams don’t have to match the pace of a newsroom or a hospital ER. Yet even a small change in well-established expectations and routines can be difficult to implement. If all you do is yell “everybody start doing things faster,” you’ll create chaos and confusion. If you install a new tool, most of your existing norms around communication, roles, and accountability are likely to come with it.

So how can you help your company make faster business decisions? What follows are a few suggestions about shifting your tempo. They take some practice and diligence, but after even a few weeks they can start to become normative.

1. Communicate that the pace is changing and why.

When organizations seek to change the pace of their business decisions, there’s usually a good reason for it. Make sure your teams understand that reason—because chances are, they’ll tell you they’re already operating at the fastest clip that’s possible or advisable. You’ll also need to give people a strong mental picture of what a faster decision-making environment would feel like. Bolster their confidence by citing specific examples of organizations that successfully operate at a fast cadence while doing complex, consequential work.

2. End vague communications.

Vague communications can be a huge drag on people’s performance. What’s more, vagueness often transcends whatever technologies your team uses to collaborate and communicate. When you pass along a “to do” to someone in your team, do you take the few extra minutes to clarify what outcome you’d like? To set a deadline? To be explicit about where this item fits in the priority stack? Consider the difference in clarity and outcomes between the following two emails:

Jane, can you take a look at the e-mail below and see what we can do about it?

versus

Jane, can you take a quick pause in the presentation you’re building this morning, meet with Susan to understand the implications of what they’re asking for, and send me your thoughts by 4 pm?
3. Have faster meetings.

Become a stickler about how meetings are run. This can feel daunting, but you won’t have to do it forever. In relatively short order, you’ll be able to lighten up as better behaviors take hold. Make 15- and 30-minute meetings the norm. Ensure that each meeting is related to a clear, specific decision. Call out a lack of preparation and recognize when individuals do an excellent job preparing for or running a meeting. Make sure the right people—and only the right people—are present. Action items should be summarized afterwards and assigned an owner and a deadline.

4. Recalibrate how deadlines are set.

Management decisions often require a series of steps—some data gathering, consultation with specific colleagues—that, in total, constitute a couple of hours of work. However, many teams default to a one- or two-week deadline for each assignment, regardless of the amount of work that’s involved. Initially, your team may be surprised if you start setting deadlines of a day or two, but as long as you’re realistic about it, you’ll be able to recalibrate the instinct to pad in large amounts of unnecessary time.

5. Define appropriate routing, roles, processes, and end-products for common management situations.

Rapid-tempo organizations tend to have well defined standard operating procedures. But if you don’t a thick binder of SOPs, that doesn’t mean you can’t raise the tempo. Often, when I’m called in to help an organization, they’re already under so much pressure to make faster business decisions that the last thing they can do is stop the presses to create a raft of new procedures. Fortunately, you can usually get the lion’s share of the benefit of well-defined SOPs with a handful of well-facilitated meetings to better clarify “the basics” in terms of how common types of management issues should be routed, the roles people should and shouldn’t play, how a decision will be made, and what constitutes a solution.

6. Ensure that you’re available to your team and vice-versa.

In rapid-tempo organizations, people make themselves easy-to-reach. An “open door” policy is great, but going even further by making informal check-ins for just 10 minutes each morning or afternoon can have a tremendous impact on your team. You can also dedicate one of your team’s next meetings to setting new standards for intra-team communication. Most organizations have few established norms for responsiveness to basic modes of communication like email, and even fewer for more advanced workplace collaboration tools. You can only raise your collective management tempo as high as you raise the reliability of your colleagues’ availability and responsiveness. Define specific expectations for how and how quickly you’ll respond to communications you receive across various channels—both during and outside the workday. Most collaboration tools offer a variety of ways to flag or categorize messages. Unfortunately, many teams don’t define consistent ways to use them. Even plain, vanilla email can be improved if you establish a few ground rules. For example, general emails will be read within 24 hours, emails with the recipient’s name in the subject line will be answered by end-of-day, and anything with “Urgent” will receive a response in 3 hours and can’t be copied to more than one person. Whatever ground rules you set, make them specific, then stick to them.

7. Make sure it’s easy to access information that’s foundational to the team’s work.

Rapid-tempo organizations are often big users of visual management systems. Putting information in easy-to-access places sounds obvious, but I’m amazed at how many organizations struggle to effectively share basic, up-to-date management information—like the current list of projects the team is working on, who is assigned to what projects, or deadlines that are coming up. Dedicate one of your upcoming team meetings to re-clarifying your team’s most critical common, need-to-know information, who maintains it, and where it’s located.

Raising the decision-making tempo of your organization doesn’t happen overnight, but you can usually achieve significant gains by addressing mindsets and committing to (or recommitting to) some basic practices.

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This post first appeared at Portola Advisors.

 

About the Author

Tim Gallagher

Tim Gallagher helps companies create strategies and build operational capabilities. A former Partner with McKinsey & Company, he has worked in a wide range of industries, including airlines, business services, electronics, consumer products, and manufacturing.

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