December 14, 2009: Morning Manager
by Harvey Schachter
U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized for dithering, taking too long to formulate his Afghanistan policy. But leadership expert Michael Watkins, writing on Harvard Business School's blogs, views it as a 'deeply deliberative' decision-making process that offers lessons for managers everywhere:
Gather the right minds
You can't hope to get the right decision if you don't start with the right inputs - and that includes the people involved in deliberating. Gathering the right minds around the table is key. Those minds must have the requisite range of expertise, opinion and "cognitive orientation" - you want creative and practical minds, analytical and values-driven minds and structured and flexible minds.
Decide how you will decide
To avoid degenerating into positional bickering, you need to outline a structure for deciding, with a set of distinct phases that should include defining the problem, establishing criteria for evaluating potential outcomes, generating and testing alternatives, and reaching closure. "The virtue of the phased approach is that it moves people through digestible experiences of education and adjustment, blunting the reflexive resort to position-taking, and avoiding premature convergence on an 'obvious' solution," Mr. Watkins writes.
Define desired outcomes
It's easy for the scope of the decision-making to either expand dangerously or get watered down. The best antidote is to define early and commit to a statement of desired outcomes. For U.S. President Barack Obama's team, that would have involved considering, up front, difficult questions, such as whether the goal in Afghanistan is to defeat the Taliban, and if so, over what time frame. Is it building civil society with the Afghan people? Is it buttressing stability in Pakistan? Is it getting U.S. troops home as quickly as possible? "The resulting mission statement, along with supporting criteria for rigorously evaluating potential outcomes, provides an essential anchor for the hard work of option generation and deliberation."
Watch your assumptions
The most dangerous things in the world are outdated assumptions, he warns, because they become the basis for flawed thinking. For example, we might infer that if "A" is true, "B" and "C" follow. But what if "A" is not true - perhaps it was once true, but no longer holds? He cites as an example: Is Al Qaeda still the primary threat to U.S. interests in the region? It's vital to bring the any fundamental assumptions to the surface and then test the soundness of those assumptions through careful and honest analysis. The idea is to build a shared foundation of facts and hypotheses on which the decision can be built.
Seek minority views
To get good decisions, you need disagreements, which will help you steer clear of "groupthink." Michael Roberto, in Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes For An Answer, suggests giving those with minority viewpoints a good hearing, appointing a devil's advocate, or setting up two opposing teams to debate the matter. U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden's strong opposition to a large troop increase probably helped the decision-making team in this vein.
Know when, how to end it
Be deliberate, but know when it's time to call the question. "Decision-makers like Obama have to set deadlines and other action-forcing events to bring the process to a conclusion. They must demand that everyone around the table support the outcome, even if there is not full consensus that it is the right way to go," he concludes.
Make a list, check it twice
On your last day at work before the coming holidays, leave a note detailing where you left off unfinished tasks; what tasks were postponed for your return; what needs immediate attention when you return; and anything else you worry you'll forget during your time off. Include a reminder to turn off your out-of-office e-mail reply and update your voice mail on your return. Ali Hale on Dumb Little Man
Tip from a coal miner's daughter
Marketing advice from country singer Loretta Lynn: "You either have to be first, best, or different." The Planning Shop Report
If you receive a few e-mail questions or requests that are repetitive, you can automate your response by writing your reply as a new e-mail signature on your e-mail program and having it available at the click of a mouse. This concept also works in BlackBerrys, under the AutoText feature. The Womack Company newsletter
Customers need more time
If you use daily deals as part of your e-mail marketing strategy, you may be missing out by leaving your customers insufficient time to see the e-mail and respond. A recent study by Pivotal Veracity found that e-mail recipients in August took on average 25.9 hours to open marketing messages. Retail E-mail
Have you ever thought of hiring an artist to take minutes at your meetings? Bigger Picture is a Danish company that tries to make meetings, workshops and conferences more effective by capturing what happens at them visually rather than with words. If it seems like a stretch, perhaps a combination of visual and word minutes might work. Springwise Newsletter
Most laptop owners have been frustrated by their cursor acting unpredictably when their wrist accidentally grazes the touchpad. TouchFreeze, a free software utility, prevents that by disabling your touchpad as soon as you start typing and then re-enabling it when you stop.
Learning from scrooge
This is the season for readings of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, and management writer Phil Whitely says you should be paying attention early in the story to how Ebenezer Scrooge manages - or, more accurately, mismanages - his employee, Bob Cratchit.
We are told, for example, that Scrooge is mean and rich - the assumption being that those attributes are linked. By treating his employee poorly - Cratchit labours in what Dickens describes as a "dismal little cell" with "a very small fire," and has to warm his hands by the light of a candle - Scrooge saves money.
Writing in management-Issues.com, Mr. Whitely notes that Dickens doesn't pause to comment on whether, if the productivity of the clerk mattered to the business, the capacity of his fingers to function would be of commercial benefit to a profit-hungry boss. But many modern employers are equally oblivious, notes Mr. Whitely, who worked at an office where the IT server had air conditioning but the workers did not.
He adds that the most cursory risk assessment by Scrooge would have indicated that Cratchit was highly likely to seek employment elsewhere, and there would be no guarantee of finding a replacement of similar calibre.
"In Scrooge's rigidity and myopia, one can identify the genesis of the MBA: The pretence that employee welfare matters only to the employee and is a net cost to the business; the emphasis upon accountancy, rather than understanding the business; the ignorance of the links between employee engagement and business performance; the neglect of the risk of loss of talent through indifferent management and poor leadership," Mr. Whitely says.
It's a classic story in more ways than we may have realized.
Self-management: The pause that protects
A few weeks ago, Thomas Nelson chief executive officer Michael Hyatt let his anger get away, and took a cheap shot at another organization in his Twitter feed to 45,000 followers. It was a reminder to him that between a stimulus - something that irritates us - and our response, we have to ensure there is space for reflection. Think of it as a big pause button that you hit, before responding.
Give yourself time to cool down, and act more maturely than might be your first instinct. "It is amazing how different things look when you get a little perspective," he wrote on michaelhyatt.com. "Eight to 24 hours later, things almost always look different."