Decentralized Decision-making

Decentralizing decision-making helps make better and faster decisions while inspiring people to feel needed by the organization and to be empowered. It is a central aspect of democratic leadership and a core way to build a quality culture.

Decentralized decision-making requires psychological safety and a recognition that it just doesn’t happen. Like any behavior, it needs time needs to be spent to develop and nurture.

As a value, decentralized decision-making might look like this:

  1. Value: Decentralized Decision-Making
  2. Definition: Decisions are made by the people who do the work. Everyone is trained to make data-driven decisions by paying attention to the problem, task or numbers, not the person.
  3. Desired Behaviors:

To make this work, it is critical to teach decision-making. A popular method is RAPID, an acronym of 5 words that refer to the group of people involved in the steps of decision-making -Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input, Decision. This was a framework developed by Bain & Company as a systemized framework to design an action plan regarding a problem

With the base of how a decision is made, the next step is to decide what sort of decisions exist in the organization, and how they get made. I recommend two axis:

  1. The Scale of the Decision: What is the risk level of the decision
  2. The Level of Process Controls: How well defined is the process around the area of the decision

Accountability does not go away to be Psychologically Safe

A common and distorted application of psychological safety is that it is somehow a shield from accountability. Non-performing employees tend to invoke it as an excuse for poor performance, insisting that a focus on psychological safety means valuing people and building relationships. That’s true, but stretching the premise, they claim that we should give them a pass when they don’t perform.

The flawed logic seems to be along the lines of because we may have used fear and intimidation, command and control, and manipulative and coercive tactics with people in the past, in an attempt to hold folks accountable, we must shed the artifacts that drive accountability in order to have an environment of psychological safety.

In my experience, this is especially prevalent when discussing metrics around overdue quality systems records and training. How to discuss what is late, can you even publish a list of folks with overdue training?

I want to be very clear, psychological safety is not a kind of diplomatic immunity from having to deliver results. It is not a shield from accountability.

Being held accountable can be looked at as transparency in progress. Psychological safety allows us to be vulnerable and to trust that the organization will take the problems seriously and address them.

Failing the Culture We Build is a Moral Injury

We as organization leaders are striving to build a high performing organization that might look like this:

High-Performance Cultures
Leaders are skilled, admired, and build organizations that excel at results and at taking excellent care of their people and their customers
Clear and compelling vision, mission, goals, and strategy
Core values drive the culture and are used in decision making
Committed to excellence, ethics, and doing things right
Clear roles, responsibilities, and success criteria, and strong commitment to engaging, empowering, and developing people
Positive, can-do work environment
Open, candid, straightforward, and transparent communication
Teamwork, collaboration, and involvement are the norm
Emphasis on constant improvement and state-of-the-art knowledge and practices
Willingness to change, adapt, learn from successes and mistakes, take reasonable risk, and try new things
Attributes of a High Performing Culture

There is a dark underbelly to aspiring to this, leaders who either fail to meet these standards or demonstrate hypocrisy and “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” attitudes. Organizations that aspire, can easily be hoisted by their own petard, and there is an excellent term for this “Moral Injury.”

Moral injury is understood to be the strong cognitive and emotional response that can occur following events that violate a person’s moral or ethical code. Potentially morally injurious events include a person’s own or other people’s acts of omission or commission, or betrayal by a trusted person in a high-stakes situation. For example, look at healthcare staff working during the COVID-19 pandemic who experienced a moral injury because they perceive that they received inadequate protective equipment, or when their workload is such that they deliver care of a standard that falls well below what they would usually consider to be good enough. This is causing a mass exodus of employees.

Give some thought to how to resolve moral injuries when they happen. Include them in your change plan and make them sustainable. They can happen, and when they do they will cripple your organization.

Balancing Expertise

Quality professionals are often defined by our technical knowledge, and with that can come a genuine and intense love and interest in the work. In the pharmaceutical/med-device work, I work in this is defined by both a knowledge of the science and of the regulations (and that stuff inbetween – regulatory science).

The challenge here is that we start defining ourselves by our role as we progress as representing the highest level of expertise in this technical expertise, which means senior Quality (as in the department) jobs are defined in terms of in service to our function – patient safety and product quality (safety, efficacy, and quality). This can then lead to seeing people as the “means” to that end. This inevitably leads to prioritizing that outcome over people.

Do not get me wrong, results matter, and I am a firm proponent of product quality and patient safety. But this approach is reductionist and does not serve to drive fear out of the organization. How can people be safe if they are considered a means to produce value? We need to shift so that we realize we can only get to quality by focusing on our people.

Quality, Decision Making and Putting the Human First

Quality stands in a position, sometimes uniquely in an organization, of engaging with stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions the organization needs to assume, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.

The effectiveness of the team in making good decisions by picking the right choices depends on their ability of analyzing a problem and generating alternatives. As I discussed in my post “Design Lifecycle within PDCA – Planning” experimentation plays a critical part of the decision making process. When designing the solution we always consider:

  • Always include a “do nothing” option: Not every decision or problem demands an action. Sometimes, the best way is to do nothing.
  • How do you know what you think you know? This should be a question everyone is comfortable asking. It allows people to check assumptions and to question claims that, while convenient, are not based on any kind of data, firsthand knowledge, or research.
  • Ask tough questions Be direct and honest. Push hard to get to the core of what the options look like.
  • Have a dissenting option. It is critical to include unpopular but reasonable options. Make sure to include opinions or choices you personally don’t like, but for which good arguments can be made. This keeps you honest and gives anyone who see the pros/cons list a chance to convince you into making a better decision than the one you might have arrived at on your own.
  • Consider hybrid choices. Sometimes it’s possible to take an attribute of one choice and add it to another. Like exploratory design, there are always interesting combinations in decision making. This can explode the number of choices, which can slow things down and create more complexity than you need. Watch for the zone of indifference (options that are not perceived as making any difference or adding any value) and don’t waste time in it.
  • Include all relevant perspectives. Consider if this decision impacts more than just the area the problem is identified in. How does it impact other processes? Systems?

A struggle every organization has is how to think through problems in a truly innovative way.  Installing new processes into an old bureaucracy will only replace one form of control with another. We need to rethink the very matter of control and what it looks like within an organization. It is not about change management, on it sown change management will just shift the patterns of the past. To truly transform we need a new way of thinking. 

One of my favorite books on just how to do this is Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. In this book, the authors advocate that business must become more fundamentally human first.  The idea of human ability and how to cultivate and unleash it is an underlying premise of this book.

Visualized by Rose Fastus

it’s possible to capture the benefits of bureaucracy—control, consistency, and coordination—while avoiding the penalties—inflexibility, mediocrity, and apathy.

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, Humanocracy, p. 15

The above quote really encapsulates the heart of this book, and why I think it is such a pivotal read for my peers. This books takes the core question of a bureaurcacy is “How do we get human beings to better serve the organization?”. The issue at the heart of humanocracy becomes: “What sort of organization elicits and merits the best that human beings can give?” Seems a simple swap, but the implications are profound.

Bureaucracy versus Humanocracy. Source: Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, Humanocracy, p. 48

I would hope you, like me, see the promise of many of the central tenets of Quality Management, not least Deming’s 8th point. The very real tendency of quality to devolve to pointless bureaucracy is something we should always be looking to combat.

Humanocracy’s central point is that by truly putting the employee first in our organizations we drive a human-centered organization that powers and thrives on innovation. Humanocracy is particularly relevant as organizations seek to be more resilient, agile, adaptive, innovative, customer centric etc. Leaders pursuing such goals seek to install systems like agile, devops, flexible teams etc.  They will fail, because people are not processes.  Resiliency, agility, efficiency, are not new programming codes for people.  These goals require more than new rules or a corporate initiative.  Agility, resilience, etc. are behaviors, attitudes, ways of thinking that can only work when you change the deep ‘systems and assumptions’ within an organization.  This book discusses those deeper changes.

Humanocracy lays out seven tips for success in experimentation. I find they align nicely with Kotter’s 8 change accelerators.

Humanocracy’s TipKotter’s Accelerator
Keep it SimpleGenerate (and celebrate) short-term wins
Use VolunteersEnlist a volunteer army
Make it FunSustain Acceleration
Start in your own backyardForm a change vision and strategic initiatives
Run the new parallel with the oldEnable action by removing barriers
Refine and RetestSustain acceleration
Stay loyal to the problemCreate a Sense of Urgency around a
Big Opportunity
Comparison to Kotter’s Eight Accelerators for Change