Solving the Decision Bottleneck In Two Essential (But Not So Easy) Steps

Solving the Decision Bottleneck In Two Essential (But Not So Easy) Steps

Imagine a single organization from the perspective of two different cultures: Culture Accountability and Culture Bottleneck.

In Culture A (Accountability), things get done quickly and efficiently. Executive teams are cohesive and managers know what is expected. As a result, managers run a tight ship and are quick to course-correct any activity, behavior or process that doesn’t align with the shared mission and vision. Managers are confident that their decisions will be supported by the executive team. Conversations, both vertical and horizontal, are focused on both process and people; results and relationships. Those who do not fit the culture leave on their own accord.

In Culture B (Bottleneck), bottlenecks create frustration. Decisions seem to be an afterthought and lack of trust precedes the need to micromanage. Managers fear making decisions because their decisions are often overridden. Executives complain that their managers never get the job done. On the front lines, turf wars and internal drama erupt spontaneously. Uncertainty, unexpected change and chaos color the culture. Conversations are avoided and poor performance is justified until something major happens and firing is the only option.

“At most organizations, the bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.”– Peter Drucker

All other things considered, there are two components that distinguish Culture A from Culture B: Clarity and Communication.

1. Clarity: How and who makes decisions

In every single instance of time-wasting drama, no matter how it manifests, at the root is a lack of clarity in some form.

On the front lines, when employees are unclear about what success looks like, they lose confidence and waste productive hours getting reassurance and clarification — procrastinating when uncertain. At the highest level, lack of clarity about the real problem or the desired end result wastes time and resources hiring vendors and consultants offering “one and done” workshops or other ineffective solutions.

Even when there is clarity about the real problem, the end result and the process, a big road-block I often see is the lack of clarity about who is in charge and how decisions are made.

For context, let me share a quick example. Years ago I was on a project for a mid-sized corporation. My inside contact, a high-level director, had absolutely no power to push the project forward. Because of this fact, any work I did had to be approved by the top executive who would continuously change calendar dates and, in doing so, would “delegate” the date changing to the director, who had to navigate calendars and multiple dates. I estimate we wasted at least 40 productive hours chasing down the real decision maker to make a change instead of setting up one phone call.

Increasing clarity inevitably increases your productivity and speed. Here are some suggestions for increasing speed by increasing decision-making clarity.

What to start doing

  1. After identifying the real problem and the desired outcome, take the necessary time to agree on how decisions will be made among top executives. Whether you are a co-owner or a team of C-suite executives, your organization’s success and your peace of mind is dependent upon your maturity to clarify your decision-making processes.
  2. Have a plan in place to maximize efficiency and decision making for those times when change happens.
  3. Give real decision-making authority to those to whom you delegate power.

What to stop doing

  1. Stop going rogue on your senior partners. Before you make a major decision, get alignment from your executive team.
  2. Stop delegating when delegation creates a bottleneck. Instead, hire an assistant to do the grunt work and let your director-level people get their own work done.
  3. Stop complaining about your employees and team members. If you find yourself complaining, set a time on the calendar to confront the issue with the person (or people) who needs to hear the conversation.

2. Communicate: Initiate clear conversations

The number-one problem I see that slows progress and efficiency is the inability or unwillingness of leaders to initiate what I call executive conversations. Executive conversations (as I define them) are both results- and relationship-oriented.

Many drama-laden cultures adopt an either-or mentality: a mindset that it’s all about results — anything for a profit, or it’s all about relationships — avoiding conflict at all costs. Both mindsets create accountability-related issues.

In his bestselling book, Advantage, Patrick Lencioni says:

“Many leaders struggle with accountability but don’t know it. Some will tell me that since they aren’t afraid to fire people, they must not have an accountability problem. Of course, this is misguided. Firing someone is not necessarily a sign of accountability, but is often the last act of cowardice for a leader who doesn’t know how or isn’t willing to hold people accountable. At its core, accountability is about having the courage to confront someone about their deficiencies and then to stand in the moment and deal with their reaction which may not be pleasant.“

When there is a lack of accountability there is a lack of alignment, and when there’s a lack of alignment there’s a need for executive conversations.

What to start doing

  1. Increase your awareness of what is happening that should not be happening, and articulate it.
  2. Ask for the behavior or action you want directly and succinctly without blame.
  3. Keep the overall good of the organization in mind when you address the issue.
  4. State how the problem you perceive affects the revenues, productivity, team, client satisfaction or any other business case.

What to stop doing

  1. Stop holding grudges and realize that a grudge is a sure sign of a conversation that needs to happen.
  2. Get coaching support to learn how to initiate conversations that get results instead of resentment.
  3. Stop firing people before you’ve had the courage to have a couple of conversations. If you communicate effectively, they will either improve with some coaching, or they will eliminate themselves when they see they can’t cut the mustard. The good news is they will probably leave on friendly terms.


There are many factors that shape culture; however, it’s up to the senior leaders to eliminate the time-wasting bottlenecks that contribute to high-drama cultures. Get clear on the real problem and the desired end result. Clarify who is in charge and how decisions are made. Initiate executive conversations that are both relationship- and results-oriented to transform the Bottleneck Culture into a Culture of Accountability.




The Benefits of a High Trust Environment

The Benefits of a High Trust Environment

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The advantages of working in a high trust environment are evident to everyone from the CEO to the shop floor, from suppliers to customers, and even the competition. Building and maintaining trust within any organization pays off with many benefits.

Here are 12 benefits of working in a high trust culture:

1. Problems are easier to solve – because the energy is on the real problem, and people are not afraid to suggest creative solutions.
2. Focus is on the mission – rather than interpersonal protection.
3. Efficient Communication – less need to “spin” information.
4. Less unrest – little need for damage control.
5. Passion for the work – that is obvious to customers.
6. A real environment – no need to play head games.
7. People respect each other – less bickering and wasting time.
8. Fewer distractions – things get done right the first time.
9. Leaders allowed to be human – can make a mistake and not get derailed.
10. Developing people – emphasis on being the best possible.
11. Reinforcement works better – because it is not perceived as manipulative.
12. People enjoy work – the atmosphere is light and sometimes even fun.

With advantages like these, it is not hard to figure out why high trust groups out perform low trust organizations dramatically. There have been many studies that indicate the leverage you get with a high trust group over a low trust one is at least three times. That is why it is common for groups to more than double productivity in less that a year if the leaders know how to build trust.

There are dozens of leadership behaviors that will develop higher trust. An example would be to do what you say (“walk your talk”). I believe the most powerful leadership behavior that will develop higher trust is to create a safe environment. My quote for this phenomenon is “The absence of fear is the incubator of trust.”

Creating a culture of low fear is not rocket science at all. Leaders simply need to make people understand that they will not be put down for sharing their opinions as long as it is done in an appropriate way and time. I call this action “reinforcing candor,” because the person needs to feel welcome to share a contrary view without fear. Leaders who can accomplish this kind of culture will have the advantages listed above.
Work to consistently build, maintain, and repair trust in your organization. I believe the leverage in doing so is the most significant path to greatness in any organization.



Transparency – All Cards Face-Up

Transparency – All Cards Face-Up

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Creating and leading high-performing teams in any setting requires a high-trust environment.  A critical component in creating and keeping that trust is complete transparency across the team.  Having seen the empowering effect of this simple notion, I regularly reminded my direct-reports that the expectation was, “All cards are face-up on the table for the full team, in every decision and on every topic.”

I first learned the value of this kind of full transparency during my years working in the Mission Control Room while operating Space Shuttles and the International Space Station.  Everyone on the team reviewed every report, procedure, and mission-related communication of any kind between Mission Control and the astronauts.

That thorough transparency was never about micro-management.  It was in recognition that:

  • Every area of responsibility on the team affects the overall risk to the mission (e.g. if any single critical system fails, the entire spacecraft, and all the astronauts, are in jeopardy).
  • Any part of the team can and will make a mistake.
  • If not caught and corrected, combinations of seemingly small mistakes, or even some single mistakes, could lead to a failed mission or worse.
  • Conversely, there is so much talent in every part of the team, that as a team we can catch each other’s mistakes, offer suggestions from different perspectives, and come up with better overall solutions to problems.

Everyone on the team knew that it was team success that mattered, not simply individual performance.  “Showing our work” to our peers was not a threat to our individual authority.  It was an easy method to get more eyes on every problem and engage broader and deeper expertise to ensure nothing slipped past us.  Rather than slowing down decision-making, for decades these teams have routinely discussed and resolved exceptionally complex issues and have been able to take critical actions in minutes to protect a spacecraft hurtling through space.

The same risks often apply in management, where mistakes in one part of a company can have ripple effects that cause problems for other areas.  If poorly managed or left unsolved, those problems can cost the company money, erode product quality, bankrupt the company, and in some industries, injure employees and worse.

Just as we discovered in Mission Control, transparency is the simplest way to engage all members of the management team, and with them, the expertise and perspective of the organizations they led for the enterprise.  And just like in Mission Control, that greater engagement brings with it better informed, highly-reliable decision-making.

As an executive managing a $650 million/year enterprise, my direct-reports would often quote me before telling me and their peers some “ugly truth” or something they didn’t think I’d want to hear, “Just remember, you always say, all cards on the table…”

Every time they used that quote, it made me smile and think, “Now we’re talking!  Now we’re getting to it.”  More times than not, what followed was news about a project that was over budget or behind schedule, an unresolved engineering hurdle with an upcoming mission, or some mistake we had made in an earlier decision that was now putting us at risk.  Most importantly, it gave the full senior management team and the team’s they led an opportunity to help us find the best solution.  In the end, this is never about highlighting some part of the team’s mistakes, it is to ensure the team catches any weakness in our on-going performance.

Of course, transparency does not just protect the boss from the team’s mistakes.  It also allows the team to catch and correct the boss’s mistakes, as well as to offer innovations the boss may not see, which I was reminded of as the boss many times.

For example, during a tour in a development lab, I was shown a demonstration version for a new space station simulator based in a desktop personal computer.  Seeing a cost saving potential, I suggested several copies be made immediately available for testing by a number of our divisions.  Eyes widened around the room, including by several senior managers, but the team saluted and went to work.

After months of mixed reviews, the division responsible for managing and developing our training systems reported, “Look, Paul, this isn’t going to work.  We never thought it would, but you told our people to do it, so we did.  We can keep throwing money and manpower at it, but the answer won’t change for a long time.  However, we can accomplish what you’re after through some other work we’ve been doing, and we’re ready to show that to you and the management team any time.”

What followed became a project that moved our space station training software from $2 million sets of equipment that filled a room, to a single rack of servers costing $50,000 and contributed to total fixed cost reductions of more than 50 percent.

Lesson learned:  Share those great ideas with the full management team before giving direction.  Rely on the same transparency to spark discussions that can lead to better ideas and innovations that deliver.

This kind of transparency can become a habit and part of your culture.  It isn’t just for the bad news, but also for routine requests for better ideas, assurance that we’re not missing something, sharing resources to the areas that can make the next big gain… it makes us stronger and more successful as an enterprise.

Yes, the truth will set you free, and transparency is the way to find it and set the entire team free.