This week globally we have had a new challenge with the Coronavirus and a lot of decisions have been made, are being made, and will be made regarding for example whether to organise conferences or other gatherings with overseas attendance.
Most of us are erring on the side of precaution, while also thinking ahead both the ramifications of the potential spread of the virus and also how to prepare and when to call a meeting off depending on how the global and regional situations evolve.
A colleague of mine summed up this uncertainty nicely that making a decision now on a meeting that is months away is currently an uninformed decision as we don’t know whether the situation will improve or worsen by then.
This has led me to think about decision points (when to make a decision) and my thoughts are definitely intertwined in this while I am finishing the wonderful book by David Marquet “Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t”.
Jointly constructed decision points are worth gold
A decision point is a point in space and time when a decision needs to be made whether to continue a task or action and that closes off options.
In the book, David Marquet describes the case of El Faro, a cargo ship manned by the US marines that was on its way from Florida to Puerto Rico when it eventually ended in the path of Hurricane Joaquin.
Based on a sequence of bad decisions, El Faro eventually faced the storm and sank with all crew on board, leaving no survivors.
It is with this story that David opens the book (the ship’s blackbox was saved and the recordings have been transcribed) and shows how a series of decision points created a sequence that ended up in a very bad outcome.
The final chapter reimagines a different kind of a journey for El Faro where the decision-making process was very different, where decision points were jointly agreed upon and negotiated and where the decisions maintained rather than closed opportunities for agile change if the conditions worsened.
It is the job of the leader to make sure that both bluework (creative thinking) and redwork (manual tasks) get done and that the sequence is that of blue-red-blue where the iterative feedbacks are built in through controlling the clock (taking the initiative to take a pause/signal a change under time pressure), collaboration (genuinely listening to all concerns) , and connecting (showing deep care for the crew).
All of these apply to what we can learn about the importance of developing and constructing shared decision points that use diversity of knowledge and experiences, leave doors open to future change, and are transparent in that everyone is included in the process even if the leader might make the final call.
This is what David imagines could have happened if the team onboard El Faro had had a different take on communication (ask for diversity of opinions), if the power gradients had been lowered for essential information to be brought out on time, and if the decision making process had been transparent.
Practical tips how to ensure you are capturing diversity include: a) voting first before seeking explanations for different opinions (this way people can put up their hand e.g. from 1-5, how confident are you this is the right decision?), b) using cards (people can put up a yellow card if the leader is not really listening what she/he is being told), and c) paying attention to outliers (who might vote one extreme).
Identifying decision points and enhancing the process
So how do you identify your decision points and make sure that the process you follow does not just close off options too early or either leave major decisions too late?
David cites several examples in the book where firms have done exactly that: they have changed their assumptions about what they should be delivering before embarking on a project and in some cases pushed major decision points further into the future until they have the information they actually need to make those decisions.
For example, a company building airline jet engines had an initial plan to build engines for five different markets but they took control of the clock (stop the planning process), went directly to their customers and based on the feedback they built only one engine that was exactly what their customers wanted.
The decision point (how to access and win in five markets) became how to win in the market that most mattered to them.
Buying time with actually listening to their customers, soliciting feedback, sharing the knowledge, and then making a decision to invest in that one engine, enabled them to add multiple decision points into their decision journey.
A common practice amongst many technology companies in trying to decide whether to invest in a new product or not is to not even make the product: they create a website, describe the product in detail, its price and functionality, and then see which customers attempt to buy the product and why.
This again pushes the major decision point further when the company is informed to a better extent what exactly the product should and could look like and whether there is a market for it overall.
In these examples, the conditions are ideal: the information flows across to everyone who need to know within the company, people are committed and perform as a team, and there is psychological safety so that when things go wrong or particular information is not noted, people are not afraid to speak out and bring out innovative ideas or viewpoints not previously considered.
But the key is to construct joint decision points that are the result of open communication of both risks and opportunities and where people know that the road is being jointly mapped.
Decision points for climate adaptation
And of course this has led me to think about my own field, climate adaptation, and what the lessons and insights from this book could also teach us.
Adaptation is about being agile, responding to change, mapping opportunities now and in the future, paying attention to changing trends, and identifying decision points that could change over time.
When I read the last chapter of David’s reimagined trip of El Faro (where the crew ended up safely in Puerto Rico as they adjusted their course away from the hurricane) I wondered what this would look like in the climate negotiations or the global adaptation community.
Are we really listening to each other, controlling the clock, genuinely trying to embrace the diversity of knowledge and experiences so we can make more inclusive and better informed decisions?
Are we creating psychological safety where people can speak up if things go wrong with projects or programs on the ground so that we can capture the real lessons that come from implementing adaptation?
The decision points in our field are a sequence of many; there is no one decision point for climate adaptation because well the climate changes and will keep changing, and we have to continuously be like David’s reimagined crew on El Faro who construct shared decision points.
We already know that the global adaptation journey that we are all part of is not the same as commanding one ship but there are profound lessons that we can learn from these stories and situations that do apply also at the global level.
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