For all the lovely chatter about people being an organization’s greatest assets, the trajectory of large organizations is determined by the quality of their alignment. Anything else requires a level of unsustainable heroics from those greatest assets. Small organizations only survive the inflection points on their way to being large organizations if they figure out how to maintain the alignment that comes more easily in small numbers.
And so process and discipline are born into our cooperative efforts. All too often, these two grow into ungainly beasts that are as likely to eat an organization as sustain it. That path is too easy to walk down and probably why the vast majority of small organizations don’t survive their first five years.
As we grow, it becomes clear that ad-hoc cooperation isn’t going to get us where we want to go and the policy and procedures manual gets written. Our operations seem of a scale that we can document all the bits and pieces, force feed that to latest recruits and we’re off and running, right? Well usually not so much.
We document what we know, but the secret sauce is often in the intangibles and those new guys want more clarity and direction than… well… you know… figure it out. So we go back and try again and a kind of cookbook emerges. That works on the simple stuff, but when something critical and unique shows up, that thing that makes for a real breakthrough, the processes stall and break.
Some grizzled old hand fondly remembers the days of common understandings arrived at over beers and wonders why we can’t go back there. He jumps up from his desk and pokes his head out of his office to rally the troops down to the pub and discovers he’ll need several busses. Talking over beers doesn’t seem so realistic anymore.
This is often the point where ritual cheers of “Agility” and “Resilience” and “Professional Judgment” are started. The problem, of course, is that those noble ideals are no more susceptible to consistent implementation across large numbers of people without some of the very process they are supposed to alleviate.
What’s a big company to do? The ad-hoc, intuitive decision making and experimentation that builds agility and innovation when randomly repeated across large organizations yields a level of variation that pretty closely resembles chaos in a pretty short span of time. Not usually the path to wider success or even good quarterly results.
The trick is to find some middle ground between completely ad-hoc decisions and rigid cookbooks. The former frustrates cooperation at scale and the latter stifles necessary creativity in the face of the unexpected.
Across that gulf, resilient large organizations can build decision frameworks. Unlike a cookbook which provides a single answer, a decision framework makes sure the right questions are being asked. These frameworks identify key decisions along with patterns of alternatives and criteria for evaluating the choices. That leads to aligned decision making across a variety of situations without the anarchy of an infinite number of choices. Building and applying good framework is also great practice for asking and answering the right questions when one encounters something outside the ken of a particular framework.
Ah, beautiful theory. What’s it actually look like in practice. Here at the offices of WorkingHuman we’ve published one example of a decision framework called SPLICe. A complementary approach we’re fond of, is something we call Guided Judgment.
Guided Judgment starts with a clear picture of a value chain and supporting processes. The next step in building this framework is to identify key decisions that align the bits and pieces. Add a range of probable alternatives along with criteria for selecting among them and you’ve got Guided Judgment.
Does it solve every problem, flush out every new idea? No. But if your organization is like many, it has to keep daily operations running efficiently and on target so ad-hoc fire fighting doesn’t consume all the time and energy you might otherwise put to more creative use. What’s more, most of those daily operations, while they may not be susceptible to a simple cook book approach, do follow patterns. A Guided Judgment framework with a few well thought out options can cover most of those patterns and help you and your teams navigate them to more consistent outcomes.