By Stephen Balzac
May 24, 2012
As a kid, I liked watching the old Bela Lugosi Dracula movies. The movies were more than a little formulaic, but still fun. Each one would begin roughly the same way: after a series of mysterious murders, disappearances, and other strange happenings, Our Hero would figure out that Count Dracula had somehow returned from the grave. Naturally, everyone else would laugh at him because as they, and the audience, knew perfectly well, Dracula had been thoroughly killed off at the end of the previous movie. Someone might also make the token objection that vampires don’t exist, but no one ever took that objection seriously. Our Hero would persevere, though, and after much debate and argument, eventually convince everyone that the Count was, indeed, once again walking the Earth. Finally, in the very nick of time, Our Hero would successfully drive a stake through Dracula’s heart, or expose him to sunlight, or the Wolfman would tackle him and they would fall together out a window into the raging surf hundreds of feet below, or some other equally melodramatic ending. Afterward, everyone would relax, confident in the knowledge that this time Count Dracula really was dead once and for all. This time, for sure-¦ at least until the next movie.
I frequently hear a variant of this story from my clients. No, they’re not talking about Count Dracula per se; rather, they are talking about making decisions at their companies. No matter how thoroughly a topic is debated to death, and no matter how often teams make decisions on which way to go, the topic reappears in the next meeting. There’s always some purported reason: “We didn’t follow proper procedure,” or “I forgot to include this really important piece of information,” or “It’s not fair that Bob wasn’t here,” or “I didn’t understand what I was voting for,” or, “How about another Dracula flick?”
OK, maybe the last one doesn’t come up all that often. The actual reasons don’t really matter anyway: they’re all about as hokey as the reason why Dracula didn’t really die in the previous movie. Dracula returns because the audiences and the producers want him back; similarly, the decision returns from the grave because people want to bring it back. In this way, even apparently simple decisions can return again and again, sucking up time and energy like Dracula sucking blood. It isn’t long before a mundane meeting turns into an event to be anticipated with mounting horror, or at least a strong sense of dread.
Make decisions that stop returning from the grave
While this problem is particularly prevalent with leaderless, or self-managed, teams, it is hardly unique to them. The real question, of course, is what to do about it. How do you make decisions stop returning to roam the hallways like Dracula returning from the grave?
First off, if the team doesn’t have a leader, it needs one. When you see a team unable to make decisions, that’s a team rushing towards being dysfunctional. Changing course requires putting someone in charge, or at least having someone who can facilitate meetings and hold both individuals and the team accountable.
Next is communications: if no one is asking questions or pushing back on a decision, that’s a bad sign. That’s telling you that the team isn’t engaged in the process, and if they aren’t engaged, they’re also not seriously thinking about the decision. Inviting speculation or asking open-ended questions can get conversation started. If no one is willing to question, then you are also missing out on a valuable opportunity to debug the decision before you make it.
Conversely, once you have debate going, you also need a way to bring it to a halt. Just as it’s important to not end debate too quickly, it’s also important to not let it continue on until people are ready to chew their own legs off. Periodically polling the room to see if everyone can accept any of the alternatives being considered, and, if not, finding out what else they want to say or what else they need to know, can be very effective at helping everyone recognize when debate is ready to end. Once everyone in the room feels that they can support any of the alternatives being considered, you can make your decision. This approach has the added benefit that if there’s someone in the room who is determined to keep arguing until they get their way, that too will become obvious. Should that situation occur, the person in charge can then deal with it appropriately.
Finally, you need to have something substantive to discuss. It’s not enough to just make a decision: you also have to map out how the decision will be implemented, what steps need to be taken, who is responsible for reporting back, and when. In any non-trivial decision, the early steps are always error-prone: those charged with implementing the decisions must feel certain that the feedback they gain on those early steps will not be held against them. If people are afraid of being punished for inevitable learning mistakes, you can count on that decision returning like Dracula until responsibility is sufficiently diffused that no one can be blamed for failure. At that point, you can also be certain that no one will care about the outcome.
As much as the process of effective decision-making may seem to take a long time, it’s far quicker to make a decision once and put it to rest than to have it returning, time and again, like Dracula from the grave.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. You can contact Balzac at 978-298-5189 or [email protected].