We sometimes take for granted that when we include all the ‘right’ people, our leadership team will naturally arrive at the ‘best’ decisions. By ‘right’ people, I mean those with knowledge and experience around strategy, project development and organization operations. By ‘best’ decision, I mean the optimal choice that will serve our organization’s purpose.

These beliefs about our team’s capacity to make good decisions are usually fulfilled when the organization’s internal system is stable, and expectations of the funder are consistent and long term. However, at times of significant organization growth or change, and/or when external expectations and demands are uncertain, complex or volatile, your team members may differ in their understanding of the directions the organization needs to go, and how they could best work together.

Take, for example, the situation of a medium-sized community organization that recently grew by 50% through the addition of programs and sites. While the leadership team was running at top speed to manage the day-to-day knitting together of operations, a request came from the funder to add another large program. When this was brought to the leadership team, cracks began to surface: one manager felt gung-ho to take on another challenge, another showed signs of collapse, a third in exasperation asked, ‘what about the people we used to serve?!’

When leadership team members discussed how they viewed each other’s reactions to the request, one team member considered another to be a weak link who wasn’t keeping up; a second perceived their colleague’s question to be a sign of stubborn resistance. The team could work to understand that conflict in a working group is natural; but that will not, in itself, provide guidance on how to handle the effect of uncertainty and volatility on decision-making.

Here are the 4 key practices that will help your team proceed with decision-making while under pressure, especially during times of uncertainty and volatility

Develop a shared understanding of the context behind external pressures driving the demands on the organization

Recognize that there are dynamics outside your control that are placing demands on your organization. The funder may have new expectations of your organization’s role, how much you can take on without additional resources, and how you should work together with other services. Demands may be made with short response times allowed.

However unpredictable or ill-timed are the demands, you need to demonstrate your organization’s importance and capacity to play a significant role as funder expectations change. Seek to understand the degree to which the demands are aligned with your organization’s mandate. Build reserves of resources, or be prepared to temporarily reassign priorities, as much as you can, to increase your capacity to respond to demands on short notice.

Be mindful in how you choose to respond

Recognize that you do have control over how you respond:

  • Examine the funder’s expectations and the community and client needs; how do you, your clients and your community see your organization as being successful?
  • Review your priorities; what do you want to stay best at? What are the risks of not doing something you are being asked to do? Describe where your organization should put its stake in the ground; where you would draw the line of what you do really well and what you could refer to others.
  • Strive to be agile; ask where you may re-allocate resources at least on a temporary basis to experiment or pilot test new approaches to programming.
Use a Microworld learning process to arrive at a shared team understanding of the issue and potential solutions

Shared by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline, Microworld is a learning tool that allows teams to experiment and learn about the consequences of their decisions, the effects of which may be in the future or in remote parts of the organization.

The Microworld process helps your team engage in a dialogue to arrive at a shared understanding of a problem or issue, and eventually to determine recommendations and actions.

Let’s apply this approach to the example above of adding yet another program when everyone is running at full capacity. Assemble your team and let them know the purpose of the meeting and the ground rules for the discussion:

  • Focus on inquiry, seeking to understand rather than judge another person’s contribution.
  • Remove hierarchical status as a consideration during the team’s discussion of the project. People are around the table to share their expertise, not to weigh their contribution based on a position of authority they hold.
  • Focus on exploration, not on decision-making.

First, go around the table asking each person, in turn, ‘what could you contribute to make this project work?’ For example, ‘how could we find and absorb the volume, staff and space?’ Note all the answers, asking people to clarify, but not judge if any particular response is right or wrong.

Then go around the table again and ask, ‘what is the potential impact of doing this program?’ Each person on the team speaks from their perspective about how this plan could both positively and negatively affect existing clients, staff, use of space and organization reputation.

Finally, go around the table once more to ask, ‘what did you learn from the conversation about the effect of this request on our organization as a whole?’ Your goal is to arrive at a shared understanding of the benefits and risks of implementing the program.

Exercise leadership for decision-making

Now it is time to apply what you learned from the Microworld processes and arrive at decisions on what to do. The team leader ultimately has responsibility for determining the decision-making model that will apply in any particular case. Depending on the level of urgency or risk, the team leader will decide by consensus, majority rule, or ‘follow me as I lead the way’ approaches and inform the team of the corresponding expectations for their input.

Whatever the decision-making approach, an effective leader resolves to monitor the outcome in relation to the increased clarity that surfaced in the Microworld approach. Doing so will help the leader and the team learn from the most recent challenge and apply those learnings to the future, which is likely to be no less uncertain.

If you liked this blog post, you may also like, Three Steps to Help you Understand an Issue and Quickly Move to Action.

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