May 7, 2014

Lessons in management, like all good stories, pop up almost anywhere.

Case in point: a recent episode of “Restaurant Impossible,” the weekly effort by the Food Network’s Robert Irvine to “save a failing restaurant” in just 48 hours.

Having seen many of the show’s nearly 100 episodes, I can tell you that in almost every case, poor management contributes to the troubled restaurant’s struggles. In this particular episode, the restaurant’s manager had alienated the staff to the point of near mutiny. Enter Irvine with his body-builder physique, skin-tight polo shirts, brutal critiques and renovation fund of $10,000.

He quickly recognized the manager as an issue and, shall we say, “persuaded”  her to change her management style. In a reflective moment, she described her epiphany:

“I was decisive,” she said, “but ineffective.”

Decisive but ineffective. Hearing her say that, I thought about how many leaders struggle with decision-making. They know it’s a key measure of their effectiveness — in fact, many of the leaders I work with say the best bosses they ever had were “decisive.”

What exactly do they mean? One dictionary says “decisive” people make decisions “quickly and effectively.” Another says “quickly and surely.” Still another says “quickly and confidently.” Notice what they have in common. Decisive people, the dictionaries say, make decisions quickly.

And that’s what I think got the restaurant manager in trouble. She, like many leaders, was honing the wrong skill. The question is not: “How can I be more decisive?” The question is: “How can I make better decisions?”

Or, even better: How can my organization make better decisions?

Let me propose that we begin by doing this: Slow down.

I know that sounds counterintuitive when the environment in which we are working is moving faster and faster. But this is, in a way, the speed-versus-accuracy debate applied to the decision-making process. In the end, which is more important: a quick decision or a good one?

Actually, my suggestion to slow down is a relative one. The challenge is to apply a process — it might be just an additional few minutes — to do whatever is required to make a better decision. To ask an additional question. To consult one additional person. To read the organization’s guidelines. To recognize and consider one more potential impact.

This is not an argument for being indecisive, for bringing the organization to a standstill by refusing to confront issues. But here’s a reality: the people who look to you for decisions frequently believe a situation is more urgent than it is. Why? Because they are living with the situation — and they want it to be resolved.

That’s why leaders, on behalf of the overall organization, have a responsibility to reserve the word “urgent” for situations that truly are urgent. Staffers who arrive at your door with the words, “we need to make a decision,” should trigger an alarm:

  • Do we really have to fill that vacancy today?
  • Do we really have to file that FOIA today?
  • Do we really have to decide on that departmental reorganization today? Maybe the answer is yes. But even if it is, ask yourself:
  • How can I slow this process down?

Here are five ideas for giving yourself the time to make better decisions — and for being more effective.

1. Get comfortable with these words: “I don’t know.” In many situations, that’s the honest answer to the question, “What should we do?” If you’re just being presented with a situation, how fair is it to expect you to render judgment immediately? Even after an extended discussion, you might feel the need to consult others, do some research, just think.

Remember that no one has all the answers — and admitting you don’t can make you a more credible leader.

2. Ask questions. Speaking of having answers… The great irony about many leaders in journalism is that when they were reporters, they knew their most powerful tool was a great question. Then they became bosses and assumed that now they were expected to have answers, not questions.

What a shame.

The best bosses I ever had never stopped asking questions. They refused to make decisions until the questions they had about the problem were answered to the extent possible. Even if you are dealing with a truly urgent problem, asking the right question can be the difference between making a good decision and an uninformed one.

3. Encourage alternatives. Leaders who overvalue speed in decision-making — whether it’s ethical or operational — often allow the question before them to be reduced to “yes” or “no.” Do we air the violent video or not? Do we hire the inexperienced reporter for the City Hall beat or not? Do we allow the use of anonymous sources or not?

Truth is, many situations are not “either-or” — we need to ask for alternatives. It’s one of the most effective tools I learned from my Poynter colleagues, Bob Steele and Kelly McBride, in their teaching of better ethical decision-making. Maybe we air the video with a warning to viewers. Maybe before making that City Hall hire, we contract with the inexperienced reporter for five freelance stories. Maybe we write guidelines that strongly encourage on-the-record attribution, and require permission from the top editor for anonymous sources.

Don’t settle for either-or. The more alternatives you surface, the more nuanced your decision can be.

4. Trust your judgment. Resist making decisions that you are not comfortable making.

Sometimes you can’t satisfy your every last concern. But if the story fails to answer questions you think are important to answer, you probably shouldn’t run it. (Or you might include in the story the unanswered questions you’re still pursuing.) If you doubt the tenacity of a reporter that your staff wants to promote to a tough beat, you probably need some questions answered more fully before you say yes. If you can’t envision how you would explain on camera tonight at 11 your decision about airing the disturbing video, you might not be ready to make that decision.

Don’t base decisions on gut feelings — but don’t ignore them. Treat them like “Jiminy Crickets,” urging you to slow down, ask more questions, do more research.

5. Engage others in the decision process. I’ve often told the story of the editor who responded to every staffer’s “we need to decide” with a question: “What do you think we should do?”

That question sent powerful signals to the staff: first, the editor had no intention of being the “Answer Man.” Second, the editor trusted the opinions of staff who actually knew more about the problem than he did. And third, the editor wanted to be clear that if you worked in that newsroom, you were expected to contribute to — not necessarily make — good decisions.

Notice that involving your staff in decision-making does not cede your responsibility or authority. That still belongs to you. But many leaders determined to build capacity in their organizations see good decision-making as a collaborative exercise.

And notice, too: Even that one question — what do you think? — slows down the process in the name of a better decision.

6. One final point. Building these ideas into your decision-making can make your process more intentional, more efficient. When staff come to you with situations and are armed with alternatives, ideas and information to answer your good questions, you actually may find yourself making faster decisions. Most importantly, though, they will be better decisions — and your organization will have contributed to making them.

Correction: An earlier version of this post had a misnumbered list of tips. It’s six, not five.

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

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