luke segars

Product leader & learner, currently helping cities manage mobility at @PassportHQ

Making predictable decisions

October 24, 2020

How many people you work with could predict your answers to things that are “your job” to weigh in on? If someone on your team asked you whether X or Y was more important, who would know your answer before you said it?

Knowing what someone will say depends on understanding why they'll say it, and at work teams can move a lot faster and make stickier decisions if they're clear on the rationale and trade-offs of doing so. If teams don't have a firm grip on why, then even relatively simple decisions may need to be reviewed before the team can move forward. The more of a team's decisions require approval/review with managers or a broader team, etc the more drag they'll feel. Symptoms include:

  • the team's velocity slows; this has a compounding effect because the manager also has a manager, who has a manager, etc
  • bottlenecks form at the people who actually make decisions, and getting decisions takes longer; the whole system slows down
  • it may feel risky for the team to trust un-reviewed decisions, further compounding the problem

Often frequent approvals/reviews are not just a communication problem, but may expose some structural weaknesses with decision-making, divergent priorities, unclear goals, etc that need to be resolved in order to increase communication stability.

Why are we unpredictable?

I've documented some of the structural challenges I've encountered personally in some of my other posts. In some cases the problem may be strictly communication related, i.e. you or your teammates aren't clear in what you need from each other and why you're responding the way you are, but I think they're often symptoms of broader issues.

I also don't think people in positions of influence always realize how important predictable decision-making is. In my time as a manager its been one of the most important multipliers for my own effectiveness, and has made me better at my job.

Quantifying predictable decision-making

Write down a list of questions that it'd typically be “your job” to answer; these should include things that your team members may bring to you. Write out your own answers and have members of your team (a) write out how they think you'd answer and (b) state whether they're confident or would want to confirm with you. A good area to start with could be prioritization related – should I spent my time on A or B, is X or Y a higher priority on the roadmap, I have conflicts between events C and D – which should I attend?, etc.

Compare the results, which should fall into four categories for each team member:

  • Group 1: confident matches (same answer, team member was confident)
  • Group 2: unconfident matches (same answer, team member was not confident)
  • Group 3: confident misses (different answers, team member was confident)
  • Group 4: unconfident misses (different answers, team member was not confident)

A few potential outcomes:

  • High Group 1 concentration is great! The team member understands your rationale and can apply it to new problems.
  • High Group 2, low Group 4 concentration suggests that the team member actually has a pretty good sense of your point of view, but doesn't feel comfortable running with it themselves. Empower them.
  • High Group 2, high Group 4 concentration suggests that your responses feel inconsistent from the team member's perspective.
  • High Group 3 concentration is the danger zone, and suggests a fundamental misunderstanding or ambiguity around first principles (why you say what you say). Decisions will often not be sticky, which will erode trust with other team members over time.

One of the ways I manage myself as a leader is the number of “Group 1” relationships I have at work, both on my team and across the company.