A close up of the tops of the left and right speedometers in a car. The fuel gauge is partially cut off.

The need for speed (and when to slow down)

Are you a snappy decision-maker? Or do you carefully weigh up the pros and cons? Perhaps you just prefer someone else to decide? We make dozens of decisions every day, through personal instinct or experience. But decisions within the organisations we work for simply cannot be personality driven. They require definition and structure, to be beneficial for all. So how do businesses apply decision-making to the right places at the right times? And why is it important?

Enter “Applied Futurist”, Tom Cheesewright. Not only does he win the award for ‘Job Title of the Year’, but Tom successfully helps high-profile organisations all over the world to steer their thinking and apply future-proofing strategies. He has absolute sympathy with the place that many organisations find themselves in right now, where decision-making sticking points can actively impair performance or slow the pace of transformation. “Most organisations are bad at decision-making and bad at moving information,” he says. “It tends to be held up or moves very slowly and is often ‘polished’ in the process – vital information finds itself in spreadsheets, committees and PowerPoint presentations. And by the time it reaches the desk that can make a sensible decision about it, the value has been taken out of the information because no one wants the blame for what it implies.” Sound familiar? It’s this kind of deferred decision-making that can paralyse the ability of businesses to move forward.

Decision-making, fast…

In his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel award winning psychologist and economist, Daniel Kahneman divides the process of thought into two ‘systems’: fast, instinctive and emotional or slower, deliberate and logical. Tom applies a similar approach to the act of decision-making, attributing the purpose of each to different areas of an organisation. “You’ve got to separate the strategic and operational decisions,” he says. “Operational decision-making should take place as close to the edge of the organisation as possible.” By this, he means that where decisions directly affect customers and/or partners, those who maintain the close relationship should feel able to take decisions without deferral to above. “The more they have to refer through the ranks, the slower the decision-making is going to be,” he explains. “You’ll have more bottlenecks and, actually, the work is less fun because you’re creating more administration and disempowering people.”

Speed is the crucial element to operational decision-making because you have a responsibility to customers and partners to take action. Inaction, or action at a glacial pace, can have quick negative financial outcomes – business simply gets taken elsewhere. If this can be easily prevented by placing trust in experienced people, why do so many businesses fail to do so? The answer is simpler than you might think: “It comes from natural places – delegation is hard. It requires an investment of time up front until you’re comfortable leaving people to do things without your oversight,” says Tom. “It requires you letting go of some power and control. And having the right people in place, sometimes with training in the skills and capabilities. All of these things are expensive and time consuming.” Additionally, there may be historical complexity to unravel, but this doesn’t necessarily equal a need for heavy deep dives. Tom’s advice is to start simply with the question “is this piece of administration or bureaucracy necessary?” You may discover plenty that was put in place to prevent problems that no longer exist.

A person in a business suit, holding a briefcase stands with their back to the camera at a huge window which overlooks the city at sunset.
What’s on the horizon? Pushing decision-making to the edges of an organisation can free up valuable time for senior leaders to prepare for the future.

…and slow

While the need for speed is less pressing at the strategic end of the decision-making spectrum, it’s every bit as business critical. In the first instance, these decisions will sit at the centre of the organisation in the form of functional units and usually have some level of removal from the day-to-day customer and partner operation. “You want strategic decision-making happening within Finance, Marketing, HR etc.” he explains, but Tom also sees these functions as “Lego bricks, which can be reassembled to meet new needs” by a further, more centralised decision-maker or makers who can see and connect the wider picture. This is clearly something that takes time and, of course, one eye on the future.

It’s all too easy to simply focus on the decisions that an organisation needs to operate today, but Tom paints a sombre picture for those who don’t put aside time to prepare for what’s coming next. “It’s very rare that overnight, in an unforeseeable way, your business just collapses,” he warns. “The exception might be the pandemic, but even that could have been hedged against if you were looking. But what tends to happen is that something quite foreseeable comes along.” The lesson here is that you must carve out space and time to understand how the future will look for your organisation, industry, market… and beyond. Don’t wait until disruption happens to make the decisions that prepare a business for what’s coming next. Prepare to pivot now.

Right: A head and shoulders shot of Tom Cheesewright, wearing glasses, a white shirt, open at the collar and a blue blazer. Left: A quote, reading: “You will always be reactive unless you are looking to the future.” — Tom Cheesewright, Applied Futurist.

Creating a sense of buy-in

If deferred decision-making is your company’s normal, it can be hard to change. So, you have a couple of choices: start now or wait until you have a crisis on your hands. “Sometimes when I’m brought in there’s been an external shock to the business and everyone’s still reeling from it,” explains Tom. “But the thing that terrifies me most is when I go into an organisation and ask everyone how long they’ve been there, and they all say ‘fifteen years’. And when I ask what it’s like working there and they tell me how happy they are.” When a business has already felt the shock of the new – whether that be industry disruption, a recession or a new kid on the block – it’s ready to do what is necessary to survive, even if that’s a complete shake-up to the way things have always been done. But comfort breeds complacency.

Tom uses storytelling to paint a picture of the future for his clients as a baseline from which to make change. “You have to show that what has happened to organisations and markets adjacent to theirs is going to happen to them at some point. And that it’s only luck and circumstances that it hasn’t happened yet.” As an undertaking, this may feel overwhelming, fundamentally changing the business and its culture. “Culture is a slippery concept,” explains Tom. “But most processes are just culture written down. You change culture by saying ‘no, that’s not the way we do things’. And, of course, this can be really hard to hear, so, it takes time.” He cites the middle management as a good example: “the middle tiers of the organisation are generally the most overworked and stressed. They’re trying to manage people below them and respond to requests from above.” Resistance to change is entirely understandable, especially if it means keeping even more plates spinning for any period of time.

But don’t expect wholesale objection. Many will welcome change and advocate as ‘sponsors’ – “graduates who are hungry to do something different, middle managers who’ve realised the way they’re doing things is unsustainable, and senior managers who can see a way forward.” Allowing time for adjustment is key and the making of small, but important changes in process (for example, a Line Manager taking new decision-making responsibility that speeds up response times to customers), can very quickly become the norm. If it’s uncomfortable, then a pre-planned contingency of training and support can be brought in to help with any discomfort that new responsibility and autonomy brings. But ultimately, as Tom stresses, “always be informed by foresight” – looking to the future while taking swifter, decisive action for customers and partners today.

Tom Cheesewright is the Applied Futurist, helping people and organisations around the world to see the future more clearly, share their vision and respond with innovation. He finds the critical intersections between today’s macro trends and the existing stresses in each client’s organisation and sector. These are the points at which the greatest change will take place.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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