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C/me ™

What's Clear to Me is Clear to Me

Doug Wilwerding
Contributor: Doug Wilwerding
Posted: 01/11/2010

In your first college philosophy class you inevitably debated the question, "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Obviously the intellectual candy of this question is that the answer is supposedly unknowable. If you are there when it falls you heard it. If you aren’t there, how do you know? I will answer that "unknowable" question later…

A similar question, though not nearly as oft debated in classrooms, "If the boss makes a decision but doesn’t effectively communicate it, did she really make a decision?" Of course the debate around this question is much simpler: She didn’t. A decision, un-communicated, is not a decision at all; it is simply a thought.

Probably the biggest obstacle to effective execution in businesses large and small is the clear communication of the decisions made by the leaders. There is a pretty simple equation for successful business leadership:

Evaluate the Situation + Determine Alternatives + Decide + Communicate the Decision + Execute = Succeed

Visually it is pretty clear that the parts are all interdependent. Skip any one at your own peril.

Most management professionals have been rigorously schooled in situational analysis and alternative formulation. Fewer are good at making decisions. Our business culture spends an inordinate amount of time debating alternatives and the avoidance of making decisions by hiding behind the curtain of "needing more information." Yet fewer people are skilled in communicating a decision once it is made. There seems to be a sense that merely by the act of deciding they have defacto clearly communicated what was decided and why. But it isn’t so. What is clear to you is clear to you and you alone. And until you effectively and deliberately communicate with all who need to know you have in fact made no decisions.

Communicating decisions requires a rigor all its own. First, you have to set the stage for the decision. The masses may not even realize a decision is necessary. Do they know what is going on? Why is it important? Why do you believe change (that’s what decisions are anyhow) is required? And what do you intend to accomplish or avoid with a decision? Until you have established the common understanding and environment for a decision, no decision will make sense or be supported by those who will ultimately carry it out.

Evaluating the situation, determining the alternatives and making a good decision have been discussed in prior commentary. This is a pretty objective process with one exception. Deciding to do the right thing is purely subjective. The math and data can only take you so far. Then you have to apply your character to the situation and determine in fact what is right and appropriate and avoid fooling yourself and rationalizing. Yes, there is a right and wrong. And you do know which is which.

So you’ve decided and you’ve chosen to do the right thing. You’ve informed your team up front that a decision was imminent and necessary. Now what? Well, it’s pretty simple: Stand in front of them and tell them what you decided and why you decided it. This is the inflection point where so many decisions go astray. Leaders (in some cases) and deciders (in most cases) simply lack the commitment or courage to look the affected people in the eye and tell them what was decided, why it was decided, how it will affect them and what you, their boss, needs them to do to carry out the decision.

It takes a lot of courage to stand in the moment, with your people, and explain yourself. It is not merely likely, it is assured, that someone in the group will not agree with you. More than likely someone is going to actually be negatively impacted by what you have decided. That’s life. You have to make the right decision for the greater good and the longer term, not the few in the moment. Rarely is there a perfect decision. Having the courage to look all constituents in the eye and tell them what you have decided and accept their frustration and even anger speaks volumes about your character and builds your credibility.

And don’t under estimate your team. If you are doing your job in hiring, you are hiring adults. If you are honest with them and look them in the eye, while they may not like what you say, they will respect you for saying it. We all know it is easier to work for someone we respect than it is to work for someone we simply like.

Then you move on, right on the spot, right in the moment and tell the team how you as a team are going to execute. You need to be specific, precise and declarative. It is what it is, you are going where you’re going, and you’re going to succeed if everyone does their part. Say that...and mean it...and then go live it. Go execute.

We all know there will be times after a decision is made and communicated that things change. These changes may in fact alter the decision and the course of your plans. The communication must go on and be constant throughout. As you progress with execution, keep talking to your team. What’s going well? What needs adjustment? Who is going to do what and when? How will we know when we are on or off course? For major course corrections bring the entire team together. Tell them what has changed, why it impacts you, and what you are going to do about it. Communicate, communicate, communicate. The more you stay in sync with the team the more likely you are to succeed. It is very simple.

The key to successful decisions isn’t the deciding, it’s the communicating that leads to the doing. If you have made a decision but haven’t effectively communicated it, you haven’t really made a decision at all.

…So did that tree falling in the forest make a sound. Of course it did…its physics. C’mon! Enough with philosophy, let’s get to work.

Doug Wilwerding
Contributor: Doug Wilwerding
Posted: 01/11/2010