Drucker on an Effective Decision Process

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I’m currently finishing up The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. Those of you aware of my love for goal setting, decisions, and productivity won’t be surprised, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the read. Sure the text is a bit outdated, but the underlying principles are still sound and applicable. Drucker’s words have already inspired one post on managing time. This time around, I want to talk about the process he details for making an effective decision.

Drucker lays out five characteristics of an effective decision making process starting with deciding what problems warrant attention and ending with evaluation metrics.

1.The clear realization that the problem was generic and could only be solved through a decision which established a rule, a principle.

This may seem a bit counterintuitive, but Drucker emphasized that effective executives don’t make many decisions. They focus their thinking on “the highest level of conceptual understanding.” They look to deal with strategies as opposed to individual problems.

For this reason, Drucker breaks down decisions into generic situations and exceptions:

Generic situations — Ask yourself “Is this something that underlies a great many occurrences?” These always need to be answered by a principle, a rule, a standard operating procedure.

Exceptions — These are unique situations that need to be dealt individually. You can’t set a rule or principle that would have addresses this specific case ahead of time. These items can be addressed as they come.

This provides a helpful first step in the decision process. If you take the time to address generic situations by putting standard procedures in place, you reduce the time to make a decision (or eliminate the need for another decision) down the road when the same thing pops up.

Let’s play this out in an example that we face on a daily basis working in WordPress.com support. We have several different queues where we interact with customers (live chat, email, Twitter, public forums, etc). With 70+ Happiness Engineers all pulling from the same piles, answering the question of “Where should I work?” can be exceptionally tricky.

This is a perfect example of a generic problem. It doesn’t make sense to address the issue on an individual level with each Happiness Engineer. It’s not a unique problem they’re specifically facing. It’s a generic problem that the entire division is facing. It needs to be addressed through some kind of standard procedure or waterfall approach.

2. The definition of the specifications which the answer to the problem had to satisfy, that is, of the “boundary conditions”.

“Boundary conditions” in this case define the box you’re playing in. They set specifications about what the end result needs to look like and what conditions it needs to satisfy. If the boundary conditions aren’t immediately clear:

  • It will be hard (read: impossible) for the decision to address them all.
  • Individuals could have different ideas of what boundary conditions exist leading to little progress and much disagreement.

Let’s look at this in the context of a real-life decision again in support at Automattic. We offer live chat support around the clock to our customers during the week. Covering 24 hours of the day in support is incredibly tricky especially wth an international user base.

This isn’t a unique problem to Automattic. Many companies provide 24/5 or 24/7 support to an international user base through setting up shifts and hiring workers specifically to work overnight for phone and live chat support. These graveyard support professionals are hired on specifically to work a time that’s difficult to cover.

Automattic could have done something similar. We could have hired on workers in the US that specifically wanted to work overnight. However, looking at the boundary conditions, that wouldn’t fit. Let’s look at a few of the boundary conditions:

  • Happiness Engineers should have autonomy of schedule. (Having a set, inflexible “shift” isn’t a great fit.)
  • A diverse and inclusive workforce is hugely beneficial to the organization and the individual. (Hiring just within the US or San Francisco doesn’t jive.)
  • We need to be available 24/5 for our customers.

These kinds of boundaries ultimately led to hiring Happiness Engineers all over the world. We’re now able to staff up to 24/5 live chat support by allowing Happiness Engineers to mostly work their preferred schedule wherever they might be located.

3. The thinking through what is “right,” that is, the solution which will fully satisfy the specifications before attention is given to the compromises, adaptations, and concessions needed to make the decision acceptable.

One has to start out with what is right rather than what is acceptable (let alone who is right) precisely because one always has to compromise in the end. But if one does not know what is right to satisfy the specifications and boundary conditions, one cannot distinguish between the right compromise and the wrong compromise…

It’s easy to think up reasons a decision couldn’t work or why it would be impossible to implement. Doing that too early in the decision process though results in frustration and lack of progress. With the boundary conditions in mind, think of the perfect solution. Then, work backwards to implementation always focused “How could this work?” and “What is necessary for this to work?” versus “Why will this fail?”

4. The building into the decision of the action to carry it out.

Unless a decision has “degenerated into work” it is not a decision.

You need clear answers to:

  • Who is going to do it?
  • What are the next steps?
  • When are the next dates/deadlines?

This is fairly obvious but easy to overlook in the exciting rush to actually get the decision implemented and see results. “Everyone will do it” means it won’t get done.

5. The “feedback” which tests the validity and effectiveness of the decision against the actual course of events.

For metrics-oriented decisions, this is easy. Ask yourself “What metrics are we going to use to determine success?” Agree upon those metrics ahead of time and which direction they should move. Set a deadline to checkin again.

For subjective decisions, those focused on things like team motivation that are more difficult to quantify, you can use surveys or find metrics that are loosely tied to the outcome you want. In the example we discussed above about support professionals knowing where in our myriad queues they should be working, we can look at total numbers of interactions. The hypothesis there would be that a clear priority list of where to work would drive up productivity.

You want to avoid getting six weeks down the road and asking the open question “Did that decision make sense or move the needle?” without a clear way to find the answer.

…unless one builds one’s feedback around direct exposure to reality—unless one disciplines oneself to go out and look—one condemns oneself to a sterile dogmatism and with it to ineffectiveness.

Photo credit: Andrea Badgley for the inspiration (photo my own)

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