Tuesday 18 March 2014

Don’t let your Board get Decision Fatigue!

In the association environment the board makes significant decisions which in many ways drive the future of the organization.

So, you want your board to be great at making decisions, right? Robust decisions that don’t come unraveled at the next meeting. Well-thought-out decisions, that incorporate multiple perspectives and make appropriate trade-offs. Decisions with just the right amount of risk.

Well, then, maybe you should look at how they make decisions.

Decision fatigue is the phenomenon that anyone who has gone grocery shopping on an empty stomach is intimately familiar with – confronted with the treats near the checkout, we often succumb (well, not you, perhaps – other people). We’re tired from making all the seemingly minor decisions – brand, price, quantity, quality, nutrition, and so on – so we wind up eating something we might not have chosen an hour earlier.

There seems to be a finite amount of energy any individual or group has with which to make decisions. The more challenging the decision – particularly trade-offs, or working with significant constraints – the faster this energy gets depleted. Thinking is legitimately tiring.

If you’ve ever renovated a house you might also recognize this as the “I don’t care, just pick a tile/wallpaper/floorplan/dishwasher/paint colour, I’m out, I’ll live with whatever” effect. (Ask people who’ve recently planned weddings about this phenomenon as well.)

If all these things are true about decision-making, what can be done to optimize the way your Board (and management team) makes decisions?

Set clear decision expectations: Often Boards find themselves confused about what’s required of them during a particular agenda item; is this something they need to approve, information they are receiving, or something else? The clearer you can be, consistently, about when a real decision is required, the better. This takes skill from both the staff and the Board, particularly the leadership, although I’ve seen this get much better with practice; it gets baked into the culture of the organization.

Make fewer decisions: Look at upcoming agendas – can any of these decisions be made by others? Even if you are more of a volunteer-driven organization, you will still want the board to be focused on strategy, with other bodies (committees, task forces, or however you are organized) empowered to get operations done without too much bureaucracy. And if you do have staff, perhaps there are opportunities for them to take on more autonomy.

Look at your process: If you don’t have strong leadership of the meetings themselves, the group self-organizes. While a little of this can be a good thing (for instance, for team-building, or to develop a sense of ownership of the process) too much of it drains the group’s energy pointlessly. The tougher the decisions ahead of you, the more you want the process to be clear and well-managed. This can mean hiring an outside facilitator, splitting the Chair and President roles (the Chair manages the discussion and the schedule; the President provides leadership), or agreeing on (and sticking to) ground rules. Board evaluations as well as the decisions themselves can help you fine-tune.

Eliminate the decision altogether: What decisions can be routinized? Buying in bulk, signing a contract, and outsourcing multiple parts of a project are all ways to make a single, bigger decision as opposed to multiple decisions. Delegating to an individual is another way to get rid of a group decision. What’s for lunch? Jim orders something, that’s what’s for lunch.

Schedule mindfully: Look at the timing of your important decisions. It’s true that sometimes really important decisions need to be made after a significant discussion – first thing in the morning may not be practical. But I will often arrange strategic planning agendas so that we can create ideas and start to outline the plan one afternoon, and then come back in the morning to validate and finalize. It allows people to be looser and more creative in the afternoon, knowing they can sleep on what they’ve started to decide. And then in the morning the remaining decisions to be made tend to be much more clear – and we can have a shorter discussion before arriving at a real commitment.

Feed people! Making sure there are balanced snacks available helps keep people’s brains fueled. Same goes for letting people rest, replenish, stretch their legs and their brains.

Envisioning decision-making ability as something that can be depleted, and therefore should be managed mindfully, can be very helpful. It’s the organizational equivalent of eating a healthy breakfast before grocery shopping, so the croissants look less enticing.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help you with your decision-making, please get in touch.

Meredith Low provided this guest post.  She is a management consultant, focusing on helping organizations and companies understand how, when, and where to grow in the context of fast-changing environments. Her work with associations includes leading strategic and tactical planning, performing assessments to position conferences and meetings for growth and durability, and assessing the needs of members and other stakeholders.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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