Quality decision-making – What’s your boardgame?

A board room is one of those occasionally used spaces, off the grid of the online booking system and with its own sense of exclusivity. I should remember them for their character destroying building experiences. But it’s the scent of the room, that I recall most.

Undertones of leather masking an obscure aroma of heavy cleaning products. Reflection of a room frequently cleaned but infrequently used. When occupied, the smell of fresh coffee provides an almost recognisable warmth. But it’s not a room that one should get too comfortable in. The tide can turn quickly, and the board room can soon become – dare I say it – a war room.

As I stand around the table, I almost feel like I don’t belong here. Outranked by the industry equivalent of five-star generals and outflanked by an onslaught of questions. When the attack commences, this room can often be a lonely place. There are not many allies willing to pop themselves above the parapet for fear of the attack changing its trajectory. 

I’ve been here before. No matter how well prepared and how well socialised a final proposal is, the most talented leaders know when and how to ask the right questions. It’s these types of questions, designed to derail your presentation and to highlight inadequacies in your readiness.

And why shouldn’t they? I’m not only asking for endorsement of a significant financial commitment, but failure to deliver could have career impacting implications on the leadership.

As I pause to focus and structure my response, let me explain how I ended up here…

The process

Most IT projects are conceived in or around some type of procurement process. This reaches its apex on a crucial decision point. A preferred supplier – be it software, services or hardware; the differentiation is largely irrelevant.

If the process is run correctly, this shouldn’t come down to one or two decision making meetings. As requirements and the solution evolve, so should the stakeholder’s journey.

Poor decision making is one of the most common and costly pain points of any IT delivery project. The ability to make decisions, is one of the core tools in any leader’s toolbox. For a technology-enabled change, it’s often my role as Lead Architect to act as the advisor and influence the quality of that decision.

A chess Grandmaster knows, that a quality chess move is one that requires a piece to be moved only once. Several quality decisions provide leverage over the entire game. In the context of business, this leverage takes various forms. From risk avoidance to alleviating project time pressures and providing measurable value to the business.

Quality decision making however, is largely contextualised in the eye of the leader. We rarely see this through the lens of the advisor. 

Quality of the advisory

Decisions are made upon the status of information known and presented at a given point in time. As we progress through the project lifecycle we learn, we innovate, we find new solutions. I believe, there are three core principles that directly influence the quality of a decision;

  1. Frame – How you introduce your proposal, the problem statement, solution and benefits is a journey. Your stakeholders should be taken on that journey, slowly building up collateral and momentum as you approach the final approval gate. Properly framing a decision validates that you are trying to solve the right problem. This process is key in gaining executive alignment. Many ERP projects fail due to lack of executive support.
  2. Options – Should all be profiled around risk, impact, benefit and cost. Being creative around all the possible options, really engages the learning process. However, as that process evolves the number of options will naturally dial down. Only those that are achievable, meet the same goal, are complete (not strawman), but different enough from each other should be presented. Depending on the scenario, leading stakeholders into developing a hybrid/flavour of an option can be an incredible engagement enabler – however there is a fine line here.
  3. Time – Leadership respond well, when they have not only influenced the shape of the journey but been given sufficient runway for decision reflection and challenge. However, this must be balanced right-to-left, without compromising the critical delivery path.

Observing leadership styles and team dynamics can add significant value. The leadership, like any other team, are likely to have their cliques and internal political motivations. 

I once tagged along to leadership meetings, purely to observe. Familiarising myself with body language, mannerisms and picking up on small quirks. One that always stuck in my head was a certain leader’s distaste for colour gradient fills in a presentation. In his opinion; red, amber or green should be solid colours, not a gradient fill from amber-to-green as this indicated indecisiveness! This was a clearly a personal preference and may even seem trivial.

However, these observations are about removing the noise. Allowing you to maximise your limited time and delivering your message without compromise or distraction.

Back to the boardroom

I not only survive the onslaught of questions but provide leadership with sufficient confidence that the projects recommendation is the right way forward. My approach drives a debate across the options, and we secure endorsement to proceed. Not forgoing a few obligatory caveats. 

Lobbying for support outside of a formal setting is crucial in bringing risks and concerns to the surface. Addressing these, both officially and unofficially is a powerful tool in gaining support. But don’t get caught off-guard, any loyalty you gained can soon swing if the mood of the room changes.

However, in some cases, you don’t always need the full support of the room. With the right counsel, good leaders should have the confidence and experience to make a decision without consensus. There are always likely to be absconders; those sitting on the fence wanting to distance themselves from any future failures. Key challenges in the role of the advisor is to judge the political position, remove the emotion and allow the facts to be seen unclouded.

Let’s also not forget, that outcome is not always a reflection of the quality of a decision. Where the right technology/supplier decision was made, many projects I have delivered could have quite easily failed due to other issues. Many nearly did – however, that’s a post for another time.

Choice of technology and solution is only one part of the puzzle. It’s all about engagement, approach and education. Just like a chess Grandmaster looks for leverage with every move, enable your leadership to make quality decisions.