Decide and Deliver - an interview with Paul Rogers
Interview by: Giles Metcalfe
Paul Rogers is the managing partner for Bain's London office and previously led Bain's Global Organization practice.
Paul's organizational experience spans comprehensive transformation, decision effectiveness, culture change, talent management, front-line employee loyalty, overhead optimization, and change management. Paul has authored numerous articles on organizational effectiveness and successful change in Harvard Business Review, European Business Forum, Business Strategy Series, Financial Times, and others, and he regularly speaks on these topics.
GM: Your latest book is Decide & Deliver – 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization. First big decision – should I buy it?
Well, you have to decide that for yourself of course. What we hope we’ve delivered is a book that is thought provoking on the central role that decision effectiveness plays in improving both business performance and employee morale. Especially as organizations become more complex, decision making and execution can bog down. The book offers a clear and above all, we hope, practical way to address the barriers and unlock performance.
GM: How have your corporate backgrounds shaped your thinking on decision-making?
Between us we have about 70 years experience of working with clients in just about all the major industries and geographies. We’ve been working on decisions for most of that time, and have come to realize over time that decision effectiveness isn’t just part of the solution when it comes to organizations, it’s the key.
GM: In the first chapter of your book, you say, "surprisingly few companies look systematically at what gets in the way of good decision making and execution." Why do you think that is – the need for speed over quality, or perhaps an over-reliance on long-established processes, even though those processes may be in entropy?
A lot of management teams realize that the traditional approach of relying on changes to an organization’s structure to improve performance is increasingly inadequate. What they have lacked is a practical alternative. We hope that’s what Decide & Deliver provides.
GM: Why, when there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience out there to draw on, do you think businesspeople still get big decisions so spectacularly wrong?
The key to more effective decisions is (a) being clear what the actual decision is (this may sound obvious but isn’t always) (b) being clear who needs to be involved and with what decision role (where this is ambiguous we advocate using a decision rights tool called RAPID®) ensuring that the process is tailored to support a good decision e.g. gathering the relevant facts, evaluating meaningful options, running meetings which have the right people attending and are decision-focused, and so on, and (d) anchoring the decision in a real-world timetable which covers not just making the decision but also execution and creates an appropriate but not excessive sense of urgency.
GM: Is the traditional corporate decision-making process moribund?
Yes we think it’s time for a fresh approach. The first step is to identify the decisions which are most critical to an organization’s success – this includes not just the big one-off decisions which might belong in the Boardroom but also seemingly-small operational decisions which have a big cumulative impact and often need to be made and executed by multiple people across the organization who are close to the customer or the market. Once you’re clear on which decisions are critical the key is to take the perspective of the actual decision, assigns it to wherever it best belongs (avoiding excessive centralization for example but connecting people across organizational boundaries where appropriate) and build an integrated organizational system which equips people at all levels to decide and deliver.
GM: How big an obstacle to effective decision making is "groupthink"?
"Groupthink" can be highly damaging. In our experience the best decisions are based on the relevant facts, rigorously analysed. Whilst it can also be useful to factor in the judgement of relevant people it’s vital to be clear who has what role in reaching a decision and translating it to prompt effective action to avoid "consensus by default" in which groupthink drives a lowest-common-denominator outcome, or an outcome which ignores the facts of course. If everyone is accountable typically no-one is.
GM: What’s the worst example of embedded groupthink that you have encountered?
A few years ago we worked with a large technology company headquartered in the US. Our focus was to work with their European management team to identify how the effectiveness of the European organization could be improved. Part of the answer clearly lay in devolving authority for certain key decisions to the regional level. This answer was simply inconceivable to the senior executives in the corporate centre – it wasn’t that they debated the idea rationally and came up with a better solution, as a group they just couldn’t conceive of letting go of power. The outcome was that many of the regional executives left the business, which continued to under-perform for many more years.
GM: You advocate five steps for better performance in decision effectiveness – "assess your decision effectiveness, identify your critical decisions, re-design individual critical decisions for success, ensure that the organization enables and reinforces great decision making and execution, and embed the changes in everyday practice". Can anyone and everyone follow this model?
Yes, our experience is that the ideas outlined in the book are relevant to pretty much any organization – private or public sector, across industries and geographies and including the not-for-profit world. What’s more an advantage of the decision-based approach is that it can be used to "zoom in" to a specific part of an organization. Innovation, for example, is a core process in many businesses which by definition crosses the traditional boundaries of an organizational structure. A decision-based view can also help drive improvement in a specific area of a business – for example safety in a mine.
"We believe there is a need for a fundamentally new approach to organization."
GM: You say that decision effectiveness can be assessed using four components – "Quality, Speed, Yield, and Effort". Who is the best-placed person within an organization to make the assessment?
The best placed person to make the assessment really depends on the specific decision being assessed. One of the most practical aspects of a focus on decision effectiveness is that it allows you to focus attention wherever it is most appropriate – so decisions which affect the whole enterprise belong in the boardroom for example, whereas more routine operating decisions are often best placed as close to the market of the customer as possible. We have a concept called "decision architecture" which helps you identify not only which decisions are important but also where in the organization they best fit.
GM: If there is "no magic bullet" to target an ailing decision-making process, and companies can’t solve poor performance in one area of decision effectiveness by improving effectiveness in the others, is your remedy a bitter pill for management to swallow?
Well of course if the answers were easy life would be boring. We are categorically not saying that improvements aren’t possible. On the contrary, the whole point of our book is to demonstrate that by focusing on decision effectiveness and applying the 5-step process we describe it is absolutely possible to make significant and lasting improvements, which will benefit both financial performance and the experience of employees. When we say there is "no magic bullet" what we mean is that organizations are complex entities and that although we find the broad principles apply in pretty much every case, the specific actions that are necessary to improve performance need to be highly customised to each individual situation.
GM: You state, "You can’t design an organization around decisions without knowing which decisions to focus on." As well as learning how to make better decisions across the board by implementing your practices, is it also a case of initially "choosing your battles"?
Focus is vital. The two key questions are (a) which decisions are critical – large organizations make and execute hundreds of millions of decisions every day, and we find the classic "80:20" rule is both essential to avoid complexity and fortunately almost always applies, and (b) which elements of the "organisational system" will have the biggest impact on improving effectiveness for these critical decisions - our model of an "organizational system" has 10 components, including "hard" aspects such as roles and structure and "soft" issues such as people and leadership. Whilst ultimately the goal is for all of the 10 elements to be working in harmony to support effective decisions we typically find that at any point in time focusing on 2 or 3 elements can have a differential impact.
GM: One of your clients referred to the malaise of "creeping egalitarianism", whereby every issue up for discussion was considered as important as any other one, but none of them got the attention they deserved. How can management prioritize issues effectively and in a timely manner?
We often find that organizations which are moving away from "command and control" as the house style overdo it and arrive at a kind of "consensus by default", whereby everyone knows that it’s important to consult and collaborate but people are not clear at what point they are authorised to end the debate and move to action. In situations like this everyone may well be trying to do their best to advance the debate but what happens is that decisions go round and round in circles and end up being fudged – so the whole process takes too long, saps the energies of those involved, and often results in a decision which is based on the lowest common denominator required to get people to agree rather than what is actually best for the business. The key to cutting through a situation like this is typically (a) to be clear which decisions really matter, (b) to set up individual decisions for success by clarifying what we call the "What, Who, How, and When" and (c) to build an integrated organizational system explicitly designed to help people at all levels drive effectiveness for the critical decisions in their area.
GM: Can you expand on your concept of the "decision reset" and explain the mechanism for it?
A "decision reset" focuses on a specific decision with the objective of setting it up for success. This typically involves clarifying some or all of the "What, Who, How and When". To break this apart, the "What" requires clarifying the specific decision or sub-decisions. The "Who" means assigning clear decision roles, not only for the individual (or possibly group) with the authority to make the decision and commit the organization to action, but also crucially for those who have input as opposed to veto power, the person charged with making the recommendation in the first place, and importantly who is accountable for executing the decision once it’s made. The "How" focuses on the mechanics of the process e.g. what meetings are necessary, who should be in them and how they will be run. The "When" ensures that there is a clear timetable for both making and executing the decision process.
GM: In your roles with Bain & Company, you came up with a method you called RAPID® - recommend, agree, perform, input, and decide. Was this concept an important precursor to your research on and recommendations for effective decision making? What led you to codify the process initially?
The origins of RAPID (or at least its precursor RAID), are frankly shrouded in the mists of time. The first time I came across the tool was in the late 1980s when I was consulting to the privatising utility sector in the UK, and lack of clear decision accountabilities was a fundamental challenge. Over the 1990s we found ourselves using RAID more and more as a core part of our organizational work. At the turn of the millennium we introduced the "P" for "Perform", recognizing the importance of not only making a good decision, but also making it happen. It was about this time that we also came to the realization that decision effectiveness is not just a part of improving organizational performance it is the key to it. So it’s certainly true that the RAPID decision rights tool has been central to our work for more than two decades. It’s also true that RAPID itself is only one of the tools we find are necessary to help organizations improve their performance.
GM: What is the next project for you all?
Our journey with this decision-based approach is hopefully far from over. Our next "project" is to continue to work with clients to help improve their decision effectiveness and therefore results, and to continue to learn and refine our approach as we go.
GM: Finally, are there any closing comments you would like to make?
We believe there is a need for a fundamentally new approach to organization. The traditional reliance on structure and the two-dimensional organization chart cannot cope with the complexities of competing in today’s more multi-dimensional world. Our hope is that the ideas summarized in Decide & Deliver – a focus on driving effectiveness for the decisions which really matter – represents a new and practical approach.