The Art Of Making No Decisions

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- 5 min read

My company, Happy, was not in happy shape! Sales had flatlined over 5 years. We were making a substantial loss. We had enough in the bank to last just 6 months. And we had parted company with the M.D. of our largest department.

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As Founder, instead of stepping in to try and sort things out, I decided to step back. Nor did we replace the MD. I decided to let decisions be made as close to the front line as possible.

The result was transformative. Sales grew by 25%/year for the next three years. We were profitable again, well before the 6-month deadline.

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How? By changing how decisions are made. We adopted the Advice Process, a common feature of self-managing organisations.

The Advice Process

Two colleagues, John and Ben, decided our pricing was out of date. They analysed the market, found out what competitors were charging, and consulted colleagues. But the decision was made neither by consensus or consent.

After seeking advice, John and Ben decided on the new pricing model. It represented substantial increases. (I told them I didn’t agree. However, it was not my decision to make.) The new pricing was put in place.

I have to admit I was probably wrong. Thirty-four years after founding Happy, I was too wedded to our old models. Indeed, without that increase, and its impact on our bank balance, we might not have survived the pandemic.

Staff now feel pre-approved to make decisions necessary to meet client needs, and do so on the spot.

A member of staff, John, explains: "When I started at Happy, I would email Henry - the founder - with every bit of expenditure. He soon wrote back: ‘John, if it’s under £400 and you think we need it, buy it. If it’s over £400, check with someone, but no need to check with me.’"

My move to making no decisions led to us becoming a self-managing organisation. And it can also work for more traditional organisations.

A British DIY company conducted an experiment. In two superstores, managers made no decisions for three months. Every KPI improved!

Staff talked about how they enjoyed coming to work, and how instead of referring a complaint to a manager, they could solve it themselves. Customers were happier and so were they. Did they roll out this idea across the company?

Sadly, no. When the bosses saw how well these branches performed, they assumed it must be outstanding leadership. So, instead of adopting the no-decisions idea, they put these leaders into trouble-shooting the worst-performing branches.

Inspiration from the US Navy

My inspiration for making no decisions came from David Marquet. I met him when we both spoke at the 2016 WooHoo conference in Copenhagen. He had been Commander of the US Navy submarine Sante Fe.

In the US Navy, Commanders were expected to make all key decisions and then tell others what to do. As David said, it was like having one brain and 135 people doing what they were told. He told how he decided to make no decisions, except one. Launching missiles remained his responsibility. Apart from that, he coached people to make their own decisions based on Intent, as he explains in this animated video.

The Sante Fe went from being an underperforming craft to being the best performing submarine in US Navy history. Eleven crew members went on to become Commanders themselves.

Taking Responsibility & Ownership

And I have a confession to make. At the beginning of the pandemic, I started making decisions. That’s what leaders do in crises, isn’t it? Income was down by 95%. Action was needed. It was a disaster!

But I knew far less about customers and what they needed than the front-line staff. I reversed my decision after two weeks, and let our people decide. They responded, clients were happier, and Happy became profitable again.

The best part of me letting go is not only that our people are happier, there is far less stress for me. I get to do stuff I really enjoy, like speaking at conferences and (this year) setting up the Happy MBA. In our leadership programmes I set a challenge for those attending. I ask them to make no decisions for three months - although they are allowed, like David Marquet, an exception.

All who have tried find it works rather well. Kevin Rogers, who runs Paycare (a not-for-profit healthcare plan) was surprised how easy it is to implement. “They just went ahead and did it. It’s completing the job. It’s taking responsibility. It’s ownership. They take pride in controlling the full task.”

Did he continue beyond the 3 months? “Certainly. And where in January I got startled looks, they now respond with ‘I’ve got this. This is great. I’m really enjoying taking ownership.’”

So, here’s the question. Could you as leader decide to make no decisions?

This is a guest post by Henry Stewart, founder at Bucket List company Happy Ltd in London. For more information on Henry and the company, check out his rebel page.

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Replies (3)

Richard Graf

Richard Graf

The assumptive non-decision is for the first time a decision "to do nothing", not to initiate any action. How far the decision "to do nothing" later has a good effect can only be seen later.

I am happy if you want to discuss more on this topic.

| | 0 | Flag
Adrian Brown

Adrian Brown

The key to what you call a "no decision culture" is based on knowledge, people development and vitally, setting the standard of "make their own decisions based on Intent".

Strategic Intent, not strategy is vital if you want to develop people to make decisions that serve the just cause of your business

| | 0 | Flag
Brendan Martin

Brendan Martin

Really interesting piece -- thank you, Henry. For me it underlines the importance of clarity of shared purpose and working with people who share it and are well qualified for their roles, and then creating the enabling and supportive environment to do it.

| | 3 | Flag
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