The Devil Is In The Decision-Making

CHANGE MATTERSA FEW YEARS AGO I worked with a mid-sized professional services company that was owned by two partners. With revenues of about $40 million, the company was growing at a steady pace and needed to transition from an entrepreneurial, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants culture to one that had at least a few established policies, procedures and processes.

At first, everything went well: The entrepreneurial culture meant that both the partners and most of the employees were comfortable with change, so I didn’t anticipate too much resistance to implementing the strategies we’d agreed to.

Until we got to the new CRM software.

Part of my role was to oversee the configuration of new CRM software – which tracked sales, clients, projects and accounting – so that it more closely matched the way the business worked. With that in mind, we’d carefully gathered insight from the different departments, mapped out the business processes, and identified the various roles within the organization.

One of the things we’d determined was that, because many of their clients had both a head office and a branch office, we needed two address fields in every record. Typically, the branch office was where the work was done while the head office was where the bills were sent. The problem? The partners couldn’t agree which address should come first on the screen.

Partner A was adamant that the billing address was most important, so it should come first; Partner B was equally adamant that the location where the work was done was most important and it should come first. From a functionality perspective, it made no difference which field came first – both showed up at the top of the screen anyway. But the debate raged on.

For two weeks the team waited for a final decision so we could move forward to beta testing. Finally I realized that without intervention, the stalemate would never end. My solution? I bought a $250 bottle of wine – both partners were connoisseurs – put it down in front of them and said I’d give it to the one who gave in first.

I had a decision within 10 minutes. (Thank goodness it wasn’t healthcare, I’d never be able to use that tactic!)

However, I learned a valuable lesson: No matter how change-receptive or easy-going an organization may be, it’s crucial to establish a decision-making hierarchy at the outset, especially if there are multiple high-ranking decision-makers within the organization. I could have saved myself a lot of headache (as well as $250) if I’d insisted, at the outset, that one partner be designated as the final arbiter in the event of a dispute.

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My tips:
  • Make decision-making process mapping a part of the very first meetings with the client
  • Ensure that all project leaders are aware of – and buy in to – the decision-making hierarchy
  • Attach levels of importance to various decisions involved in the change process, so that small ones can be dealt with by managers while large ones require a director-level or above
  • Establish a final decision maker who has the authority to make a decision and shut down further discussion
  • Recognize that what you may see as an ‘small’ decision may be a big one to others – and have a plan to deal with it



Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. Many times the people I work with made a decision based on what they feel the most comfortable with. Because they made the decision too early, they end up defending their bad decision and create a lot of reasons why the bad decision they made was the best one. Though I advocate expectations on how decisions are made, when a decision has been made outside of that process, it will never be remade through the process.