Moving from the company office to the home office is a tremendous disruption, especially for the most important leadership job — making decisions.
Luckily, we can learn from teams who’ve been operating this way for years. And if there is any silver lining in today’s cloudy horizons, my research has found that these practices can help us make better, faster decisions than before, in any work environment.
Working from home is a tremendous disruption, but we can learn from teams who’ve been operating this … [+]
Make More Introverted Asynchronous Decisions
What’s most distinctive about decision-making in successful remote teams? They write more and talk less. This levels the playing field for people with different communication styles in different places. It increases transparency and trust amongst people who can’t build personal connections as easily face-to-face. It helps everyone keep track without ever having to be in the same room at the same time. It is a more introverted process of thinking before speaking.
Successful remote teams also use many software tools to keep track of their decisions. They write a lot of relatively brief documents and share them in wikis, Microsoft SharePoint and Google Docs. They use structured project tools like Jira and Trello to track tasks and results. And above all, they use new asynchronous collaboration platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams to discuss and communicate decisions.
However, these new tools don’t come with good guidance. “I’ve used [Microsoft] Teams more in the last week than I have in the last year,” said Rob Pinkerton, CMO of Morningstar. “With more work at home in front of me, I imagine it’s going to become huge. And ideas for making, recording and communicating decisions consistently in a remote-work environment will be appreciated.”
Let’s deal with that problem right now. Here are two simple strategies for remote decision-making, including specific tips for companies using Slack and Microsoft Teams.
#1 — Use Decision Polls To Get Input From Stakeholders
Before you start making calls or call a team meeting, stop for a few minutes and frame up a poll for all of your stakeholders. They can respond when they have a few minutes to do so and you get the benefit of all their perspectives in one place. Often their input will clear up what to decide without further discussion. If not, it will highlight any big disconnects and you can focus a meeting or 1-1 conversations there.
Great decision polls need three things:
- Ask an open-ended question. Don’t say “Should we lower prices?” Do say “What should we do for customers in a difficult financial situation?” You want to use this opportunity to expand creativity and use the combined power of the group to see around corners.
- Give people brief context. Don’t write a memo, just share the basic situation and links to any relevant documents. Think 3 to 5 sentences, not 3 to 5 paragraphs. Most likely people already have a lot of context about the decision, the choices you present will usually fill in the gaps, and they can always ask questions. You’re not trying to convince, you’re trying to engage people’s creativity and see where they stand.
- Present three or more brief choices. This is the most important step for improving the quality of your team’s decisions. Every choice you add increases your upside and cuts your risk of missing expectations in half. Again, think brief, aiming for a description of each choice that’s about as long as a tweet.
There are many software tools and tricks out there to do polls of your team. Most remote teams use Slack and Microsoft Teams for this — both platforms can be used to easily create simple emoji polls or you can add free third-party decision poll apps like ours. At the very least, you can just send a message or email out to the people involved asking for their input. And remember: to get the most engagement, make it as easy as possible for them to respond quickly.
#2 — Overshare Your Decision Announcements
When people can’t spend time together in person, it’s important to spend more time crafting careful communications about your decisions that are sent directly to the people affected. Getting the word directly from the decision maker increases trust and speeds up action.
Direct communication also opens up a feedback loop that team members will occasionally use to raise concerns or share information that will help you to make quick course corrections. It also gives you a quick pulse check on whether people support the decision and makes people feel included in the process. That used to happen in the hall between meetings. You have to be more deliberate about it now.
Your goal is to give people a small, clear version of the deciding experience you went through. To do that, here’s what to include in a great decision announcement:
- A clear what and brief why. Focus on the impacts of the decision and be as specific as possible what people need to do. Only highlight the most important reasons why — don’t oversell the decision.
- The alternatives considered. Just list the alternatives, don’t argue against them or explain them away. Give people confidence that you thought about their idea and move on.
- The people consulted. List them by name. This builds confidence in the process and helps people step into the shoes of the decision-makers.
- Expected results and a check-in date. Let people know how and when the decision will be measured to ensure it’s on track.
This sort of communication works great via email thanks to the “cc:” field and email groups, but forwarding a message to many people and groups at once requires a bit more effort on platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams. The simplest way is to 1) send the message to a channel that covers the most people affected by the decision and then 2) forward that message to other channels or individuals affected. That way everyone gets the same message, and they are very likely to see and understand it in the right context since you are sending it directly to the places where they do most of their work.
Practically speaking, you can do this in Slack by using the “Share message…” feature and then picking all the channels and people where you want to announce the decision. It’s more difficult to do in Microsoft Teams since as of this writing it lacks this feature, but you can still manually copy-paste-send the message to all the people and channels who need to know. That personal touch is worth the extra effort.
Some teams try creating dedicated decision channels. I do not recommend this approach for communication purposes. The decisions are out of context rather than fitting into the flow of communication about a project, team or topic. The channel is not personalized for each person so it feels cluttered with irrelevant decisions. Most importantly, without very strong team discipline, people regularly forget to go to the channel and so it can’t be trusted as a reliable way to communicate.
Make Fewer Extroverted Synchronous Decisions
Traditionally, most leaders and managers relied on in-person conversations to get decisions done. It is natural human behavior. We’ve evolved over millions of years to decide face-to-face in small groups. Our past success is based on these extroverted skills. We are most comfortable deciding through live meetings and communicating through word-of-mouth.
But the world today is very different than last week, let alone a million years ago. The two most common decision-making behaviors that worked in the past are much less effective now:
- Reduce Your Dependency On Meetings For Team Decision-Making: You can no longer rely so heavily on group meetings to make collaborative decisions. Zoom and Webex are very effective when bringing people together to communicate, but they are less effective for managing subtle collaborative decision-making group dynamics and exerting leadership power. It is difficult to read a virtual room and use posture and other non-verbal cues to guide a decision-making conversation and build energy for a decision. It is especially difficult while shushing your kids and dogs.
- Don’t Rely On Word-Of-Mouth For Decision Communication: Before, decisions cascaded out across offices in relatively informal ways, via serendipitous information diffusion as people bumped into each other before and after meetings. Now, you can’t rely on wrapping up a decision discussion with, “OK, we’ve decided, make sure everyone knows,” when inter-personal infrastructure is all virtual. The channels that replace hallways and water coolers are strangled — lower-fidelity and less emotionally rich.
These are big changes. The sooner we can adjust these behaviors, the better and faster we’ll be able to make decisions in our new environment.
Please Note: This more introverted way of deciding may explain why technical teams are often very effective at remote work. It’s important to give your extroverts as much virtual social energy as possible. So as you free up more time by moving away from reliance on meetings for decision-making, use it to hold more meetings aimed purely at communicating and socializing. Create room for emotions to flow between people in a new and challenging situation.
Let’s Keep Learning And Sharing
These are the most effective of the remote work decision tips I’ve found over the past several years and they will help your team adjust to the changes happening in the world today. I’d love to hear from other teams about what is working for you. Send them my way on Twitter @erikdlarson and I’ll do a follow-up article to share what we’ve all learned. Hang in there!