Who Knows The Problem Best, Makes The Decision

Recently over at Nonprofit AF, Vu Le talked about the problem of decision fatigue experienced by executives and other leaders. He mentions that his organization has been using an alternative decision making process called Advice Process though he doesn’t like that name and suggests,

Feedback-Informed Networked-Autonomous Lateral (FINAL)


In the FINAL decision-making process, whoever is closest to the issue area is the person who makes the decision, provided they do two things: Check in with people who will be affected by their decision, and check in with people who may have information and advice that might help them make the best decision.

The web page Vu links to explaining the Advice Process makes it clear this is not consensus building.

It is a misunderstanding that self-management decisions are made by getting everyone to agree, or even involving everyone in the decision. The advice seeker must take all relevant advice into consideration, but can still make the decision.

Consensus may sound appealing, but it’s not always most effective to give everybody veto power. In the advice process, power and responsibility rest with the decision-maker. Ergo, there is no power to block.

Vu lists a number of benefits to this approach including cultivating an environment where there is better decision making, critical thinking and relationship building. He also says employees feel more empowered and supervisors’ role in the relationship is more focused on coaching and support.

He also admits there is definitely a learning curve that requires trust, restraint, tolerance, and permission to fail as a result of poor decision making. He mentions it can occasionally be difficult to discern with whom decision making should reside and there are some decisions just too big to be made by one person.

There is also the issue that some people and organizational cultures may not be in a place to adapt to this approach. Shifting from a familiar dynamic is not always easy and people want to maintain known roles.

One of the commenters, A Nia Austin-Edwards, shared an anecdote about an organization whose executive director ceded decision making in a similar manner. The staff wasn’t educated and prepared in the process and consistent coaching wasn’t provided to guide the staff. This was exacerbated by some traumatic organizational history.

But overall this may be something your organization might want to consider adopting. Some of the burn out staff may experience may be attributable to a feeling a lack of control and authority within the organization–that they are subject to the whims of others whose motivations they don’t understand. A structure that allows people to become more involved in decision making may help alleviate some of that.

“Change Starts From Within” Means You

Cyndi Suarez wrote a piece for Non-Profit Quarterly that bears considering as non-profit organizations make an effort to have the demographics of their staff and boards better reflect that of the communities they serve.

In writing about the challenges faced by people of color entering organizations predominantly staffed by Caucasians, she notes, (my emphasis)

“…they’re expected to both bring a particular value as a person of color and fit into the dominant culture. This puts the person in what one described as being at odds with “the truth in my heart.” The organizations don’t expect to have to change, and it’s extremely difficult for these people of color to address the challenges from within the organization, in isolation from others like themselves or any other support.”

Seems a little silly doesn’t it given how often the phrase, “change starts from within,” is blithely thrown around?

While I have heard discussions about the disconnect between wanting to expand involvement and participation by groups without considering that it will mean changing things about the organization, I hadn’t considered that the following problem also exists:

“…even though that person of color is a symbol of the potential change that often ushers in the money, she usually has no decision-making authority over how that money is used, and it is rarely presented as a budget at her disposal. Or, even worse, as with Carlos, the person is expected to take the lead in identifying the money himself.”

An organization in the initial phases of trying to expand involvement and participation may not be in a place to put a new hire in direct budgetary control of funding, but there should be consideration of creating a strong relationship between the funding and the scope of the new hire’s responsibility/decision making in its use.

Suarez makes other worthwhile observations about the changing dynamics in the work place in her piece. These are the ones that primarily jumped out at me.

Asking Audiences How They Perceive Our Motives

I went to the Arts Midwest conference last week and I am still sorting out all the notes and brochures, etc that I picked up.

There were a couple general bits of observations I wanted to share.

Blake Potthoff, Executive Director of the Fairmont Opera House in Fairmont, MN gave me permission to share something he said in one of the professional development sessions.  He opened his comments by expressing a problem totally opposite of the one the rest of us face–he wanted advice attracting older generation audiences to his shows, specifically those from Generation X. Apparently he isn’t having problems attracting millennials.

Later, he mentioned that one of the ways they evaluate how their shows were being received was by convening an advisory group every other month and asking them whether they felt a show in the season had been programmed for impact or for dollars.

In other words, once people have seen the show, the organization asks their advisory group if they felt the inclusion of the show in the season had been purely motivated by money or if they felt the show had been meant to have some impact on their lives.

What didn’t come up in the professional development discussion was the fact that the arts org can often lose more money on what people perceive to be a cash cow than on a lightly attended event.

Potthoff said these discussions have really impacted how the organization plans their season and experiences.

The approach was pretty intriguing for me. This isn’t a question we generally ask our audiences.

Usually, the rule is not to ask a question if you don’t intend to act on the answer. In this case, I am not sure what my response would be to the answers I would get.

If my goal is to have an impact on people’s lives, does it matter if people think a show has a commercial motivation and turn out in sufficient numbers to support it? If people answer that a show was impactful, but too few people show up to make it financially viable –well this situation is what we generally assume. Things that aren’t popular are still worth doing for the impact.

If people feel a show was both motivated by commercial success and feel the show was highly impactful for them, that might provide some direction, especially if I felt the show was mostly feel good fluff without much value. I just have to put my snobbery aside a little and explore what contributed to  people feeling this way.

Then there is the final option where none of our expectations are met – what we intend to be impactful is viewed as commercial and what is intended to be a money maker is viewed as impactful. Some answers may lead you to place where you resent your audience for being out of tune with your intent.

In some respects, this may be a question that you ask not knowing exactly what you will do with the answer–except that you resolve to be open minded and not reflexively decide the answers are irrelevant.

Because you probably also need to ask, does your community care whether something is meant to be a money maker or impactful? Do they have negative associations with their concept of what the intent to make money entails?

When they perceive something was intended to be impactful, do they feel that it has improved their lives or that they viewed it like vegetables–they know they are supposed to consume it for its cultural value, but they really prefer something else.

Even beyond the question of profit vs. impact, it may be enlightening to generally ask people what they perceive our organizational motivations to be.

Writing Contracts With An MOU Attitude

Earlier this month, F. Javier Torres and Leila Tamari wrote a piece on shared power and transparency in grant making for Inside Philanthropy. They were reflecting on some of their practices over the last decade at ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund.

One of the things that caught my eye was their discussion of memorandum of understanding (MOU) with grantees. I had written about MOUs vs Contracts for ArtsHacker about three years ago where I mentioned that MOUs generally aren’t legally binding where contracts are.

Despite the fact they were granting significant sums of money to people, Torres and Tamari say it is that non-binding characteristic that lead them to use an MOU versus a grant agreement.

…we developed customized memorandums of understanding (MOUs) instead of using grant agreements. We chose MOUs because they are intended to be jointly negotiated. They allowed us to share power and build consensus about our relationship and expectations of each other (beyond the financial investment). Through this back-and-forth process, funded projects could request non-financial resources in support of their goals.

While using MOUs was a step in building a more equitable power dynamic, funded projects rarely took advantage of this opportunity, and we recognized we still had the ability to “reject” a request as the holder of resources.

Even though the use of MOU didn’t solve issue of an unequal power dynamic as they had hoped, it struck me that this was a benefit of MOUs I hadn’t spoken about in my original ArtsHacker article. Though as I had written in another ArtsHacker article, even though contracts are supposed to formalize an agreement at the end of a discussion rather than be used as a sort of bludgeon at the start of the conversation, contracts are often employed in this latter role.

So if you want to avoid having either party feel like their options are being limited from the outset, perhaps starting the conversation with the intention of creating an MOU is the best approach. As the conversation evolves, you may feel that the relationship is better formalized with a contract instead.

Granted this is probably overly complicating things because both parties are likely to realize their arrangement really requires a contract from the outset, but starting with an MOU mindset may be more conducive to a constructive relationship.

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