Decision-Making Hierarchy

As many of you know, I’m a rabid fan of clarity (along with focus, discipline, and engagement, the foundational organizational behaviors that I address in The Outstanding Organization).

In many organizations, the opposite of clarity—ambiguity—is the productivity-sapping, chaos-producing norm. By trading ambiguity for clarity, organizations create work environments that result in better decisions, greater alignment toward common goals, higher levels of engagement, and lower labor and operating costs due to excessive clarification and rework.

Operating with clearly defined roles and responsibilities is one of the many areas I cite in my book as a key contributor to high levels of employee engagement and, by extension, outstanding business performance (p. 45).

Yesterday my business coach, Michael Stratford, and I had a conversation about the various levels of involvement people play in a business and in providing value to customers (e.g., full- and part-time staff, subcontractors, investors, advisors, collaborators, and strategic partners), and the need to be extremely clear about each party’s role in decision making.

Michael shared a decision-making taxonomy that he learned from Carolyn Taylor (author of Walking the Talk), which struck a clarity-defining chord in me. The levels of decision-making authority are:

  • I decide
  • You give input and I decide
  • We decide together
  • I give input and you decide
  • You decide

All parties benefit by being intentional and clearly communicating the level of decision making authority we’re operating from (which varies, depending on the decision to be made). Imagine a world with this level of clarity. No more wondering if you’re authorized to make a decision or not. No more irritation because someone made a decision they weren’t authorized to make. No more frustration with people who aren’t making decisions that are theirs to make simply because they didn’t know they had the authority to do so.

Eureka! I hope you’ll join me in practicing intentional decision making—both at work and in life. I invite you to share your results and lessons learned.

by Steve Ghera reply

Great insights, Karen, on clarity of decision making. I would like to use some of this as I help leaders develop their decision making “standard work”. In developing this, I will share that if one makes the decision making process as clear as possible – – it actually goes away. Yes, “decision making” transforms into “logic” and if used as standard work, then the decision makes itself. If applied well, it frees the decision makers (e.g. leader) up for more time at the gemba, strategy deployment etc. and puts the power of “decision making” into the hands of the informational input barer (the workers).

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hi Steve. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I need to noodle on your assertion that a decision can make itself. Maybe I’m operating from a faulty paradigm or maybe we’re talking about two different types of decisions. I’m talking business decisions. Are you? I don’t know how big decisions make themselves. Could you please provide more info? I’m intrigued.

    Also, just in case this helps you create your leadership standard work around decision-making, I’ll share a classification I often use that I didn’t include in the post because I didn’t want to complicate my message. Gaining clarity and consensus around these “buckets” is helpful as well:

    3 Levels of Authority:

    1. Those who make the decision
    2. Those who are consulted in making the decision (advisory) but are not involved in making the final decision
    3. Those who have no involvement in making the decision

    Two Levels of Information Needs:

    1. Those who need to be informed about the decision (and this category can be broken into sub-categories where information needs vary by role)
    2. Those who do not need to be informed about the decision

    Hope that helps!

      by Steve Ghera reply

      Ah, you are right, Karen. I don’t think your paradigm is flawed at all. I think you are right about the possibility that you and I may be talking about two different types of decisions. I was not thinking of the one-time or strategic decisions. I was referring to the kinds that are fairly repeatable where a clear set of criteria can be developed and improved over time: e.g. projects passing a gate, or a decision to allow/disallow the use of an exception process. I’ve seen this play out for some establish decision processes. The people seeking the direction from the decision makers accurately predict the ‘verdict’ because the decision criteria is so clear (there’s that word again – – clear). The exception to this is when there is a wrinkle, or new information, that the decision criteria (or logic) are not designed to handle. Then is comes down to the leadership’s internal decision making processes (hence your blog: we move from “we decide” to “I decide”). What I’ve seen is if the wrinkle keeps repeating and the leaders liked the outcome they got before, they institutionalize it into their logic. Hence, organization learning is encoded into the DNA of the decision process.

      The 3 levels of authority you cited look very similar to the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) – – but as it applies to the governance function of decision making.

by Karen Martin reply

Yes, my categories are similar but different from RACI for a reason: I haven’t found RACI to be specific enough and it seems like a mixed metaphor to me. In other words, responsibility and authority are very different from consulting and informing someone. The model never made sense to me.

I’m in the process of helping a client define decision-making “rules” for the senior leadership team and the company’s Board of Directors. Clarity will bring consistency and appropriate levels of transparency for the various issues that Boards regularly tackle.

Thank you again for weighing in. Good stuff!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *