implementing the advice process: first update

A meme featuring an “Ask the candidates”-style fact sheet between 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The questioner asks, “can cats have salami?” Elizabeth Warren’s photo says “cats should only eat cat food” while Bernie Sanders’ photo says “cats can have a little salami.” This is one of the many decisions that people have to face in their lives. If the advice process was more widely used, cats might be able to vote for president.

I first learned about the advice process less than a year ago. I like the advice process for many reasons. The biggest is that it pushes back on the dominant-culture notion that there’s only one solution to a given problem. In truth, there can be many solutions to a problem. The best solution is more likely to come from a person closest to the problem at hand. It very rarely comes from that person’s boss, or their boss’ boss.

Since then, I wrote a guide for how to use it at a medium-sized non-profit organization. About seven months ago, I launched it in a committee on which I was the chair. This is a quick update on my experience using the advice process to make better decisions at work.

How I implemented it
I lead a large team, but I decided not to launch this process with my employees. Even though I introduced the advice process to my boss, and she supported the goals of this work. The advice process works by design in an ecosystem of distributed self-management. My non-profit is still a hierarchy, with a CEO and a typical decision-making structure. Decisions go up the chain, then they go back down the chain. I didn’t want my first experiment using the advice process to lead to a situation where I have to veto a decision. Instead, I chose to test the advice process in a committee I’m on. Every member of the committee represents a department or team. We are all considered equals, and experts in our fields. It was easier to justify the advice process in a setting where no one held power over another. The committee still operated in a hierarchy, though. The Chief Operating Officer sat on the committee, and could overrule any decision any of us made.

Ranking problems
When we started, we had a lot of issues on the table that were languishing without a decision. I created a very simple ranking scheme that anyone with five fingers can do. I asked each committee member to rank every issue using 1-5 fingers for these two questions:

  1. what is your personal interest or energy in solving this problem?
  2. how necessary is it for us to solve this problem soon?

These two questions helped us get a sense of urgency around each issue we faced. It also allowed us to land some easy wins once we got started.

Blocking a decision
I added to the advice process the ability to “block” a decision. The guidance acknowledges that my organization operated as a hierarchy (for now). In an ideal advice process scenario, the person with the power to veto is someone we would have consulted. With that in mind, we ask that before anyone in power vetoes an idea, they consider the following:

  • does the decision make things worse?
  • are you blocking the decision because you don’t love it? are you blocking the decision because you think your solution is better?

This part of the process has worked well for us, so far. Decisions made through the advice process are often well-reasoned. We know it’s okay if they are not perfect.

Questions of Impact
Another issue we ran into on this committee was the question around impact. Because we are a service non-profit, our recipients are the ones most affected by what we decide. We don’t have an advisory board, and our decisions are much too small to consult a group every time we need to make one. Instead, we say the impact falls most on the team affected by the proposed change. That team’s representative becomes the person who gets to make the decision. It’s also their responsibility to share their decision once it’s made.

What I’ve learned so far
Before the advice process, decision-making was haphazard at best. Someone would ask a question, and then we would talk about it for a while before tabling it for the next meeting. Someone would offer to do research, but that never paid off into real decisions. Using this process, we resolved six issues in five months. These issues had plagued us for at least a year. Once we started making decisions, we realized the decision-maker needed to share. I created a decision-making share-out document to archive our decisions.

Sometimes, many teams are the “most impacted” by a decision. Sometimes nobody was more impacted than anyone else. In these cases, the advice process says that anyone who wants to make the decision, can. Sometimes everyone is busy, but the issue is too important to delay. In those cases, we had to assign the issue to someone.

What I am still exploring
Some of the decision-makers reported difficulty getting started. This is still an unfamiliar practice for most of us. It’s not easy getting used to being the sole decision-maker. While individual consults are easier to schedule, it’s still nice to sit around a table and brainstorm with your colleagues. And as I mentioned above, we need to get clear about who we should include in the advice process. Often decisions can cascade outside a team in ways we don’t predict. But the advice process, like all tools, is not perfect.

I am still very impressed with the advice process. I am still thinking about ways to build the process into a formal hierarchy. I am also curious to see if the process continues when I move on from leading the committee. We’ll see how it goes!

distributed decision-making

People in organizations make decisions all the time. This is sometimes a time-consuming or unsatisfying experience. We want to empower employees to make better decisions faster. Some organizations use a technique called the Advice Process. Here’s a summary of how it works. 

when you identify a problem
When you see a problem, you can do (at least) three things: 

  1. Solve the problem yourself 
  2. Identify a person who could better solve that problem 
  3. Log the problem for others to review 

solve the problem yourself
Before you can make a decision, you need to understand the problem. How would you describe the problem? Who does the problem affect? Who does it affect the most? What problems have we already solved that are like this problem? Who solved those problems? Ask yourself, “Am I the best person for this decision?” 

Once you describe the problem, you can then collect advice. Find time to talk about the problem with the people it affects. Use their experience and advice to inform your decision. Consult people who might also have experience you can use. Then, make the decision. Share your decision with everyone you consulted. Thank them for their input. Make yourself available for feedback. 

identify a person who could better solve that problem
If you see a problem but think someone else is better able to solve it, you might be a person affected by the decision. Explain the problem to them and ask for their help. “Hey, I see this opportunity. What do you think? Given your role should you initiate this?” Give advice based on your experience and perspective. Let them decide according to the framework above. If the person doesn’t have interest or capacity to do this, anyone can. If no one does, the issue is not important right now. Log the problem so you don’t forget it. 

log the problem for others to review
If this problem needs a decision but you don’t have time to make it, write it down! Post problems in a public space with your name and the date. If someone wants to take on that problem, they can write their name next to it. This person might make a decision or form a task force. Anyone can take on this problem if they follow this process. If no one does, the issue is not important right now. Keep the problem on the log so you don’t forget it. 

task forces: when the problem is too big
Some problems may need solving through a team discussion. Generally, the bigger the issue, the more people you need to consult. Complex problems may need several decisions. In this case, you can form a task force or workgroup using the guide above. Bring together the people affected by the problem. Also invite people with relevant experience. There is no leader in a task force, only a convener. 

Discuss the problem. Talk about potential solutions. Talk about who should make decisions. Talk about who can do what. Ask who else the decision-maker should consult. Ask what else the decision-maker needs to move forward. Decide if you need a second meeting. 

I adapted this material from Reinventing Organizations. There’s even more detail on the wiki.