Making decisions when you’re not in the same location

In recent weeks, more and more companies have restricted their employees’ travel, or even shut down headquarters to prevent spread of the Corona virus. All of Italy has now been placed in lock down. But business doesn’t stop, so how do you ensure that the decisions that need to be made gets taken? And how do you have a good process around decision making when your team is spread across locations?

To keep an organization functioning while spread across many locations, a good decision making process is critical. Some of the principles are also good to follow in a normal situation when everyone is in the office, but they become even more important when you are not sitting next to each other.

If you are a manager, the majority of your job is probably about making decisions — setting direction, planning, organizing, prioritizing, budgeting — all require saying “Yes” to something, and “No” to something else. If you are an employee, you very often are relying on your manager’s decisions to be productive in your work, but you may also have to make decisions on your own or together with your team.

Assess the urgency of the decision

How critical is it to get a decision on this fast? What is the consequence of waiting with a decision? Do you have enough information to make a good decision? Sometimes it is also a risk to wait too late to make a decision, so assess the situation wisely. Keep in mind, in a time of crisis upper management probably has a lot of their plate, and will appreciate that you only come to them with urgent decisions.

Find a good format for presenting problem in writing

If you are not sitting in the same location, it is important that you are able to communicate the complexity of the problem or decision to be made clearly. Whether you’ll be presenting it in a meeting for discussion, or sharing it asynchronously with a team for input, it is useful to structure your thinking in writing. This makes it easier for others to follow your train of thought, and gives them a chance to prepare for a good discussion if they get to read it in advance. The format can be in power point, google slides, a document, wiki page or whatever works best in your organization.

Maybe you can introduce a template for decision documents in your organization, outlining the topics that should be addressed? For example:

  1. Description of the problem
  2. Brief recap of any relevant background/history
  3. Options for action, with evaluation of each
    1. Benefits
    2. Costs
    3. Mitigations
  4. Recommendation — what option you think is the best and why

Shift your perspective

To get a fresh perspective on the decision, it might be useful to look at it from the angle of some of the stakeholders impacted. First Round Review has a great article about decision making frameworks, that also lists some questions that can be used to shift your perspective:

  • What would be best for our customers?
  • What would be best for the patients? (Or people who are ultimately impacted.)
  • What would the board want us to do? (The board represents objective good for the company.)

Simplify the choices and make a recommendation

Humans are notoriously bad at making choices when faced with too many options. Distinguish real options from false options by examining the feasibility carefully. If something is more of a theoretical option that is unlikely to happen, leave it out. End by making a recommendation of what you think is the best option. If you are the one closest to the problem, you are often the one who has the full context and the best gut feeling for what should be done. Leaders above you might have more context about the market or the overall company situation, but they often appreciate a clear and well thought through recommendation.

Present the problem well with facts and data

Being data-driven almost always makes it easier to make decisions. When you start analyzing a problem, sometime the answer appears clearly from the data. Trying to quantify the size of the problem, the opportunity or whatever the decision is about, makes it easier to prioritize vs. other initiatives. When adding qualitative information like customer stories or quotes can be a good idea to make it easier for your reader to relate.

Don’t forget involvement

You may reach a good decision, but the outcome can still be less than ideal because people in the organization were not happy with the process. The feeling of being left out or not being heard can easily create toxic work environments. Think through who has an interest in the decision you are preparing, and how you can involve them. Maybe there are informal decision making structures where people outside the organization chart have influence. By reaching out in advance and asking for their opinion, you make them feel important and respected.

Hot vs. Cool topics

The article “Too Hot to Handle — How to manage relationship conflict (PDF)” by Amy Edmondson and Diana McLain Smith talks about the difficulties of teamwork at the senior level, and how different types of decisions can trigger emotions in people that make them harder to handle.

“‘Cool topics’ can be addressed by debating the facts, with little risk of giving rise to heated disagreement. Hot Topics are those for which differing values, belief systems, or interests shape individuals’ point of view. ”

By understanding what type of topics you are dealing with, you might be prepared to handle the discussion that may arise if it’s a hot topic, and you might get a decision more quickly than you thought if it’s a cool topic. It also helps to know how the decision makers think and anticipate what questions they will ask and what they will be worried about.

Let it mature

One of the most underestimated things in today’s fast paced business world, is to let people sleep on things. We aim to move fast, but can often end up making poor decisions and regret them because of it. When working distributed, it’s even more important to give people a chance to read the presentation of the problem, think through things and then discuss it. If you force people to discuss too soon, they may reject committing to a decision.

Facilitate a good dicussion

When the time is right and people have had a chance to prepare and think it through, schedule a meeting to discuss and decide. In Whereby you can set up a free meeting room for up to 4 participants, if you have a bigger team our Pro plan offers up to 12 participants and rooms in our Business plan support up to 50 participants.

Communicate the decision to people who need to know

If your team is spread across locations, don’t forget to inform everyone who needs to know what decisions was made. Spreading information quickly is key to enable people to do their job efficiently. Contact people directly or publish an update in a shared team chat or set up a decision log in a wiki or shared spreadsheet.

If you need a way to discuss and make decisions over video, you can set up a free video meeting room now on whereby.com.

-Ingrid Odegaard, Co-founder and Chief Product & Technology Officer