A leading question
For over fifteen years, Gert Müller has worked with clients in the chemical, petrochemical and refining industries worldwide on over 70 large capital projects. Achieving success hinges on the manager’s ability to make quick, pragmatic decisions in high-pressure situations. As Gert explains, this skill is not as easily acquired as many think.
Interview: Amy Faulconbridge
Why is decision-making difficult, Mr. Müller?
Decision-making per se isn’t difficult. It becomes complexwhen the consequences of a decision have a large impact. In contexts where the risks are high, such as where other people could be affected or even hurt, or where there are large amounts of money or a reputation at stake, then the process becomes much harder.
What happens next?
Sometimes difficult decisions are simply avoided, mainly because making mistakes has serious consequences and the potential ramifications associated with getting it wrong push people towards inaction. During major capital projects for example, the scale of the operation is vast, with thousands of activities to be done by sometimes hundreds of workers simultaneously. Preparing for that takes time, and the risks are high because each decision affects a broad range of activities and people. At this stage, some managers tend to procrastinate or sidestep decisions altogether.
What effect does that have?
They hope things will get sorted out somehow because they have always managed in the past. Unfortunately, if decisions are ignored or not implemented quickly and clearly enough, the team promptly becomes disillusioned and demotivated, and work processes can slow down and even stop altogether. The consequences of spending too long deciding between the best and second best options are often worse than selecting the less favorable option.
How can managers avoid this stalemate?
The first step is to make sure that everyone understands their role in the decision-making process. Often, teams have worked together for a long time and think that they all know who does what and when, but that can be a dangerous assumption. Everyone expects someone else to do something and decisions are neglected. Clarifying responsibilities is crucial.
Is that a difficult process?
Not necessarily. As long as processes are clearly defined, it is relatively straightforward to set up the adequate organization structure and allocate and clearly communicate responsibilities. One of the key issues is the lack of clarity as to who is responsible for what. This is when decisionmaking is passed between different managers and committees, creating a decision-making vacuum. Another challenge is the common belief that all decisions need to be made by consensus – which is a favorable approach in principle but can lead to delays and procrastination. We help our clients to define and implement a clear decision-making structure that drives project progress.
How do you do that?
The starting point is usually to test that implemented processes and deliverables are adequate, agreed, aligned and clearly communicated and understood throughout the organization. The next step is then to allocate responsibilities from a project organization with a structure that is fit for purpose and that supports effective communication. Furthermore, proactive and informed decision-making requires the availability of adequate project progress data and key performance indicators for the various deliverables. We encourage our clients to build such information and spend time coaching managers on how to use it and actively make decisions to drive the project to successful completion.
Do you make decisions for your clients?
No. That’s not what we are there for. We are there to support our clients to implement clear structures, processes and managerial behaviors that enable managers to take on that responsibility themselves. The term consultant comes from the Latin consultare, which means “to discuss and consider carefully,” not “to decide on behalf of someone else.” We are there in a supportive, collaborative capacity, not in a didactic one. Working together to empower managers to make their own decisions, and sanction their own success is by far the most effective and sustainable approach.