Solving the problem of process-constrained change: the final decision assumption

Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell,  CMP Founders and Lead Partners

In our last few blog posts, we have been exploring the dynamic of what we call process-constrained change, which we’ve defined as when process slows down the pace of change such that organizations miss opportunities to respond to a changing environment.  In our March 12th CMP blog post, we introduced the concept. On April 2nd, we introduced three assumptions that can create process-constrained change, and on April 10th and April 19th, we explored the first two of these assumptions: vision and purpose , and weight-of-input .  Today we’re addressing the final decision assumption.

The final decision assumption is just what it sounds like, a belief about who will or should make the final decision after a process of discussion or consultation (1).

It’s simple, someone will say; leadership is required here, and the leader should make the final decision.  The boss makes the final decision – the executive director, the president, the owner.  It seems obvious. However, a review of work in this area from sources as varied as the Harvard Business Review, Journal of Organizational Change Management, our own colleagues and others shows otherwise, with a long history of organizations, practitioners, and researchers addressing and readdressing the issue.

Emotional Reactivity

We’ve known plenty of colleagues who have poured hours and days, deep thought, and difficult conversation into consideration of change.  When the boss announces that she will make the final decision, some stakeholders are thinking and, maybe, saying, “Wait a minute!”  Some are relieved.   Some are furious.

Other times, the final decision assumption looms throughout the process of considering change. We’ve known committees of five who held five different assumptions about the final decision, right up to the end of the process. In the end, four of them were either disappointed or angry.

In these cases, assumptions about who will or should make the final decision lead to resentment, and often resistance to the change so hard-wrought through insightful process.

Negotiation

Negotiation about who makes the final decision is another way that change processes can be constrained. Multiple individuals representing different levels of organizational authority are often brought in to design, plan, facilitate, conduct, or even lead change processes. When the final decision assumption lingers unresolved throughout a process, valuable energy and time may be robbed from serious consideration of the change at hand and spent instead on negotiations about who will make that final decision.  

In our experience, negotiation is quite common across a wide variety of organizations. In higher education, for example,  we’ve worked with groups of faculty who spent whole meetings  - intended as times for faculty to deliberate on substantial curricular changes – arguing about who will make the final decision about the curricular changes they hadn’t yet begun to consider.

Addressing the Final Decision Assumption

The trick to addressing the final decision assumption and decreasing resistance is to minimize both emotional reactivity  and negotiation.  The way to do that is to assure transparency about who will make the final decision and how that decision will be made before the process begins.

Clarity about the final decision means answering several questions. What criteria are required to make a final decision about a specific change? What defines that responsibility?  And what defines the process by which the final decider will be identified?  Again, these questions are best answered before the start of any deliberative process  and before seeking input about a change.  Ideally, consensus can be reached; everyone involved agrees about the criteria for a final decision and who is best positioned or equipped to address those criteria.

More often, though, that is not the case, and then the only way to achieve transparency is for someone with the institutional authority (an executive, a boss, or a leader) to announce how the final decision will be made.  That takes care of process-constraining negotiations, but it doesn’t necessarily take care of resistance to change based in resentment about who makes the final decision.

The best way to mitigate that resistance is  to announce how the final decision will be made after carefully exploring the central questions behind assumptions about final decisions: What criteria are required to make a final decision about a specific change? What defines that responsibility?  And what defines the process by which the final decider will be identified?    Here is an opportunity to honestly interrogate the most common and persistent (again, despite research and experience to the contrary) final decision assumption: Really, is the leader or the boss always the best person to make the final decision?

Once that exploration is complete, then the announcement about who will make the final decision should include a thorough explanation of the reason for that decision.  Absolute acceptance of the final decision-maker may still be limited, but understanding will mitigate resistance, and the drag of negotiation about final decision during the process itself will be gone.

What’s Next?

In future posts, we’ll explore the ways that well known challenges to change intersect with process-constrained change.  But we’re going to wait for a while to do that, in hopes that some readers of the CMP Blog will add their insights and ideas to our collective consideration about process-constrained change.   Our subsequent posts on process-constrained change will include reflections on your ideas.

For the next few weeks, we’ll “change gears” and post about some of the lessons we’ve learned from our work with client organizations about applying principles of participatory action research to increase the impact of their missions.

And we hope to hear from you.  



 

Endnote

1  We thank our colleague Monique Snowden for bringing to our attention the important point that “organizations are susceptible to process-constrained change resulting from assumptions that a final decision has or has not been made.” This led us to develop another class of assumptions, including her point, that we will address in future posts.