There is No Them

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The Importance of Small Decisions and Rapid Decision Loops

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Every day each one of us make innumerable micro-decisions about our work. Building software is both technically complex as well as creatively challenging; the tools we use provide so much power there are many many ways to accomplish the same thing. Each micro-decision is an opportunity to make forward progress or to derail the project. With so much at risk, how does leadership ensure that people are making the ‘right’ decision as often as possible?

One could view leadership’s role as coming down to this one issue – providing an environment that maximizes the chance that each micro-decision being made in an organization is the ‘right’ one. While the big decisions leaders tackle may get more notice, it’s these micro-decisions that better reflect the health of an organization. The ‘micro-ness’ of these small decisions lets each individual issue be considered not very important, leading to the false belief that as a whole these micro issues may not be very important.

I believe that an organization that can make decisions quickly will perform better than one that one that makes decisions more slowly, all things considered. Faster decisions means faster reaction loops. Faster learning about the impact of the decision, and a faster ability to adjust based on that learning. Faster learning results in a smarter organization.

What better way to ensure an organization can make decisions quickly than by creating an environment where even micro-decisions are more likely ‘right’? There are many approaches, but a consistent truth is that one must decentralize decision making, while providing everyone in the organization the tools and resources needed to make the best decision they can.

The other extreme is to centralize decision-making in an attempt to exert better control. Not only can one person (or a small group) not make as many decisions as a larger group, but one person (or small group) is rarely the best resource to make the decision, resulting in less of the ‘right’ decisions overall. To believe that one person can make every decision better than the rest of the organization as a whole is to believe that one person is smarter than the collected smarts of the whole organization; something I have never experienced.

Recently I was describing this idea to a long time friend of mine. I was trying to articulate why I thought it so important that leadership understand the importance of these micro-decisions, and how that relates to an organization’s ability to make rapid decisions, that then enables a tight act-react feedback loop. My friend instantly recognized the idea, and introduced me to Colonel John Richard Boyd, a United States Air Force pilot from the 1950s into the 1970s.

What does an air force pilot who flew combat missions over Korea have to do with any of this?

Colonel John Richard Boyd may have initially been an air force pilot, but he had the mind of a military strategist. One of his many contributions to military theory is what he called the OODA Loop. OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.

Boyd believed that the force that could execute the OODA Loop faster would be more successful on the battlefield. Consider his experience as a pilot; the pilot who could execute the OODA Loop faster was more likely to win in a dogfight. But Boyd realized this concept applied to many other areas as well, at many different scales.

Inherent to a fast OODA Loop was the idea of a decentralized chain of command, because it was clear that the more you tried to centralize decision making the more slowly you executed the OODA Loop. Its easy to see how a pilot needs to decide how to fight in a dog fight without constantly waiting for orders, but the idea of the OODA Loop when applied to more traditional land warfare was potentially radical.

If you dive a bit deeper you find that even Boyd wasn’t the first to articulate the benefits of decentralizing decision-making. After the Prussians were defeated by Napoleon in 1806 they made an intentional effort to rethink their entire approach to warfare. A core realization they had was about the problems inherent to centralizing decision-making. While perhaps not articulating it they way Boyd did, they understood the need for front line troops to have the responsibility to react to the battlefield more quickly than the traditional chain of command allowed. I’m sure that if I kept digging I could find even earlier realizations of the importance of decentralized decision making for complex group endeavors.

This new approach could be thought of this way: previously the responsibility of a given military unit was to carry out its orders, whereas now the responsibility was instead to accomplish a result, with much more freedom about how that result should be achieved.

Why this tangent into military history? Understanding that this concept I was trying to articulate, about the importance of micro-decisions, had been better are articulated in a completely different domain was in many ways a comforting realization. Yes, Boyd’s OODA Loop is not exactly what I was describing, but in many ways it was a better model than what I was coming up with.

Leadership plays a critical part in helping organizations execute rapid OODA Loops. In a future post I’ll discuss a model for giving direction that can help establish a culture that excels at this.

Written by joshuahoward

June 24, 2014 at 8:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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