28 September 2009 • 7:00 am

The Deliberate Organization

As a mediocre writer and crossword puzzle addict, I am continually amazed at the richness of the English language, and yet surprised at the number of words serving double- or triple-duty; words carrying the weight of multiple meanings. One of my favorites examples is the word sanction, which can either mean a penalty for a violation of law, or explicit permission for some action. Homophonic antonyms, such as raise and raze (e.g. to put up or take down a building) are also especially amusing.

One such word I find myself using often in my writings here is deliberate. Both its verb and adjective meanings (which are sometimes pronounced differently) powerfully apply to our interest in strategy, change, and organizational leadership. Let’s take a closer look.

Main Entry: 1de·lib·er·ate

Pronunciation: \di-ˈli-bə-ˌrāt\

Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): de·lib·er·at·ed; de·lib·er·at·ing

Date: 14th century

intransitive verb : to think about or discuss issues and decisions carefully

transitive verb : to think about deliberately and often with formal discussion before reaching a decision

synonyms see think

In other words, to deliberate, we formally discuss issues carefully before making a decision.

Main Entry: 2de·lib·er·ate

Pronunciation: \di-ˈli-bə-rət, -ˈlib-rət\

Function: adjective

Etymology: Middle English, from Latin deliberatus, past participle of deliberare to consider carefully, perhaps alteration of *delibrare, from de- + libra scale, pound

Date: 15th century

1 : characterized by or resulting from careful and thorough consideration <a deliberate decision>
2 : characterized by awareness of the consequences <deliberate falsehood>
3 : slow, unhurried, and steady as though allowing time for decision on each individual action involved <a deliberate pace>

synonyms see voluntary

In other words, decisions are deliberate when they result from slow, unhurried, steady, careful, and thorough consideration.

When becoming familiar with a new client, I like to find out about recent decisions that have been most influential to the people in the organization, and to its direction as a whole. Capturing and deconstructing the history of key decisions reveals much about the culture and leadership style of the organization. Some leaders exercise power autonomously, and express their own beliefs and judgments through decisions made without apparent deliberation. These leaders may reveal these decisions in the context of discussions intended to give the appearance of deliberation, but participants may describe the decision as having been a “done deal” well before their input was sought. Autocratic leadership has the benefit of efficiency, but amplify the risk of wrong decisions.

By contrast, other organizations are painfully slow at making decisions. Without prompting, one of my clients described her organization as having “analysis paralysis.” After working with another client for several months, I began to describe its decision-making process as “deliberative” – which was a gentle euphemism for excess discussion, and not a compliment. And yet another client prompted me to observe that “at XYZ, ‘yes’ is never yes, ‘no’ is never no, there are only endless degrees of ‘maybe’.” These organizations suffer from their inability to quickly recognize and act upon threat and opportunity.

As we continue to puzzle over the inability of most organizations to reliably execute strategy, it is important to examine how each one makes decisions. There is no one ‘right’ decision style, but it seems to me that the elusive and desirable approach would be one in which decisions are made carefully, as a result of efficient consideration by leaders and expert stakeholders working together, yet quickly enough to enable timely action. Decisions made carefully yet quickly are acted upon tenaciously, yet subject to careful scrutiny and a healthy skepticism that objectively separates the decision from the decision makers. Poor decisions are recognized thoughtfully and early, with timely corrective actions taken. These ideals, to me, are core definition of the deliberate organization.

How has your organization made its important decisions? Were good decisions made quickly and efficiently? Did leaders stand by decisions, or drift in a tide of uncertainty? Were poor decisions recognized and dealt with properly? Were risks understood and accepted? How would you define the deliberate organization?

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