Once roles and Role Stewards have been set through a Roles and Responsibilities process, we are ready to make clear how people stewarding roles should make decisions, especially decisions that affect others.

Hierarchical decision making can be disempowering; at the same time, consensus-based decision-making can be stifling.

Most decisions made in an organization have an impact on others; and more broadly, most decisions have a wide range of factors and consequences that are not directly seen by the person making the decision.

There are two common ways to address this. The first is through consensus — ensuring that everybody affected by a decision agrees on the decision before it’s made. There are several problems with this approach. First, it is extremely difficult to achieve consensus once there are more than a handful of stakeholders; as a consequence many consensus processes devolve to oligarchical processes, in which a smaller group makes decisions by consensus, while excluding other stakeholders. Second, consensus decision-making often preferences those stakeholders whose voices are strongest, creating a shadow hierarchy (The Tyranny of Structurelessness). In either case, consensus processes tend to break at even a modest scale.

The second way is through hierarchy. A manager of an organization has a wide view, and can consider the broad context of a decision, and therefore the manager is entrusted to make the decision. While this is more scalable than consensus, it has its own issues, specifically that it disempowers those not in managerial roles from meaningful decision-making, and often overwhelms managers. Further, in such a scenario, often the people most impacted by decisions are not the ones making them.

What we want, really, is a decision-making process that:

  1. Considers the broad context of the decision, and the impact of the decision on others.

  2. Distributes decision-making across the organization so that decisions are made by those they impact the most, and so that the growth opportunities afforded by decision making are distributed across the company.

  3. Prioritizes execution speed and doesn’t introduce excessive bureaucracy

All of this suggests the following process:

  1. Any decision is made by the person most impacted by the decision (generally this will be the person responsible for implementing the decision).

  2. The decision-maker must solicit advice from all those affected by the decision prior to making the decision.

  3. However, the decision-maker is not required to follow the advice, only to consider it.

This is known as the advice process, and is most eloquently described in Reinventing Organizations, by Frederic Laloux. The details of the advice process are important, and we discuss some of them here.

For the person requesting advice:

  • First, the person asking advice should be the person responsible for making the decision. Therefore, a well-functioning advice process requires a well-functioning roles and responsibilities process, and the advice process is itself a form of communicating and clarifying roles.
  • Second, when the decision-maker asks for advice, their language should make clear that they are asking for advice.
  • Third, when possible, advice should be shared directly with the decision-maker, and not publicly, to avoid groupthink.
  • Fourth, people should not feel obliged to give advice; generally if a person doesn’t respond to an advice request in 2 days, that can be taken to mean that they are comfortable with the decision being considered.
  • Fifth, when it is not clear whom the decision will impact, the decision-maker should err on the side of asking more broadly.
  • Sixth, the request for advice should give the context for a decision, the tentative decision being considered, and the specific advice the are looking for.
  • Finally, where the decision is consequential, and there is substantive advice that is contrary to the final decision, the decision-maker should synthesize and reflect back the advice, and describe why they made the decision as the did.

For the person giving advice:

  • First, make the advice specific. Instead of: “This is hard to understand”, put “This paragraph is hard to understand because it is written in the passive voice. My advice would be to rewrite it as follows: …”
  • Second, put yourself in the role of the decision-maker, and give the decision that you would make given the context you have. An important part of the advice process is to give people who are not making the decision practice in decision-making, much like a Harvard Business School case study.
  • Together, these form a template as described in the following example:

    Sample Advice Request

    I am seeking #advice on a decision I am making in my Construction Contracting Business Development role. [Make clear that it’s a request for advice, and make clear who the decision maker is and why. Whenever possible, use “I”, not “we”, for clarity.]

    We have an opportunity to build two community centers, that will bring us $2mm in revenues and $400k in profits. These projects would be meaningful for two reasons: they will boost our profits, helping us to be self-sufficient, and they will reduce our overall risk in case one of the Prescott projects in the pipeline don’t work out. At the same time, they come at the cost of building a new product type other than housing, for which we don’t have worksheets. [Give the context for the decision.]

    My inclination is to pursue these projects, as my feeling is that the revenue and risk-reduction benefits outweigh the costs of distraction. More generally, I would like to be open to taking community centers on, as we will want to eventually create them as part of our neighborhoods. [Give the tentative decision.]

    I would like advice on two things: (a) whether to green light these two projects, and (b) whether to introduce a policy in which we take on community center projects as well as homes and neighborhoods. [Be specific around the advice being sought.] Please DM me with any advice you may have. [Reminder to give advice directly, not in a public forum]. I intend to make a final decision by 5/29. [Give the date the decision will be finalized; if not specified, the default finalization date is 2 days from the advice request.]

    Sample Advice

    One thing that I am mindful of is that the worksheets team is pretty spread thin, and the construction of a community center is quite a different process than the construction of a home. I am concerned that the distraction will make it more difficult to do the Prescott projects that are crucial to the mission [give context]. Therefore, if possible, my advice would be to push these projects back by 6 months. If that is not possible, my advice would be to not greenlight the projects at this time. [Be specific, put yourself in the position of the decision-maker.]

    Sample Reflection

    (To those who gave advice contrary to the final decision, in the case of substantive advice contrary to the final decision)

    I received several pieces of advice suggesting that creating worksheets for community centers would stretch the worksheets team thin. [Synthesize and reflect back advice.] I have decided to green light these projects, because I spoke to the construction ops team and they are comfortable doing these without worksheets, and additionally felt that the experience would be useful down the road when we do start worksheets for community centers. [Give reason for final decision.]

    Together, the advice process and templates allows for decisions to be made by those who are implementing them, while at the same time taking into account the broad-ranging factors and consequences of the decision.


    Give each person decision rights within the roles they steward. Require that prior to making a decision, a decision-maker seek the advice of all those who are impacted by that decision. However, do not require that a decision-maker follow the advice, simply that they synthesize and reflect back to everybody the advice that they have been given, and why they chose to take the path that they are choosing to take, prior to making the final decision.

    In order to make the process clear, provide default templates on how to seek and respond to advice (Sensible Defaults). Give a way for people to give advice even when they are not asked (Unsolicited Advice). In many cases, starting the path of the Advice process will make clear that roles and responsibilities need to be more specific. If that is the case, use the opportunity to clarify roles through the Roles and Responsibilities process, often by simply having the person who is about to seek advice talk to the steward of the realm in which the role belongs, asking to specify and assign the role. In some cases, a decision will be made, or be in the process of being made, that causes harm to the work of a role in an organization. In those cases, give an avenue for both parties to have a deeper conversation about the harm or potential for harm (Conflict Resolution.)

Published May 5, 2019