Updated: Aug 22, 2019
The headline of a recent report in the Harvard Business Review read: “Performance suffers as a result of indecision” – and we couldn't agree more.
As both consultants and investors we sit in the privileged position of getting to view the inner workings of different businesses every day. Over the years we've worked with many types of leaders and, on many occasions where we've been called into a business in decline, indecision is one of the key problems – particularly when a business runs into stormy weather, as many in our sector currently do.
One key to running a successful business is to stay positive and keep forward momentum. This refers not only to bottom-line growth but more generally to having a clear goal and constantly moving towards it. Ideally you’ll have a clear strategy on how you’re going to get there – regardless of the tough problem-solving and decision-making required along the way.
Indecision immobilises this momentum. It leaves gaps where nothing gets done and saps your team’s energy or leads to sub-optimal decisions from sheer desperation. We’ve seen it time and again. In a challenging time leaders stop making decisions, scared of the output, or worse still blame this indecision on a “period of consolidation or review”, which sends a clear message – “we are in trouble” – to the team.
Confounding the issue further is the symbiotic relationship of decision-making and communication. When you make a decision and set a path forward confidently, you’ll be confident in communicating it in hard times. However, when decisions aren't made and nothing is communicated, it creates a void that sends powerful – but negative – signals to the organisation.
There are a number of ways you can avoid getting stuck in this particular rut:
1. Make a plan and do something
Even in the hardest times, gather your fellow leaders around a table, prioritise your goals, take a good look at the options and decide how to move forward. If that plan isn't about growth and you’re in a holding pattern, which can be perfectly logical, concentrate on other ways to improve. Set some projects and keep your team inspired, engaged and energised. Keep people busy – spare time breeds gossip and gossip breeds negativity. Once you have a plan, it’s time to commit to it.
2. Align the leadership team
When leading a business in disarray, you can bet your bottom dollar the leadership team will be pulling in different directions if left misaligned.
The above process of building a plan should unite you as a team and, if it doesn't, it’s time to analyse why. We often find it’s because people aren't being frank and open about the problems they see or they end up going along with the consensus, meaning they walk out of such sessions with no real commitment to “the plan”. This tendency must be rooted out, and most often it needs external support to truly get that done. You need to make some tough decisions and move people on if they can’t support the direction. Some people are simply not used to dealing with a change of direction and can’t cope with it. Don’t let them hang around, they will quickly erode any sense of forward momentum.
This whole process becomes super challenging when you have an aligned leadership team other than the chief executive or founder, which is unfortunately often the case. On occasions when you’re the odd one out you have to honestly ask yourself whether you’re the right person to be at the helm, taking personal ambition and ego out of the equation. I've met some incredible business founders who took a step back and believe their business wouldn't have thrived otherwise.
3. Empower your team to make decisions
Micro-management is rife in our sector. Many leaders have risen through the ranks, which can be a great thing, but haven’t necessarily had leadership training along the way to support delegation and management through others. If “the boss” feels uncomfortable or unable to make a decision, this can soon lead to bureaucracy, lengthy waits and a “why bother” attitude among staff. The same thing happens when accountabilities are blurred and decision-making wanders through the organisation as “everyone” needs to have their say.
In both cases the key is to assign clear accountabilities and let those people make the necessary decisions without either “the boss” or “the crowd” becoming bottlenecks. This can only be achieved by having the team aligned around a clear plan – and a culture of accepting some level of failure along the way (see next point).
By the way, don’t be fooled into thinking this only happens in smaller businesses, we've worked with anything from ten-person companies to global corporations that have faced these challenges.
4. Accept and embrace (some) failure as a learning opportunity
In the US, even the most successful entrepreneurs will reveal stories of failure on the path to success. Head to Japan and every disruption is seen as an opportunity to learn and become better. In the UK, however, we don’t seem to have this level of acceptance of failure. While entrepreneurs may embrace this in themselves, it’s rare to see this translated into their organisation’s culture. Some of the best companies we know embrace and even encourage a sense of hustling in an attempt to try something new, accepting that while most will fail, real gems may emerge from the process.
Insisting on getting more than 60% of decisions right results in a slow, indecisive and risk-averse culture. Being satisfied with less than 40% is likely to end up in tears. Getting the balance right is key.
5. Keep communicating
No matter your business’ challenge, silence is never the best option, nor is communicating through a narrow group of people – especially if you've traditionally been a great communicator. The key is to keep communicating your plan and projects and keep it positive. We've analysed a number of recent company voluntary arrangements for a project. One of the key findings was deteriorating employee confidence in the months or even years leading up to the eventual formal proceedings, resulting in people leaving or feeling disengaged. One of the key reasons cited by former staff members was lack of attention and communication by senior leadership. We can think of at least three situations where leaders were avid users of social media but stopped abruptly, sending a clear warning something was up and alarming their internal team.
If problems arise, don’t become a rabbit stuck in the headlights. Make a plan, align and empower your team. Accept they might not get all decisions right – and keep up the communication. It’s the necessary oxygen and lifeblood of your wider organisation.
James Hacon and Michael Ingemann are partners in Think Hospitality, which advises multi-site brands and investors on growth, brand and development strategy and invests in early-stage concepts with a bright future