The Absence of No: Decision-Making in Corporate America

Picture this: you are sitting in a conference room surrounded by leaders and middle management. Someone has just finished delivering a presentation about whatever the hottest new project is. The business case, development plans, and risks were all reviewed as part of the New Product Introduction (NPI) process. The objective of the meeting is to get a go/no-go decision so that staffing can commence. The team lead answers all the questions, and now the room is in that awkward state at the end of the meeting. What happens next?

In far too many companies, the project manager polls the room for the go/no-go votes from the major function leaders. Each member is asked to give their ‘yes’ vote, and the project will continue if everyone votes in the affirmative.

We should be clear about what is happening here. It is not the presence of ‘yes’ that is allowing the project to move forward. Rather, it is the absence of ‘no’. But is the fact that nobody vetoed really the bar for making a decision to move ahead?

The harsh truth is that most companies move from risk-takers to consensus-makers over time. In the early days, there are a few technology cowboys. They think that The Establishment has it all wrong. They have some new ideas that re-think the problem and the solution. They find a couple of other engineers – likely a little brash and willing to disrupt the status quo. This group of rebels happily forges its own direction, undeterred by the fact that not everyone thinks they are headed the right way.

Somewhere along the way, the needs of the company shift though. The new idea isn’t as important as the need to scale the organization. You hire in some executives from larger companies under the premise that having led a larger organization makes them uniquely qualified to move this one from small to large. These people are expert practitioners more than rebels with an idea. Their strength is not in the next great idea; they excel in carrying known ideas from concept to market.

Over time, the company grows. You hire a few more of these people in. But what about those original rebels with an idea? Some have cashed out and left. The rest have been distributed around the growing company, typically in a Distinguished Engineering role. They are surrounded by talent, but the rebels that made s*!# happen are so diffuse now that their influence pales in comparison to what it would take to move a large company.

The people that run the company now don’t have the foresight it takes to disrupt, and they lack the confidence to pick an uncharted direction and run. The best they can do is ask pointed questions of someone else’s direction. And if they don’t know any better, they simply hide in these rooms of like-minded executives until that moment comes where they are asked for their consent.

But giving consent is not hard when your ‘yes’ means nothing. Surely if something is wrong, someone else will vote ‘no’. However, even when the questions get contentious, the worst that can happen is an affirmative with some condition that must be addressed later.

How do I know that this is the way it works? Because it is ridiculously simple to fall into the trap, no matter how grounded you think you are. I sat and watched these rooms until I became one of the leaders that was asked to give my own consent. And despite having once lampooned the people who didn’t understand the technology, I became one of those people. It wasn’t out of incompetence or even out of some specific desire; it was more a product of spending more of my time operationally focused until I finally just grew apart from the technology I was expected to steward.

I don’t mean any of this to be an indictment on those that can help organizations scale. But I do think that companies need to be aware of the mix they are putting in charge of their decisions. Companies need to understand that driving out all the rebel-minded free-thinkers leaves a consensus-based organization that gets none of the benefits of a collection of great minds and suffers from a glacially slow decision-making process. Even worse, the few that stand up and voice their opinions get labeled naysayers and eventually end up in the corner of the organization where no one can hear them.

So what is a company to do?

First, you need to make it possible to challenge ideas without someone taking the blame for derailing things. One way to do this is through a rotating devil’s advocate role. Go out and buy a pitchfork. Give it to someone at a meeting and let everyone in the room know that his job is to derail the meeting by asking the toughest questions imaginable. He will not cede until his questions are answered. And when the next meeting occurs, give the pitchfork to someone else so that the same person isn’t always responsible. The freedom to ask questions under the label of devil’s advocate will give people the courage to ask things they never would otherwise, while preserving their relationship with the people whose project she is trying to scuttle. The pitchfork is silly enough that people will get out of their skins a bit and play along. The first few times you do this, you should pick people who are particularly boisterous, as they will serve as an example for the rest of the organization.

Second, rather than having everyone present their function in the best possible light, have them intentionally try to present both sides. At the end of the development slides, have the lead development manager present the case for the bulls and the bears. The bulls would approve because of what? And the bears would reject because of what? Having to explicitly document the case for and against forces people to think through both sides.

And finally, when it is time to vote, have people give their vote and then explain why. Is your vote a ‘yes’, or is it really just the absence of ‘no’? Explicitly stating why you are affirming or denying something forces you to justify your decision. If that rationale is recorded and included in the minutes, it forces people to think a little more critically before they give their default answer.

Of course, none of these tricks are a match for a healthy culture. But if you find yourself lamenting the process, it could be that the culture is already lost. So while you bridge the gap from where you are to where you need to be, use some tools to make sure your company is not falling into the Absence of No trap.

[Today's fun fact: There are twice as many kangaroos in Australia as there are people.]

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