The other day I spoke to one of my good friends who works in an international company of 10,000 employees. He’s responsible for helping improve sales. His biggest challenge was not to find solutions, but to implement them, as there was a lot of resistance from people to change. I asked him how decisions were made, which were, as in most companies; from the top.
Making decisions from the top is convenient because it’s a lot easier. It requires fewer people’s input and therefore it’s quicker to get to a solution. But a solution is worth nothing if it isn’t implemented. The challenge with top-down decision making is that you need people that haven’t been involved in the decision making to carry out the change. There is a great risk that they don’t fully understand why the change is being made and therefore aren’t motivated to actually carry out the change.
I personally believe that the opposite i.e. democratic decisions are often much more effective. And effective is the key word here, as it takes longer to get from problem to solution, but the implementation success is a lot higher.
It becomes even more critical when a large part of your company is based over 10,000km away, as is the case with 24Slides. I have a few recent examples which have made me even more confident that this holds true.
Example 1: We did not have enough people to cover the late shift in the customer support team
In the beginning of 2017 we had a team of people with mixed roles. They did both project management and customer support. The challenge was that they struggled to do both things efficiently, so we decided to divide the team into individual roles. That produced another challenge as we didn’t have enough people in each of the roles to cover the late shift (customer support covers 18 hours of the day). We initially tried to find a top-down solution by creating a new schedule in a spreadsheet and presenting it to the team.
Instantly, it became “them against us” because they felt like we were trying to force a change. So we changed the approach and focused on explaining the challenge from the business side i.e. if we have some days with no people in the late shift, we would have customers waiting for a response for much longer, and possibly miss project deadlines. Our operations manager and HR manager then gathered the team and discussed possible solutions. They came back with three different solutions with cons and pros to each. From there on it was easy – we discussed the three options and agreed to go with one that worked best for the business and the team. They came up with the solution, so the implementation was a non-issue.
So we changed the approach and focused on explaining the challenge from the business side i.e. if we have some days with no people in the late shift, we would have customers waiting for a response for much longer, and possibly miss project deadlines. Our operations manager and HR manager then gathered the team and discussed possible solutions. They came back with three different solutions with cons and pros to each. From there on it was easy – we discussed the three options and agreed to go with one that worked best for the business and the team. They came up with the solution, so the implementation was a non-issue.
Example 2: We have customers expecting us to work during the Eid holiday, but by law, people are entitled to take time off
Each year there is a one week holiday after Ramadan. As our design team is based in Indonesia, where the majority of people are Muslim, it means that everything is closed during that time. When 24Slides was smaller, this didn’t come up as an issue. But this year our customer base is much bigger than in previous years. In many cases, we work as an extended part of a company’s marketing department so we have to be available every day.
From a business perspective, It was not an option to just close down for a week. We would lose a lot of revenue, but potentially also lose a few long-term customers. The most obvious solution would be to force people to either come to the office or work remotely and deliver work like we usually do. Again, we took a democratic approach and focused on getting everyone to understand the challenge and the potential consequences.
The Indonesian team went back, discussed and returned with a solution. Their solution was a schedule where we had 1-3 people on each day to do the slides for our most important customers. New customers only had the option for a deadline after the holiday. They got double salary as compensation to cover for the rest of the team. And because they came with the solution, again, the implementation was a non-issue.
Is a democratic solution always better?
I don’t think that a democratic approach is always the best way. One thing that is required for it to work is for everyone understands the challenges and potential risks. If I don’t understand how important Eid holiday is for the average employee, then I cannot take that into account when thinking of a solution. If a designer doesn’t understand that we could lose customers and even employees if we close the business for a week, then she wouldn’t be able to come up with a good solution either. But there are definitely also areas where a democratic approach doesn’t make sense. Sometimes a threshold understanding would take too long to reach. There will be decisions where the gain / loss is too little and therefore it’s better to just make a decision and implement it. Sometimes there is only one solution 🙂
But on the whole, reversing traditional top-down decision making can increase the effectiveness of change. In fact I think it increases as the organization grows bigger. Imagine having 500 people instead of 20 people that resist a top-down decision. Implementation will both require more resources in terms of headcount, but also in time. Whereas a democratic approach only takes slightly longer to make sure everyone has the same knowledge of challenges and risks.
Next time you have a corporate challenge, consider focusing on getting everyone to a similar level of understanding and push responsibility for a solution to the people carrying it out.