Does your organization make decisions? That's it. That's the question. We don't even need to qualify whether the decisions are good or not. That's another blog post. Just, simply, does your organization make decisions? Does that happen quickly? Do you know who needs to make the important decisions in your organization?
During my consulting years, this was always the first domain I sought to understand and master within an organization. How are decisions made today? Is that sufficient for me, an outside contractor, to actually deliver my core-work? If not, then my first objective was to fix decision making.
What does bad decision making look like? In an organization struggling to make decisions, typically its the IC (non-managing) employees that suffer most. They will typically report that they don't know if they are working on the right things or if they are the only ones working on those things. They will also talk about being "whipsawed" or quickly pulled from task to task.
Organizations that have a poor decision making culture are typically very political: they require individuals to be loud and close to perceived bastions of power in the organization and, through their will and proximity, they affect decision making in a myopic, self-interested manner.
ICs and contractors (even senior ones, like I was) have a hard time getting things done within opaque and political decision making frameworks. So, what does hygienic decisions making look like?
1) It is clear who is the ultimate decision maker. This is typically communicated through organizational structure, with each function head serving as the de facto final decision maker in their organization and for cross-functional heads (like the COO or CEO) only stepping in on cross functional matters.
2) Senior folks (C-suite) respect relative autonomy of the functional heads and never serve as a conduit to circumvent the authority of the functional heads (you can't end-round your boss by going over them).
3) It is clear how and to whom to provide input on decisions. In smaller organizations, input on decisions is typically communicated by the employee to the decision maker during 1:1s directly. In larger organizations, where there are many owners of many different work streams, it is clear who those project owners are and how to communicate input to them.
4) Consensus decision making is almost never the right way to make decisions. In super small teams (under 10) this can work, but as teams grow, it becomes more important to make it clear that all team members have the ability to provide input but every decision has a clear designated authority who will make the call. If everyone agrees on the decision, "great", but that is not the goal.
5) Good decision making is "fast decision making". If decision making in your organization feels slow, it probably is and it's probably due to a poor decision making framework. 10 person companies should make big decisions in hours. 50 person companies should be able turn around decisions in under a week. It might take a few weeks to align a several hundred person organization around a strategic decision but it shouldn't take months. Speed is one of the key strategic advantages of startups and it must not be squandered.
Organizations will slow their decision making as they grow and become more complex, which is to be expected and to be actively managed against. There are also cases where a key cofounder or c-level decision maker is incapable of making decisions. No amount of structure or framework will fix a bottleneck of a poorly equipped executive. In that case, those individuals should be moved out of the organization or out of decision making roles.
The best organizations I've been a part of - those that hum with speed and excitement - have leaders who understand the importance of decision making and are comfortable in making dozens of big decisions a day. Not all of those decisions work out (my guess is if you bat 500 on decision making, you are top decile), but its more important to decide and iterate than to wait for better, more perfect information that may never come.