Decision records are a mechanism to balance the authority of decision makers. They help sustain institutional memory of the rationale for decisions. When combined with decision retrospectives, they help an organization make better decisions by learning from previous ones.
What is it?
It is a record of key decisions along with arguments (in favor/against/alternatives etc.) along the way. It is useful for the categories of decisions that result in substantial deployment of resources and/or have proven to be controversial or painful in the recent past.
How does it help?
It helps the organization learn to make better decisions faster without too many meetings. It allows for real empowerment via autonomy for decision making and balances it with a culture of accountability.
How does it work?
We maintain a record of important decisions and hold periodic decision retrospectives to learn from hindsight and to reflect if the decisions we made were the best given the information available at the time.
First, an executive sponsor comes up with a set of decision categories that could benefit from a decision record. Examples of common categories are product strategy, funding, sourcing, build-vs-buy decisions and staffing.
Next, they establish decision owners and a circle-of-input providers for each decision category. Decision owners have the autonomy to make decisions and are held accountable for them. They are required to solicit written input from their circle-of-input but not mandated to go by the input. This gives them autonomy for decision-making.
In order to balance decision-making autonomy with accountability, we have the decision record. It dissuades decision owners them from disregarding input and helps the group retrospect and learn from previous decisions. To make this process effective, we capture along with decisions, their expected effects and expected time-frame for the effects to play out. This information is used during retrospectives.
The decision owner or anyone from the circle-of-input can table a topic as something that requires a decision. After a few days of offline deliberations, the decision owner makes a decision along with a short description of what effect the decision is expected to have by when. The decision owner may also nominate someone from the circle-of-input as decision-maker on a case by case basis.
This is similar in spirit to Agile retrospectives. Once a quarter, each decision group picks the decisions that haven’t been covered in retrospectives so far and whose expected effect time-frames have elapsed. For each decision, the group compares actual effects and time-frames with what was recorded as expected. The reflect if the decision was the best one under the circumstances and discuss potential learnings.
For non-urgent decisions, decision-owners shall allow for a minimum of days (e.g. 5 days) for discussion before making a decision.
For urgent decisions, it might work better to have a meeting and record the key arguments later. The decision owner posts the summary and input providers reply with corrections, if any.
Decision owners are expected to read threads initiated by others within a certain maximum number of days (e.g. 3 days) of posting. While there is no requirement to respond, decision owners will be assumed to have taken the input into consideration in future settings.
A new discussion thread can be:
Initiated by decision owner
- Soliciting input towards a decision to be made
- Soliciting feedback for a decision that’s nearly made
- Soliciting input for change of earlier decision
- Soliciting feedback for a proposed change of decision
Initiated by input provider
- Propose a new topic that requires a decision
- Suggest a change to a decision
- Affirm a decision with new information
When a decision is made, the decision owner shall state the decision in the thread. Threads that don’t culminate in a decision may represent stalemates and a potential indicator of organizational dysfunction. If a decision goes against certain inputs, it is good practice to explain why the decision was made despite the input.
Decision-making in writing in the 21st century! Are you serious?
You bet. It may appear to be slow and cumbersome at first, but once you see the results in terms of reduced meetings, reduced challenges of synchronous communications, greater clarity of thought and the power of a record based retrospective, there will be no going back. To know more, please refer the chapters on accountability and communications in the book Agile IT Org Design.
Verbal, meeting-based, decision making sounds as natural as creating a slide deck to make a pitch. And then we see the way Amazon does it. Jeff Bezos explains why:
Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the innerconnectedness of ideas.
Start simple with a email-list per decision group. Once it catches on, feel free to explore tools like Loomio or a StackOverflow clone.
Example of Usage
A B2B SaaS company is using decision records as described here for a number of decision categories. For example:
Shaping features: Product owners are decision owners and product marketing managers, salespeople and architects form the circle-of-input.
Team Staffing Changes: The CTO acts as the decision owner while the development managers form the circle-of-input.