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Leading an Organization Through the Uncertainty of COVID-19: Part 4. Decision-Making.

March 12, 2020

This post was originally published by Stan McChrystal on LinkedIn

Part 4 in our series on leading an organization through the uncertainty of COVID-19. This article is co-authored with Micah Zenko, the Director of Research & Learning at McChrystal Group. Links to parts 1-3 at the bottom of this article.

To “slap the table” in military parlance is to firmly decide. Literally, the metaphor refers to how a commanding officer may conclude a group discussion, with a gavel-like closure, hand-to-table, for effect. Figuratively, it conveys decisiveness and accountability. A choice has been made, the choice is collectively understood, and everyone should now move out and execute. But as the COVID-19 response forces businesses to transition to more geographically distributed models for extended periods, we’ll quickly lose these moments of clarity. Early planning on remote decision-making may be the difference between thriving during this period and being beaten by competition that is better postured for remote-work conditions and execution.

Whether you say (or actually) slap the table, consider now more than ever how human-to-human interaction helps clarify the issue, identify points of misunderstanding, and align people on the decision. A swivel of the chair, a raised eyebrow, or a brief sigh are the in-person behavioral tics that tell leaders to continue digging and clarifying before the slap.

So, what happens when an organization’s key stakeholders suddenly cannot gather in one place… for months on end? How do those leaders read the room to ensure the team is aligned then cascade that plan out to a remote workforce? The degrees of separation between strategic intent and front-line interpretation can grow quickly and soon threaten the core of your business. 

Humans are tribal in our nature. We cluster, we read body language, we draw context from contact with our teammates. There is not a simple answer here; the precise solution will be different for every organization, but below, you’ll find six behavioral and process changes to kick start your remote decision-making transformation. 

1.    Lead with purpose

First, leaders must clearly and repeatedly articulate their company’s vision, strategy, and objectives. In a remote-work environment, leverage every opportunity you have to remind your teammates of these fundamentals of your culture, and work to do so as a real-person, not a verbatim read out of your corporate vision.

For example, a steady refrain from leaders, over remote platforms, saying, “remember team, we exist to serve our clients, and we only accomplish that by being there for our teammates,” is a North Star reminder that teammates cannot hear too often from their leaders in a time of great uncertainty.

These foundational concepts should be published in one universally-accessible strategy document that can serve as a North Star for front-line employees who are working at a distance. But don’t just hang this on your portal and consider it done. Talk about it in every meeting to keep a remote workforce aligned. In the digital age, you can have this discussion with thousands at one time. Inclusion of that scale will be critical.

2.    Over-communicate confidence in your team

Decision-making authority should be delegated down to the lowest appropriate level. Dispersed, front-line employees understand the market conditions and customer needs at a granular, intuitive level. They have unparalleled insights on the best decisions for their local context, often better than headquarters-based executives, and they can reach the right conclusions faster. This degree of delegation requires leaders having faith in the performance and risk-taking of the frontlines. If leaders and their teams are misaligned around risk appetites, teams and individual contributors will default to slower, safer, and smaller decisions.

We’re often oblivious to how the second-order effects of geographic proximity solve for some of these issues. If I’m that front-line teammate, I can get clarity about my boss’s intent through a quick chat in the hallway, or through the peers to my left of right. When I’m remote, this becomes orders of magnitude harder. Most normal people hunker down and default to inaction when direction is unclear and authorities are vague. Leaders should fight this by constantly and consistently telling their teammates, “there will be points of uncertainty as we’re separated, but I trust this team, and I trust you to make decision X. Take action when you know the time and opportunity is right.”

After your team starts making new decisions, small changes in tone and reaction by you, the leader, will have magnified impact on their future decisions. Encouragement, support, coaching will breed confidence and openness. Second-guessing and “this is how I would have done that differently” interventions will erode or eliminate any gains you’ve made in empowering your remote workforce. Remember, in a remote-work environment, you are on stage with your organization. Be very intentional about your language and approach, as the impact will be amplified.

3.    Re-evaluate successful decision-making frameworks and set decision boundaries where possible

Distance will change the way your people interact to make decisions. In remote environments, an instant message to ask a question might feel more disruptive than a chair-swivel in an open office floor plan. A quick call to a teammate who you’ve not seen in person for two-weeks sounds far more intimidating than to someone you saw at their desk an hour ago. The desire not to intrude on others, and to hesitate before asking for clarification or information, is dangerous—especially when an urgent decision arises in a dispersed organization.

Leaders must fight this. During remote-work conditions, leaders must constantly emphasize, “this is not business as usual. Leverage technology to remain connected. Reach out far more often than you normally would. You won’t see your teammates in the hallway, so pick up the phone, send a quick text just to say good morning, etc. Our culture will live on these platforms for a few weeks, and we each play a role in this.”

We recommend a very aggressive, detailed mapping of decision-space authorities in your organization. A remote, decentralized environment can’t be a linear, back-and-forth system of giving direction, taking action, waiting for next set of orders. Instead, begin now to clearly define the decisions that each individual or team is expected to make. 

In our experience, the simplest way to start this is at the top. 

  • Consider the decisions you hold at your level on any given day, then ask how many of those decisions you can push down one level.
  • This will inform your design and implementation of the meeting cadence needed so that the next level down has access to the information required to support their decision authorities. 
  • Repeat this process by level, and you’ll find that your frontline is now far more empowered with decision authorities.

Document, publicize, and adapt decision-space authorities so there is a regular understanding of who owns what decisions. There won’t be a hallway for you to sort this.

4.    Establish clearly understood accountability mechanisms

The “Did you meet your numbers?” question is a banal form of accountability. A glance at a simple spreadsheet can answer it. What senior leaders should care about is whether the decisions that their teams are making are having measured and demonstrated outcomes. In remote work environments where information is often stripped of context, clear substantive results that align with the strategy are harder to come by. For this reason, ownership and accountability is critical.

In remote work environments, work on creating a new form of accountability – one that mitigates against vague and non-contextual forms of written communication. Challenge yourself as a leader to ask building questions, not binary ones. “Why is that working so well, in your opinion?” creates far more opportunity for dialogue than does something like, “great job for hitting your numbers on that product!” The latter might feel more positive to one individual but is top-down and does little to create a culture of connected ideas.

5.    Broadcast decision milestones: Phase 1 versus Phase 2

So far, we have mostly addressed the culture you should create for empowerment and decision-making for routine decisions. When you face a strategic decision, the organization needs you to be much clearer, over-communicate, and over-share throughout your decision-making process.

We find an easy framing tool you can use is telling your team when you are in Phase 1 or Phase 2, a simple way to help your team know what sort of input to give.

Phase 1: you are still in the information collection and analysis phase, and you’re open to new options and perspectives.

Phase 2: you’ve made a decision and now you’re transitioning to how we will execute the plan.

For example, when a leader suggests a solution, they can say, “I see us as still Phase One on this, but it seems to make sense that we push the deadline by two weeks.” That tells her team, I’m seeing it like this (phase one), but I need your thoughts and input. Don’t let me bias this outcome.

Alternatively, and especially in a remote-work environment, a leader can say, “OK, great discussion. Based on the input, I see us in Phase Two – we’re going to push this deadline by two weeks.” Here, her team is hearing a clear and declarative statement; I’m convinced, and here is the decision. When we hang up, execute against that plan.

A simple system like this will help your remote teammates know how to help, without the benefit of the normal body language cues, hallway conversations, and head-nods that we’re all masters at transmitting and receiving during face-to-face work.

6.    Trust more than ever

Simply put, trust is the glue that binds people during heightened times of crisis and it is even more crucial amongst widely-dispersed organizations. Maintaining, and even improving, the trust between teammates who have suddenly lost the ability to interact physically is challenging but possible.

This requires leaders to:

  • vigilantly communicate with increased regularity (increasing the regularity and breadth of how you communicate);
  • maintaining an intentionally positive and prosocial voice coupled with an honest view on the situation;
  • demonstrating empathy over organizational frustrations;
  • and expressing authentic concern for the challenges facing your organization and your individual teammates.

This degree of trust includes the assumption that remote decision-makers are not acting with bad intent when their choices seem – from a distance – unwise or uncertain.

Decisions sit at the heart of every business, whether the essential decision-makers are able to slap the table in person or not. In a remote-work environment, your role as a leader is more critical than ever, and a disciplined approach to cascading decision-making can be a powerful tool for you and your team.

Please continue to reach out with the great comments and questions!

Link to Part 1:

Link to Part 2:

Link to Part 3:

McChrystal Website:

Stan McChrystal Biography:

Chris Fussell Biography:

Micah Zenko Biography:

About the Author
Stan McChrystal, CoFounder of McChrystal Group


More Resources:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5