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A Leader’s Guide to Distributed Decision-Making: Building Trust, Fostering Innovation

In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, the ability to make effective decisions at all levels of an organization is paramount to success. Traditional top-down decision-making fails to account for how quickly situations evolve while awaiting decisions to go up and down a chain of command. Further, our modern dynamic environment creates unforeseen situations at the front lines, making it impossible to pre-plan every decision centrally.

Fortunately, leaders have a powerful tool at their disposal to ensure their organizations adapt quickly to changing environments, capitalize on emerging opportunities, and navigate complex challenges with agility and resilience: distributed decision-making.

Understanding Distributed Decision-Making

Know Thy Roots

The modern concepts of utilizing a shared understanding of objectives and results within various levels of an organization, rooted in organizational theory and management practices, is what the US and NATO militaries call Mission Command. This concept is based largely on Auftragstaktik (mission-type tactics), the pioneering 19th century Prussian military doctrine outlining many of the same principles that continue to serve as the rationale for military prowess in the proceeding 200 years.

Auftragstaktik

Prussian 2nd Hussars, early 20th century.
Often translated as 'mission command' or 'mission-type tactics,' a 19th Century Prussian military doctrine emphasizing decentralized decision-making and initiative among subordinates within a hierarchical structure. It entrusts individuals with clearly defined objectives (Auftrag) and allows them the freedom to determine how best to achieve those objectives, fostering adaptability, creativity, and rapid response to changing situations.

Finding Your Bedrock for Change

What is often overlooked, however, is the cultural backdrop that framed the creation and implementation of Auftragstaktik, built around the concept of “subordination of self to a superior’s goal.” What allowed Auftragstaktik to be implemented with such striking efficiency was the cultural focus on placing oneself second to the institution—something many in modern private industry would find anachronistic and ineffective as an organizational pillar. This characteristic makes Auftragstaktik and Mission Command complementary, but ultimately distinct doctrines: each implements common critical components for success with one key difference—culture.

The Challenge of Culture

Culture (and the way you must shape it…or break it) is the ultimate challenge when examining how to implement comprehensive change. Too often we look for tools to solve our problem. We say that we are now “using Agile,” or we talk broadly about “leveraging AI,” but in so many instances, we speak without meaning. We want these methodologies and tools and techniques to take away our organization’s problems. However, our problems are not something to be taken away. They are ours to give up.

The Key to Success for Distributed Decision-Making: Trust

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (a must-read for all leaders) Patrick Lencioni shows us that the bedrock of a high-functioning team is trust. Yes, it’s that simple in concept! Without an environment of trust, it is impossible to engage in the necessary debate required to ensure understanding and buy-in of objectives and, critically, to inspire the workforce to look beyond personal or small-term objectives and focus on the organization’s needs—which ultimately should come to enrich their careers and personal needs.

The Role of Leadership in Distributed Decision-Making

Effective leadership is essential for the successful implementation of distributed decision-making. Transformational leadership, characterized by empowerment, vision, and support, is particularly effective in enabling decentralized decision-making. Leaders who exhibit transformational behaviors inspire trust and confidence, encouraging employees to take initiative and innovate.

Three Critical Focus Areas

Every CEO and General Officer has a reading list. I do not intend to burden the reader with another. Instead, here are the three critical focus areas that prime an organization for effective distributed decision-making.

  • Generate buy-in: Ensure concerns are heard, even if you make the decision to go in a different direction. Remember that your workforce advocates for your vision when you’re not in the room—if they don’t “get it” or if they feel there are unresolved concerns, it will show.
  • You may have to “lose to gain”: Our people are fundamental to building high-functioning teams. Ultimately, some people find that they are better suited for a different cultural style and structure—that’s okay! Surround yourself with those who will challenge and drive the organization.
  • Put your ego last: Your position grants you a certain level of authority within an organization. Use that authority to drive change and push past barriers. Do not let that authority turn into ego, which prohibits meaningful debate.

Overcoming Challenges to Change

Despite its benefits, implementing distributed decision-making can pose challenges for organizations. Effective change management and leadership support can overcome challenges such as resistance to change, communication barriers, and lack of alignment. By fostering a culture of openness, transparency, and continuous learning, organizations can mitigate resistance and facilitate the adoption of distributed decision-making practices.

Leveraging Technology in the Right Way

Technology can play a crucial supporting role in enhancing distributed decision-making processes. Collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack facilitate real-time communication and knowledge sharing among distributed teams. Additionally, advanced analytics platforms leverage big data and machine learning algorithms to provide actionable insights that inform strategic decision-making. By leveraging technology effectively, organizations can streamline communication, improve decision quality, and enhance organizational performance.

Looking ahead, emerging trends in technology and organizational design are poised to reshape the landscape of distributed decision-making. Artificial intelligence and machine learning hold the potential to augment decision-making processes, enabling organizations to anticipate and respond to changes proactively. Carefully addressing ethical considerations such as data privacy, bias, and accountability can ensure responsible use of these technologies.
Moreover, as remote work becomes increasingly prevalent, organizations must invest in digital collaboration tools and virtual communication channels to support distributed decision-making in a remote work environment.

How Do You Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time!

If you are a leader (and, yes, you almost certainly are, even if you do not hold a title) the task of transforming an organization can feel so daunting as to be almost impractical. Given that day-to-day work requirements cannot cease, how then can you begin the process of putting all his into practice? Here are a few initial steps you can take right now to begin the process of transformation.

  • Focus on what you can directly control: Whether your team is five or 500 people is immaterial. Focus on building the most cohesive environment you can within your team—success will breed more success.
  • Focus on (re)building trust: This cannot be overstated. Your team must know that you truly value their insights and expertise and that productive debate is a sign that everyone cares about shared success.
  • Remember to look beyond yourself: You must reach out to others and work collaboratively; build rapport and ensure that your team has what it needs but remember: avoid “stove-piping” your own team through your success. You still are responsible for the organization as a whole—be a good partner.

Transforming through Distributed Decision-Making

As organizations navigate an increasingly complex, uncertain, and digital business landscape, adopting distributed decision-making practices is essential for sustained success. By empowering leaders at all levels and intentionally building an environment around trust, organizations can unlock agility, innovation, and resilience at all levels of an organization.

Are You Distributing Decision Making Effectively?

Toffler Associates works with organizations to implement future-focused change, benefiting workforces today. Contact us if we can support your leadership journey.

References

  • Avolio, B. J., & Bass, B. M. (2004). Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire: Manual and sampler set. Mind Garden.
  • Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. Free Press.
  • Benner, M. J., & Tushman, M. L. (2003). Exploitation, exploration, and process management: The productivity dilemma revisited. Academy of Management Review, 28(2), 238-256.
  • Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2017). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Davenport, T. H., & Harris, J. (2007). Competing on analytics: The new science of winning. Harvard Business Press.
  • Floridi, L., Cowls, J., Beltrametti, M., Chatila, R., Chazerand, P., Dignum, V., … & Luetge, C. (2018). AI4People—An ethical framework for a good AI society: Opportunities, risks, principles, and recommendations. Minds and Machines, 28
  • Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Bass.
  • Oliviero, C. (2022). Auftragstaktik: The Birth of Enlightened Leadership (Essential Guides to War and Warfare), 38.
  • S. Department of the Army. (2020). Army Doctrine Publication 6-0: Mission Command [PDF]. Retrieved from https://irp.fas.org/doddir/army/adp6_0.pdf

About the Authors

Jon Pungello

Jon Pungello

Jon's career journey spans military service, government contracting, and private sector consulting, with a focus on strategic planning, operational efficiency, and leadership. Currently, as an Associate/Engagement Lead with Toffler Associates, Jon supports a strategic planning and organizational change management program for a major DoD customer. His prior roles include Security Program Officer at the U.S. Department of State, managing high-risk security contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. His military experience in the Virginia Army National Guard, including roles as a Regimental Staff Officer and Rifle Company Commander, honed his leadership skills and strategic mindset. He leverages these diverse experiences to drive organizational success and mission accomplishment across various sectors.

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