Getting a decision from a manager

So you would like a decision?

Specifically, you would like a decision from me.

The hard way

Let’s have a protracted discussion wherein you introduce a topic and I’ll be the interrogator. I’ll try to figure out what you are really asking for. Start by asking something that’s indirectly related to what you want to know or by making an observation. Be sure to disguise the problem statement so it’s hard to tell that you actually want a decision. Definitely, absolutely, positively, do not explicitly state that you are looking for a decision. I’ll ask a series of questions to uncover what you are truly asking. Perhaps I will. You might even get the decision that you were looking for. Yet perhaps, I’ll take things in a different direction altogether. My line of questioning may not be what you wanted to discuss. Who knows, we might conclude the discussion with a whole myriad of decisions and action items for you. None related to what you were hoping to accomplish. At the end of the discussion, I’ll be perplexed about why this discussion occurred and you’ll be wondering how such a simple request strayed so far from your objective.

The easy way

Alternatively, you can follow these steps.

Start by explicitly stating that you want something decided. Provide the topic, how urgent you believe it to be, and how much time you think the discussion will take. Ask when will there be time to discuss things. Usually, there’s time presently. But if there’s not then expect to know when there will be time. If now is not the time, then please don’t continue with the topic right now.

Provide some level of context/background. Don’t assume that I know the context. If we talked about it 3 days ago (or yesterday), then tell me so. Interesting aside: the earlier you are in your career (and life) the fewer things that you have to keep track of. The converse is also true. I have long ago given up on trying to remember everything that’s going on. When my memory is sufficiently jogged, I’ll speak up.

Tell me any other information that you believe I should know. For example, if you have had this discussion with your colleague and they strongly disagree, then please tell me. In other words, don’t set me up. Failing to disclose something to influence a decision is the surest way to lose credibility. Conversely disclosing information that negatively impacts your position makes you very credible.

State the problem clearly and in three sentences or less. This is quite important. More details usually don’t help. In fact, it’s very easy to obfuscate something with tons of details. This is a common case with a very technical staff because their job requires them to know all the fine grain details. Blaise Pascal once said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.*” If you can’t summarize the matter, then take the time to get collected and organize your thoughts. If I think I need more details, I’ll ask very pointed questions.

Offer three legitimate alternatives. I’m being very literal here. I would like three. If you can’t think of three alternatives, then give it some more thought. If there are more than three, then only bring up the best three. “Do-nothing” is a valid alternative. If there is truly only one option, then there’s nothing to decide. Perhaps you only need to inform me of what you’re going to do or ask me if I can think of alternatives. Give the pros and cons of each alternative. The need for a decision arises when there are inherent trade-offs between options. If option 1 is all positive and option 2 is all negative, then really only one option exists.

State the criteria that you are using to evaluate the options. This is where you frame the logical argument that will support your recommendation. If your criteria are, for example, the fastest resolution possible and you want to have the most experienced person assigned to the problem, that’s logical. Conversely, if your criteria are to extend the number of staff who are familiar with a topic and you want to assign someone unfamiliar with the problem, that’s also logical.

I claim that in 80% of the situations this will be a five-minute conversation and you will get the decision you wanted. In the other 20% either I won’t agree with your criteria or the subject is complicated.

Decisions aren’t the only reason for discussion

Not all conversations are about decisions. Sometimes you are stuck and need help to establish a path forward. You may want another technical opinion or want to have a sounding board for your ideas. You also may need to inform me of some fact. Perhaps you just want to be social. All of these are welcome. Most of the time I can identify the type of conversation that you want to have. All of the time, it’s OK if you explicitly state the nature of the discussion.

* I originally thought that this was a Persian quote, however, it turns out to be of French origin. From Blaise Pascal no less. “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

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