Conquering Culture of Indecision

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Conquering a Culture of Indecision Some people just can’t make up their minds. The same goes for some companies. Leaders can eradicate indecision by transforming the tone and content of everyday conversations at their organizations. by Ram Charan Formerly on the faculties of Harvard Business School and Northwestern’s Kellogg School, Ram Charan has advised top executives at companies like GE, Ford, DuPont, EDS, and Pharmacia. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including What the CEO Wants You to Know: How Your Company Really Works (Crown Business, 2001).

The job of the CEO, everyone knows, is to make decisions. And most of them do— countless times in the course of their tenures. But if those decisions are to have an impact, the organization must also, as a whole, decide to carry them out. Companies that don’t, suffer from a culture of indecision. In his 2001 article, Ram Charan, one of the world’s preeminent counselors to CEOs, addresses the problem of how organizations that routinely refrain from acting on their CEOs’ decisions can break free from institutionalized indecision. Usually, ambivalence or outright resistance arises because of a lack of dialogue with the people charged with implementing the decision in question. Charan calls such conversations “decisive dialogues,” and he says they have four components: First, they must involve a sincere search for answers. Second, they must tolerate unpleasant truths. Third, they must invite a full range of views, spontaneously offered. And fourth, they must point the way to a course of action. In organizations that have successfully shed a culture of indecision, discussion is always safe. Underperformance, however, is not.

Does this sound familiar? You’re sitting in the quarterly business review as a colleague plows through a two-inch-thick proposal for a big investment in a new product. When he finishes, the room falls quiet. People look left, right, or down, waiting for someone else to open the discussion. No one wants to comment—at least not until the boss shows which way he’s leaning. Finally, the CEO breaks the loud silence. He asks a few mildly skeptical questions to show he’s done his due diligence. But it’s clear that he has made up his mind to back the project. Before long, the other meeting attendees are chiming in dutifully, careful to keep their comments positive. Judging from the remarks, it appears that everyone in the room supports the project. But appearances can be deceiving. The head of a related division worries that the new product will take resources away from his operation. The vice president of manufacturing thinks that the first-year sales forecasts are wildly optimistic and will leave him with a warehouse full of unsold goods. Others in the room are lukewarm because they don’t see how they stand to gain from the project. But they keep their reservations to themselves, and the meeting breaks up inconclusively. Over the next few months, the project is slowly strangled to death in a series of strategy, budget, and operational reviews. It’s not clear who’s responsible for the killing, but it’s plain that the true sentiment in the room was the opposite of the apparent consensus. In my career as an adviser to large organizations and their leaders, I have witnessed many occasions even at the highest levels when silent lies and a lack of closure lead to false decisions. They are “false” because they eventually get undone by unspoken factors and inaction. And after a quarter century of first-hand observations, I have concluded that these instances of indecision share a family resemblance—a misfire in

the personal interactions that are supposed to produce results. The people charged with reaching a decision and acting on it fail to connect and engage with one another. Intimidated by the group dynamics of hierarchy and constrained by formality and lack of trust, they speak their lines woodenly and without conviction. Lacking emotional...
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