July 15, 2020

From Principles to Practices: Structuring Your Decision-Making Process

Three distinct, interrelated phases—the decision setup, the time during which the decision is made, and the decision follow-through—provide a framework for building decision-making practices that support an organization’s values and impact goals.

Today’s uncertain environment presents an overwhelming number of decisions nonprofits need to make to continue to serve their constituents, endure through turbulent times, and plan for the future. In the article “A Compass for the Crisis: Nonprofit Decision Making in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” we laid out the importance of defining decision-making principles—like equity, financial sustainability, and mission-centricity—that can help you make difficult decisions and tradeoffs without compromising organizational values.

Here, we put the principles into practice by exploring the behaviors that organizations can adopt to ensure their decision-making processes consistently support their values. These practices help teams to center on equity during decision making, clarify roles and expectations of those involved in decisions making, and ensure transparency throughout the process.  When consistently applied to key decisions and adopted by an organization’s leadership and staff, effective decision-making practices can ensure that both the process and outcomes of these important decisions support the organization’s values and impact goals.

Download the Decision-Making Best Practices Checklist

While these practices will serve an organization admirably during normal times, they are exceedingly well-suited to guiding decision making during periods when a crisis has shortened timelines for decisions, undermined the social connections enjoyed in the context of working together, and heightened the perceived stakes involved in every decision.

So, what does a good decision-making process look like? We believe it includes three distinct, but interrelated, phases as follows.

The Decision Setup

In the tumult of leading during a crisis, the first casualty is often the vitally important work of establishing the ground rules for how you will make decisions. Yet this step is just as, and probably more, crucial during a crisis, when the consequences of decisions are both more immediate and, in some cases, highly disruptive to people and departments. Take time to do the setup, which includes establishing the roles, goals, and responsibilities of each decision maker and putting focus and parameters around what is (and what is not) being decided. Team members need to know that while not everybody will participate in every decision, those affected by the decision should participate, particularly those typically marginalized, to ensure the right voices are at the table.

Consider using a tool called RAPID (an acronym for recommend, agree, perform, input and decide) to guide you in defining roles and responsibilities. RAPID is an easily scalable yet flexible tool for big, complex decisions.

Decision-Making Time

During tough times, especially when team members are working remotely, you will lose some of the focused camaraderie of being together around the conference table, making eye contact, seeing heads nod, and so forth. Still, your task during the decision-making step is to engage in the same kind of open and constructive debate you would have if you were in the same room. To compensate for the distance, be deliberate about pushing against the status quo as needed, and evaluating options with data that has been examined for bias.

Keep meetings decision-focused but allow a balance of discussion and action. Promote inclusiveness among all decision makers by engaging quieter team members for their input, especially if doing so helps the team consider any unintended consequences of a decision and its impact on disparities within the organization.

Remember that even the most well-thought-out practices cannot ensure the absence of real, sometimes painful tension, which may arise among members of the team whose departments are unequally impacted by the decision. Acknowledge the tension or pain that some may be feeling (especially if their department is affected) but remind everybody of your guiding principles: you’re there to make the best decision for the organization and not individual functions or departments.

The Decision Follow-Through

No decision is complete until it has been executed. Once you’ve made a decision, hold yourself and your fellow leadership team members accountable for implementing the results. Just as important, don’t keep your stakeholders sweating for news of your decision. Proactively communicate the process and outcome of the decision to your community—once again, with special care given to those most affected by it, such as colleagues, clients, or partners. You may choose to communicate one-on-one, in groups, online, or in any other fashion, but be sure that the underlying message is that your stakeholders are part of your team and have a stake in the decision.

Track the outcome to ensure your decision is producing the intended results, paying particular attention to any disproportionate impact the decision might have on certain staff or stakeholder groups. Support the decision and do not re-open discussion unless significant factors demand you do so. During tough times, an okay decision made at the right moment to produce maximum benefit is better than a perfect decision made after it no longer matters.

Following these decision-making steps—setup, decision, follow through—will enable you make better decisions in both good and hard times. As for the latter,  we recommend that in addition to this process you pay extra attention to taking care of your team’s emotional and social needs. Hard decisions are frequently made during crisis, and leaving space to connect even under the most urgent of circumstances can help leader’s surface team members’ anxieties and ensure they’re heard. Ultimately, improving your decision-making process can go a long way to ensure you’re bringing transparency, care, and inclusivity to challenging times.

Decision-Making Best Practices Checklist

This checklist can help you and your leadership team ensure that your important decisions are aligned with your organization's principles and impact goals. Please fill out the form below to receive the checklist.

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