“You should ask these five questions any time you have to make a decision.”

The tiny process engineer in my brain did a little dance of joy with those words. I was attending an internal meeting for one of my clients and I thought that staff would be thinking “Finally! A decision-tree!”

Each of us is asked to make decisions every day in our jobs. Some decisions are easy, some are hard, some are just right for our pay scale.

But God help us if we get it wrong.

Some workplaces are more risk averse than others and so the process of making decisions is particularly fraught. Usually, the response is to create a rigid hierarchy because it’s comforting for both managers and employees to know exactly where that line is because then they’re less likely to get in trouble.

Personally, I’d hate that. I like colouring outside the lines.

Employees like me who value autonomy self-select out of a rigidly hierarchical workplace and find a role in organizations that are more equalitarian. I naturally seek what organizational culture experts call a “flat hierarchical structure” where employees are encouraged to make decisions.

Of course, it’s not black and white. No organization is purely a rigid hierarchy nor completely egalitarian. Like with everything in life there are fifty shades of … well, let’s just call it a spectrum.

If you’re reading this, the odds are good that you are currently undergoing a shift from one side of the spectrum to someplace closer to the middle. Or right of centre. Or left. Or wherever.

And you’re not alone.

More and more organizations are empowering their employees to make an increasing number of decisions for themselves, guided by the organization’s corporate values.

There’s a famous example of this at Nordstrom. Like many companies, one of Nordstrom’s core values is exceptional customer service. I know, Snooze, right? But during customer orientation, the company leaders tell a story of an employee who was asked by a customer to gift-wrap an item purchased at another store. When confronted with an unusual decision to make, the employee checked in with the company values and decided, “if I agree to do this small thing for this frazzled customer who is burnt out from too much Christmas shopping, then I’ll have fulfilled my mandate of providing exceptional customer service”. They took a chance, wrapped a present, created a happy customer and got praised. Now their story is now held up as a shining example.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that Sears would not have praised this employee. Which is why Nordstrom now occupies the retail space recently vacated by Sears.

So when United way’s COO Beth Gignac recently said “you should ask these five questions any time you have to make a decision” I did my little dance.

Beth was giving an internal presentation on United Way’s new Successful Kids Strategy and had just put up a slide that outlines their Value Proposition. Here it is below, taken from The Way Forward Strategic Plan document.

This Value Proposition was developed by the United Way board of directors through a series of bold conversations and their board retreat that I lead last year. This adventurous board understands good organizations know their customers, business, product and what sets them apart. This serves as their North Star. The board realized that being intentional about their organizational values would create a value-driven organization, and that would help ensure donor dollars get to where they needed to go.

Beth’s challenge to those present was this “This value proposition should guide your every decision. When you’re making a decision – any decision – you should be able to ask:

  • Does this decision I’m about to make reflect that we are local experts?
  • Am I bringing people together?
  • Are we solving complex issues?
  • Are we improving lives?
  • Is this decision going to generate a high return on community investment and allow us to measure impact?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, then reconsider why you’re doing it.”

Though, in all fairness, I suspect folk at United Way are wise enough to know that if their decision involves cancelling super important – like the annual fundraising campaign – maybe they should check in with somebody beforehand. Even with decision-making criteria, some decisions are made easier, some are still hard … and some are just right for our pay scale.

What’s YOUR value proposition? And could YOUR employees use it to guide their decisions? If not, then consider if maybe you need to revisit it.


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