Decision-making has had to move to virtual – and quickly

We prefer to have serious decision-making discussions in person. We like to see each other think; challenging conversations are easier when we can read body language, or even hear intakes of breath. We want to look into other people’s eyes when we are making a commitment together. There’s a reason the word “conspiracy” has at its roots the idea of breathing the same air. Organizations that have a mix of in-person and telephone meetings will reserve the more complex discussions for in-person meetings, as a matter of habit.

That’s under normal circumstances.

Now more and more organizations are being forced to make serious decisions both at a distance and at breakneck speed, with high stakes and seriously limited information. It’s not longer an option to defer difficult conversations to in-person meetings.

But it’s not (just) about the tech

I’ve seen some resources that address some of the legal and technical issues with virtual meetings (and I’ve provided a list below), but I’d like to get more into how to structure decision-making so that you can overcome some of the challenges of the virtual context, and still help your organization – whether it’s the board, the management team, or even the membership – make good decisions. (The language of this post is focused on the board, but the comments apply to any decision-making.)

Now, do you need to set up the tech so it’s an enabler and not an impediment? Sure you do.

But then you need to think about HOW you are going to make decisions, WHICH decisions you’re going to ask different groups to make, and WHY. And then proceed working with the tech – and the group of decision-makers – you’ve got.

Some of what I’m suggesting might seem like it’s going to take more time than you feel like you have. But if your board refuses to make key decisions, or if you have conflicts and acrimony break out due to the stress of the overall situation, everything will take more time in the end anyhow.  Or maybe nothing at all gets decided (or done) at all.

These are investments worth making.

How to structure the discussion

Much of this is about thinking through what decisions need to be made, why, and in what order. It’s absolutely crucial to set clear expectations about what a given discussion is about – and what it’s not. Remember that in a time of stress and ambiguity, putting parameters around the conversation can come as a relief. Help people understand what they are being asked to weigh in on, how, and why. Kick some cans down the road, absolutely, but be explicit about it.

How do you structure a conversation so you can make a decision?

  • Frame the decision – what is/isn’t on the table? State the decision you are asking for in a single sentence or phrase.
  • Outline the stakes – why is this decision needed, and what happens if there is no decision?
  • Clarify roles – why is this group or individual being asked to make this decision?
  • Decide what information or inputs are needed to make that decision. Will your board need to see financial projections? Member feedback? Best practices from experts? Legal advice? Anticipating those needs can help you get to actual decisions – even if all you’re doing is recognizing that the exigencies of the situation require you to make decisions  lacking information you would have liked to have.
  • Put the decision in context. Once this decision is made, what happens next? What will be the next decision (or cluster of decisions) that this group (or others) will need to think about?

A board needs leadership support at a time like this, not to usurp their role but to set them up for success.

Presenting options

When you present options for decisions, consider:

  • What options to present:
    • Laying out options you considered, but do not recommend, will clarify your logic and make your processes more transparent.
    • Will board members think of an option that you know to be impossible or highly impractical? Present it as an option and note why it’s not possible (too late, not legally possible, other parties tell you they won’t agree, too expensive, whatever the issue is) against the criteria you set (see immediately below). Set it up to knock it down, so the discussion doesn’t get derailed.
  • What criteria to use to analyze the options:
    • Cost (financial/non-financial)
    • Impact/benefits
    • Your ability to execute the option
    • Impact on key stakeholders: members, staff, volunteers, funders, regulators, partners, collaborators, etc.  
    • What happens if you take an option – and maybe even what happens if you don’t take it (e.g. opportunity is gone, risk increases or decreases, stakeholders react in certain ways).
  • Risks and potential mitigations for each. Nothing comes without risk. The question is, are you well-positioned to manage the risks you’re choosing? Have you thought them through? Will you recognize it if things do go sideways?

Give these poor people a deck!

There are ways to prepare for this conversation to maximize your success:

  • Have a deck! Don’t expect people to just follow along verbally. It’s too complicated at the best of times, and people are strained to the breaking point.
    • You need a presentation or a discussion document, outlining the process, the decision to be made, and the inputs.
    • If you can’t get it into a simple deck, you are not ready to have the conversation.
    • If the deck would be so complicated it would take you a long time to write, then it’s completely unrealistic and unfair to ask people to make a decision without any written materials.
  • Test the proposed process and document in advance, if possible. If you have an executive committee, this is what they’re there for. Run the process and the presentation past them.
  • Provide materials and thought-starter questions in advance to the participants. If you have time, you might consider a poll or survey, but even asking people to reflect on the questions they should be prepared to answer (e.g. “Can you think of other options that should be considered?” “Are there other criteria that could be used to assess our options?” “Do you anticipate additional risks we should be aware of?”) is useful.
  • Give people who will be asked to weigh in on particular points, potentially, a heads-up  (see below).

Having a good conversation

Some recommendations for the discussion:

  • Provide technical support – ideally the person responsible for the decision-making process isn’t also on IT support.
  • Ensure there is solid leadership for the discussion. Ideally this is the chair, but they can also hand off management of specific discussions to someone else to facilitate, as long as the objectives are clear, and roles are also.
  • Leaders should remember some important elements of decision-making:
    • Allow people space and time to think, including silence. Those spaces should typically be longer in virtual meetings.
    • Feel free to put people on the spot – if someone’s role or job suggests you need their input, go ahead and call on them by name. (As in-person you might look pointedly at them.) If you know this will likely happen, give people an advance heads-up to expect it, but don’t hold back on it if it arises organically during the discussion.
    • Ask explicitly for disagreement or new ideas, e.g. “Does anyone have any reservations? Can you imagine any concerns with this? Is there anything nagging at you about this which you would like to raise?”
    • Be clear when you’re moving to decision-making, and when you need affirmative consent – “I’m asking for a clear yes from everyone here.” This may not always be a formal vote but should be a specific moment in the discussion.

Decisions can be imperfect; decision-making processes should still be strong

Boards are not held accountable for making perfect decisions. But what boards are still accountable for is having a justifiable and appropriate process. That doesn’t mean slow decision-making in a fast-moving environment. It does mean taking a beat, making your thinking explicit, and applying critical thinking.

A streamlined but still thoughtful decision-making process can be applied

This takes courage. But it’s what leadership requires in this situation.

When things are moving quickly, it’s easy to assume that others are mind-readers. With high stakes and fluid situations, it’s all the more important to capture the thinking and the logic thereof.

(Note that this means that you still need to do on-boarding of new board members!  It’s all the more important for them to understand their roles and responsibilities at a time like this. If you did successfully run your AGM (Annual General Meeting) virtually, congratulations, but if you have newcomers to the board you cannot just leave them hanging right now.)

Legal/technical resources

As promised above, here are some resources that focus more on the legal or technical aspects of the virtual meeting imperative:

  • Loosening restrictions, such as Ontario’s decision to permit organizations to hold virtual AGMs (information here)
  • Best practices on how to hold a virtual AGM
  • Suggestions more on the technical side of how to hold a strategy discussion virtually
  • And if you aren’t already paying attention to security challenges related to technology like Zoom, please start. Here are some alternatives to Zoom. (I’m agnostic on how you should use meeting technology but you still need to be attending to security.)

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you think all of this through, or help facilitate effective virtual decision-making, please get in touch, including for a no-charge consultation conversation.

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash