Is it possible for everyone in a company to have the same power to make decisions as the CEO?

A year and a half ago I wrote an article about the Advice Process. We were a few months in the experiment at GrantTree, and it was going well enough that I wanted to share our findings.

Time has passed, and I have more findings and refinements. If the advice process is something of interest to you, my thoughts below may be worth reading.

First, has it worked?

Back then, I was confident, but not entirely sure that the advice process would work out. So the first question to answer is, is it working?

Absolutely. I won’t say that it is yet completely understood by everybody, or that all the challenges surrounding it are resolved (see below), but anyone who works here can observe for themselves that it is at the core of how we work. The experiment is certainly a success at this point.

How has our implementation of the advice process changed? Read on.

Phrasing

The first and most obvious thing that has changed about our implementation of the advice process is the phrasing. 18 months ago we were quite forceful about the definition:

Anyone can make any decision they feel comfortable making. However, before they make that decision, they must ask those who will be impacted by that decision, and those who are experts on that subject, for advice. They are free to disregard the advice and make the decision the way they wanted to anyway, but they must first ask for advice.

Important: this is about getting feedback/input into your decision, not about building consensus. Do not use the advice process to try and browbeat people into agreement or to build political support for your decision. You don’t need people to agree. You don’t need political support. You just need input to make sure that you make the right decision.

This definition spoke to our collective fear that the advice process would be misused or abused, that people would make controversial decisions without seeking the advice they needed to make a good decision, or that people might feel like their voice hasn’t been heard when making the decision (because they weren’t consulted at all).

In practice, we’ve not noticed that to be a problem. On the contrary, people typically seek too much advice for most decisions. This is not inherently bad except that sometimes it makes the advice process seem like a drag. So we changed the phrasing to say:

Anybody can make any decision if they have all the advice they need to make a good decision for the business. This includes asking those impacted or with expertise.

There, that’s it. No caveats, no footnotes. Just a simple statement and guideline with a bias towards actually making decisions.

Peer pressure

When I wrote the previous article, I was worried that I would be the one to undermine other people’s decisions, and hence my advice was directed towards founders, and other people with positions of implicit authority or status, to try and help them not undermine the advice process themselves.

That advice still stands – I still think that in a traditional top-down setting, the person deciding to put in the advice process can also very easily destroy its dynamic by revising other people’s decisions, but I am now aware that even if that doesn’t happen, there are lots of dynamics in the company that can undermine the process in practice, even without any status games.

The advice process is very challenging both for the people giving the advice and for those receiving it.

On the giving side, there is an implicit surrender of control in giving advice to someone that is hard to stomach for most people, particularly when they feel like their advice should carry weight. The person we’re advising may make a decision we disagree with. This causes fear. Fear leads to distrust and sometimes to attempts to influence the outcome of the process. This subversion can take many forms, but one of the more common ones I’ve observed is peer pressure and politics: when we fear the outcome, we might spend time discussing the decision-in-progress with a group, persuading them of the right outcome, and trying to enforce a sort of consensus-based resistance to the outcome that we fear.

As a consequence of that dynamic, instead of spending time trying to stop myself from revising other people’s decisions, I’ve found I’m spending far more time protecting other people’s right to make unpopular decisions, for example, by stating openly that whatever the decision the person makes, it’s their decision and I’ll stand by their right to make it.

Another extra layer of peer pressure is added when people give advice on behalf of others. Second-hand advice (“I don’t think you should do this because other people will disagree”) is generally poor, unconvincing, and also undermining.

My advice to the advice-giver would be:

When giving advice, accept that this is not your decision instead of trying to take control of the decision, speak for yourself instead of speaking for others, be clear that you’re just explaining your perspective instead of stating your opinions as universal truths.

On the advice-receiving side the process is also often challenging. Because most organisations operate by political processes, we feel tempted to discuss and justify our impending decision while seeking advice. I find that I fall prey to this a lot. It’s my biggest challenge when taking on decisions myself, perhaps borne out of the habit of making decisions via persuasion. So, a lot of my energy there is spent on myself to try and not fall into persuasion mode when seeking advice.

Why is that important? For two reasons. First of all, when I am trying to persuade someone else, I’m only listening to their arguments in the sense that they are obstacles I need to remove to convince them – so the advice that I get ends up being poorer, because of my own poorer listening skills. Secondly, the person giving the advice struggles to feel heard if they perceive that I am trying to convince them.

My advice to myself in this is:

When seeking advice, listen instead of arguing, ask questions instead of explaining, seek to fully understand the other perspective instead of seeking to change it.

This is a lot harder than it seems.

Disagreements

Although there has occasionally been grumbling when someone made a decision someone else disagreed with, it has generally been accepted that the decision was made.

Importantly, we used to state that a valid outcome of such a disagreement was a conflict resolution process. Then we moved away from that, because the threat of conflict looked like it was being used to coerce decisions (some people seemed more risky to have a conflict with than others). Right now we’re in an in-between state where we haven’t really defined what happens if someone makes a decision where someone else disagrees so vigorously that they can’t accept it – in part, because it doesn’t seem like that’s ever happened, even when very high-impact and controversial decisions were being made.

I don’t want to overextend myself here, but it is possible that this is a non-issue. Much like in top-down businesses, decisions that we disagree with, coming from the top, are accepted as decisions of the business. It appears that this may be true in open businesses too, for decisions coming from peers.

In practice, the few times when such controversial decisions were being made, the person who disagreed had a chat with the decision-maker to understand their reasoning and make sure their view had been heard, and then moved on, without demanding the decision be changed (which I believe wouldn’t have worked, but I never even got to find out).

Pay

Back when we set up the advice process, the first major road block we encountered was using it to decide pay. Back then, I wrote that I felt this could be tried again once there were no more major disagreements about pay in the company. Over the last year and a half, much of the company has, in turns, designed and implemented a pay system. Each time there were some who were happier and some who were less happy, but the result has been that the company really owns this central process, the apportionment of rewards.

Along with that, we also learned a lot about the advice process and how to use it. We developed our relationship to this core process. We also learned communication skills like Non-Violent Communications. We also had some major conflicts, some of which we resolved successfully and some of which we didn’t, but all of which we learned from.

We haven’t yet been able to implement the advice process for pay again, but I think we’re getting very close. Maybe this year.

In conclusion

The advice process is working very well for us. There are all sorts of nuances to its applications, that we’re learned over the last couple of years, and we’re continuing to learn.

To answer the question I opened with: Yes, it is possible to multiply the power of individuals in an organisation via the advice process, so they all have the maximum power that they are capable of wielding.

I hope your organisation is able to implement this process and give it a try.