Managers: Will you take the Happy challenge and make no decisions for three months? Here, Henry explains what happened when he took our ‘no decisions’ challenge and why you should do it too.
As the head of the London based learning provider Happy, I have sought to make no decisions over the last 12 months. Instead I have gotten out of the way of our people, letting them decide for themselves. The result has been impressive: A 26% rise in sales and a move from a significant loss to a significant profit.
No decisions as submarine commander
The original idea came from US Navy submarine commander David Marquet. In this animated video he explains how, taking over a model of submarine that he hadn’t been trained for, he decided to make no decisions (short of actual launch of missiles) and instead to coach his crew to decide for themselves.
The result was that the Sante Fe went from under-performing to being the best performing submarine in US Navy history. And, as a result of the leadership he built with this approach, no less than eleven of his crew went on to become submarine commanders themselves.
No decisions as retail store manager
A colleague of mine tried the same approach at a UK retail chain. It had always been fairly traditional with a clear hierarchy, with decisions on even minor issues like customer refunds having to be taken by the store manager.
Under Project Maverick two store managers were asked to commit to making no decisions for three months. Instead they would coach their staff to make the decision themselves. The managers found they could step back and think more strategically. Their wives reported them to be less stressed and no longer ringing the office even when they were on leave.
Over that period every KPI improved. The staff reported that they started enjoying coming to work. If something needed fixing, or a customer had a problem that needed dealing with, they could do it. Those managers are now used by the chain to step in to stores that are performing badly, to turn them round.
Is the problem in your organisation at the top?
Let me be controversial for a moment. My experience is that the problem in most organisations is at the top. The leadership in most organisations too often feel that they know best, that they have become senior leaders because of their intelligence and expertise. They get in the way of innovation and giving people the freedom to make their own judgement.
I thought I had created an empowered culture at Happy. But there was always a nagging doubt that what I thought to be true of other organisations, that the problem was at the top, might also be true of Happy.
So I set myself the same challenge, initially to make no decisions for three months and now on an ongoing basis. Decisions that have been made without my involvement include changing the IT software that our company is based on and increasing the prices we charge.
People feel more empowered and have greater ownership. I’m still “in charge” of Happy but I find that what I really enjoy is new ventures, setting them up and then handing them over to others here to run.
Instead of decisions, give people responsibility
Too often in organisations, decisions are approved by a manager or by a meeting. The alternative is to have individuals having clear responsibility for areas of the business, where they can – possibly after taking advice – take decisions.
On Happy’s new IT system, Ben was pre-approved. There were clear guidelines: he had to consult and create a list of requirements, and he had a budget. He formed a group together, researched the market and came to a decision. I was involved twice, once to probe that all the requirements were being met and he also asked me to join a 30-minute call to negotiate the final price.
On pricing for the IT element of the business, John stepped up to make this his responsibility. He researched the competitors, consulted with colleagues and decided on a new pricing structure. I wasn’t consulted and was happy with that. The new prices have now been implemented and John keeps the responsibility for dealing with any consequences.
Imagine in your organisation if there was somebody individually responsible for all the key areas of the business. Ideally this isn’t somebody senior but instead as close to the front-line as possible – somebody who has direct contact with those who will be affected. How much time would it free up if they were able to decide for themselves, without multiple levels of approval?
Will you take the no decisions challenge?
So let me set you the Happy challenge: As a manager, and especially if you are a senior manager, could you make the commitment to make no decisions for three months? Are you up to it?
(As with David Marquet, you are allowed an exception. What is your equivalent of launching the missiles?)
- What is Pre-Approval, and Why Should You Do It? – a blog by Claire Lickman about pre-approval
- Pre-Approval in Practice at TLC: Talk, Listen, Change – Michelle Hill talks about how the charity TLC: Talk, Listen, Change has used pre-approval in this two-minute video.
- Are You as Innovative as the Public Sector? – Henry speaking at the 2016 Happy Workplaces Conference about how GCHQ encouraged innovation by creating a crowd-funding site for junior managers to decide what ideas to sponsor.