Playing To Win

Unclogging Your Decision Factory

How to Stop Working Hard, But Ineptly

Roger Martin


Source: Roger L Martin, 2023

Given the overwhelming response to Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks, I decided to write the organizational equivalent, exploring why organizations get so busy that they feel overwhelmed, always behind, unable to catch up, etc. My 10th Year III Playing to Win Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece is Unclogging Your Decision Factory: How to Stop Working Hard, but Ineptly. You can find the previous 120 PTW/PI here.

A Modern Phenomenon

The big companies with which I work complain that initiatives get stuck, and their organizations lack effective prioritization. They also complain that the phenomenon is not helped by the addition of systems aimed at attempting to get stuff done. These systems were recently described in a meeting of senior executives as a ‘Frankenstein monster of systems.’ I liked the metaphor, which vividly described the addition of evermore workarounds until it feels like a tragic horror movie.

I don’t need convincing. I see it and buy what they are feeling. The primary beneficiaries are the management consulting firms. When (especially big) companies just plain can’t get stuff done, they rent bodies from the outside, which makes the giant management consulting firms, who always have available bodies to rent, very happy.

If the phenomenon varied more across companies, I would focus on understanding the individual circumstances at individual companies. But it is so ubiquitous. Leadership teams complain about the same thing. If I thought these teams were lazy, I would have a different view. But I observe them as being hard-working and really busy — yet behind.

The Three Drivers of the Problem

I believe that there are three underlying, but hidden, drivers of this fundamental, broad-based problem.

1) Lack of a Valuable Conceptualization

Modern companies don’t have a valuable and enabling conceptualization of white-collar work. I wrote about this exactly a decade ago in Harvard Business Review, but clearly the point needs to be restated. Any large company has a product or service factory at its heart. If it is General Motors or Procter & Gamble, it has a number of factories around the world that pump out products — vehicles and personal goods, respectively. If it is Bank of America or Verizon, it has factories that pump out services — whether bank branches or network operations. Generally speaking, these product and service factories work pretty well and have high and increasing productivity for the world’s leading companies.

The question is: What goes on in their office towers in places often far away from those product and service factories? Do people in the Renaissance Center in Detroit or Bank of America World Headquarters in Charlotte produce products or services for customers? No, they don’t. They are typically quite distant from the production activity in question.

The general view is that these are coordination and control operations. They make sure that the factories are well-directed and are doing what they are supposed to do. But I don’t find that to be a useful conceptualization of what all the many, many high-priced workers outside the product/service factories do. A more useful conceptualization is that they work in factories too, but their output is decisions. The entire white-collar workforce of the modern company works in decision factories where they pump out decisions such as what and how much to produce, how to market and sell what is produced, what new things to consider producing and selling, where to sell what it produces, how to protect the IP behind what it produces, and so on.

If you had that as your conceptualization, you would naturally do things such as organize around decisions; measure output in terms of decisions; measure and work on enhancing the productivity of producing decisions; and so on. But companies don’t do any of the above because their conceptualization is of a coordination and control structure, not a decision factory.

2) Flat Jobs not Projects

Because the origin of large modern companies was smaller companies mainly composed of product or service factories and a little decision factory, as companies grew to large scale, they organized the whole of the company in the image of their product/service factories. It was the natural thing to do.

The central feature of product/service factories is the flat job. Think of an assembly line worker or a bank branch customer service representative (CSR). They come to work every day and perform the same set of activities all day long, for weeks, months and years. So, it is easy for the company to say: we always need a worker at station three on the assembly line or desk two in the branch.

Similarly, in the decision factories, companies instinctively thought, ‘we need a brand manager for product X,’ ‘a vice-president for compensation,’ ‘a director of distribution for the southwest region,’ etc. All become structured as flat jobs — as if the work is the same every day.

But the actual work is lumpy, not flat. It comes in the form of decisions that need to be made and once they are made, the associated work goes away. For example, how to fix the supply chain problem with customer X? That didn’t necessitate a stick of work before there was a problem. It necessitated a whole lot of work to come to a decision on how to fix the problem. Then it will fade into the mists of time.

The form of the vast majority of decision factory work is projects — at least 80% of decision factory work. If you are a decision factory worker — and you probably are if you are reading this post — you almost certainly have less than one day of work per week that happens the same way every week.

But since your life has been organized around a flat job, when your boss comes to you with a project that requires your attention, you feel that it is an onerous demand because you have to fit the project in on top of your busy ‘day job.’ And that is what makes you feel busy, behind and overworked. It is because you have filled up your time with day job busywork — because the conceptualization of your job makes it feel like that is what you should be doing.

3) Dreadful Choice Chartering

The conceptualization of what is actually a project-based decision factory as an organization featuring flat jobs that simply carry out a series of routine tasks perpetuates the mythology that the CEO makes strategy choices and everybody else simply executes — just like the assembly line worker or the CSR. I have written about this too, twelve years ago in Harvard Business Review, though on this front I feel that I will go to my grave with the Execution Trap that I discussed in the article still dominant.

The implication of the misconception/mythology is that the activity that I call choice chartering is done very poorly. When a manager makes a decision, that decision always begets the need for those working for the manager to make decisions that are consistent the manager’s decision. But instead of being specific on what choice the subordinate needs to contemplate and make, the subordinate is simply told to ‘execute’ the manager’s decision — whatever the hell that means.

This necessitates the subordinate guessing what decisions are required to ‘execute’ the manager’s choice. Those guesses are unsurprisingly inaccurate and typically result in lots of rework when the manager declares the results to be ‘poor execution.’ This kind of perpetual rework is what clogs the decision factory.

Instead, the manager needs to engage in thorough choice structuring, which requires giving the a set of instructions with the following features: here is the choice I have made and why; this means that I need you to make a choice that is consistent with and reinforcing of my choice; I am here to help you with your choice if you need it; and I will revisit my choice if you can’t make a good one that is consistent with mine (more on that here).

Practitioner Insights

In combination, the conceptualization of the managerial structure of the modern company as a coordination and control device, staffed by flat jobs, powered by the execution myth creates an environment in which everyone feels busy, overwhelmed and always racing to catch up.

If you are CEO of such an organization, the fix is not too complicated: treat your managerial organization as a decision factory, organize around projects not flat jobs, and make high-quality choice chartering a core skill. And if you say, my organization is too big to be organized as a project-based decision factory then consider Accenture, which at greater $60 billion in revenues and 700,000 in employees, is organized successfully as a project-based decision factory. Ok, there are 172 companies with greater revenues than Accenture in the world, and they haven’t organized themselves like Accenture and maybe you are one of those 172 CEOs. But mark my words, in due course, every organization will understand that a new model is required. But changes like this take decades to come about.

If you are not the CEO of an organization, it is harder. But you can lean into the inevitable future in three ways.

First, think of your job as manufacturing decisions. The more efficient you are at producing high-quality decisions, the more valuable you will be — even if that isn’t in your explicit job description or KPI. There may not be a straight line to your success, but your boss will think of you as a person who gets the really important stuff done — even if your boss doesn’t understand how you make it happen.

Second, think of your job primarily as projects and secondarily as ongoing activities. Shrink the time you spend on ongoing, flat activities to the minimum possible so that you can dedicate your time to projects that require you to produce high-quality decisions. Don’t think of projects as onerous additions to your calendar but rather think of ongoing work as the task you need to cost/time-reduce to leave room for the truly important tasks that are central to the modern decision factory. And help your subordinates migrate in this direction too — you will be doing them a big favor.

Third, spend time and energy on building your skill in choice chartering. It is a key to managerial effectiveness in the modern economy. With your people, make sure you explain clearly the choices you have made and then what choices they need to make, why and by when. Make it clear that their job is to make choices that reinforce your choice. Offer to help them if they need it. They will love you for your clarity and your help in making them more effective.

Perhaps counterintuitively, proactively help your boss become better at choice chartering. I have written about this recently in Harvard Business Review. Your boss may be dreadful at choice structuring. To make yourself more effective, you have to help your boss be better. If it is not clear what choice your boss needs you to contemplate and make, push your boss to be clearer. It will help your boss get better work from you and that will make both of you better off.

Regardless of where you sit in the managerial organization of your company, if you do these three things, you will help unclog your organization and contribute to it leaning productively into the future. If not, you will encourage the business world to continue to see itself as it now does — busy, behind, and ponderous.



Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.