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Conquering a Culture of Indecision

Here is an excerpt from a classic article written by Ram Charan and pubished by Harvard Business Review (January 2006). To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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The job of the CEO, everyone knows, is to make decisions. And most of them do—countless times in the course of their tenures. But if those decisions are to have an impact, the organization must also, as a whole, decide to carry them out. Companies that don’t, suffer from a culture of indecision.

In his 2001 article, Ram Charan, one of the world’s preeminent counselors to CEOs, addresses the problem of how organizations that routinely refrain from acting on their CEOs’ decisions can break free from institutionalized indecision. Usually, ambivalence or outright resistance arises because of a lack of dialogue with the people charged with implementing the decision in question. Charan calls such conversations “decisive dialogues,” and he says they have four components: First, they must involve a sincere search for answers. Second, they must tolerate unpleasant truths. Third, they must invite a full range of views, spontaneously offered. And fourth, they must point the way to a course of action.

In organizations that have successfully shed a culture of indecision, discussion is always safe. Underperformance, however, is not.

Does this sound familiar? You’re sitting in the quarterly business review as a colleague plows through a two-inch-thick proposal for a big investment in a new product. When he finishes, the room falls quiet. People look left, right, or down, waiting for someone else to open the discussion. No one wants to comment—at least not until the boss shows which way he’s leaning.

Finally, the CEO breaks the loud silence. He asks a few mildly skeptical questions to show he’s done his due diligence. But it’s clear that he has made up his mind to back the project. Before long, the other meeting attendees are chiming in dutifully, careful to keep their comments positive. Judging from the remarks, it appears that everyone in the room supports the project.

But appearances can be deceiving. The head of a related division worries that the new product will take resources away from his operation. The vice president of manufacturing thinks that the first-year sales forecasts are wildly optimistic and will leave him with a warehouse full of unsold goods. Others in the room are lukewarm because they don’t see how they stand to gain from the project. But they keep their reservations to themselves, and the meeting breaks up inconclusively. Over the next few months, the project is slowly strangled to death in a series of strategy, budget, and operational reviews. It’s not clear who’s responsible for the killing, but it’s plain that the true sentiment in the room was the opposite of the apparent consensus.

In my career as an adviser to large organizations and their leaders, I have witnessed many occasions even at the highest levels when silent lies and a lack of closure lead to false decisions. They are “false” because they eventually get undone by unspoken factors and inaction. And after a quarter century of first-hand observations, I have concluded that these instances of indecision share a family resemblance—a misfire in the personal interactions that are supposed to produce results. The people charged with reaching a decision and acting on it fail to connect and engage with one another. Intimidated by the group dynamics of hierarchy and constrained by formality and lack of trust, they speak their lines woodenly and without conviction. Lacking emotional commitment, the people who must carry out the plan don’t act decisively.

These faulty interactions rarely occur in isolation. Far more often, they’re typical of the way large and small decisions are made—or not made—throughout a company. The inability to take decisive action is rooted in the corporate culture and seems to employees to be impervious to change.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Ram Charan is a world-renowned business consultant, author and speaker who has spent the past 40 years working with many top companies, CEOs, and boards of our time.

In his work with companies including Toyota, Bank of America, Key Bank, ICICI Bank, Aditya Birla Group, Novartis, Max Group, Yildiz Holdings, UST Global, Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), Humana, Matrix, Ram is known for cutting through the complexity of running a business in today’s fast changing environment to uncover the core business problem.

Ram’s real-world solutions, shared with millions through his books and articles in top business publications, have been praised for being practical, relevant and highly actionable — the kind of advice you can use Monday morning–in areas such as growth, talent development, corporate governance, and moneymaking models for the digital age.



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