Large organisations beware! Hard-to-kill zombie decisions lurch through your meeting rooms and open plan office spaces, mauling your employees and thereby reducing their productivity!
This graphic idea was thrown up by some action research that I conducted with a large organisation. The research found that a small but significant proportion of decision-making conversations: a) were revisiting decisions that had been discussed previously, and b) failed to reach a resolution, that is: they failed to actually make a decision.
The implication is that these decisions are not being made, but are instead being continuously, unsuccessfully revisited. The participants in the action research labelled these as “zombie decisions” and described them as being frustrating and a waste of time.
What makes a zombie decision?
Factors that are likely to create zombies decisions are: lack of clarity on accountabilities and processes, organisational politics, and limiting assumptions or beliefs about the importance of a decision. For example, a decision could become a zombie decision when:
- Whoever is “holding” the decision (that is, is responsible for it) is not themselves the decision-maker; for example, if they don’t have the authority to take the decision.
- Who the decision-maker should be isn’t clear. For example, this situation could arise with a decision that sits across two different departments, where it’s not clear which department has the right or the authority to make the decision.
- Those who should be involved in making the decision either can’t agree on what should be done or simply aren’t engaged in making the decision.
- There is either no clear path for escalating the decision for resolution or the person holding the decision is unwilling to escalate the decision to their seniors because they feel that the decision is too minor to deserve seniors’ attention and/or that they ought to be able to resolve it on their own.
One of the participants in the action research described these decisions as “getting stuck in the system”.
What can be done to identify and eliminate zombie decisions?
One option for eliminating any zombie decisions that already exist might be to have a “zombie amnesty” or a “bonfire of the zombies”. This could be a departmental or even organisation-wide initiative that takes place once each month, quarter or year. Employees trying and failing to deal with zombie decisions could either be empowered and required to just make the decision themselves, or they could be encouraged to bring the decision to senior management for resolution, with no judgement made about the small-ness or pettiness of the decisions so escalated.
How can organisations prevent zombie decisions arising?
Of course, the ideal situation would be for no zombie decisions to be created in the first place. The most powerful weapon to prevent new zombie decisions arising is to ensure clarity on: what exactly is the decision to be made; who are the decision-owners, the decision-makers, those to be consulted, etc.; and, what is the decision-making process that will be followed.
The ELECTIA approach to decision-making addresses this by asking exactly these questions within the first step of the ELECTIA process: Describe and frame the decision.
- What is the decision to be made?
- What is the purpose of the decision?
- Who is the decision-maker?
- Who else will be involved and on what basis?
- What is the process that will be followed? Who will be involved at each stage?
- For decisions with more than one decision-maker, are we looking for consensus or majority?
A zombie plague
Many modern horror movies and novels, including the recently released “World War Z“, describe a zombie plague or zombie apocalypse in which zombies attack and either kill or infect living humans, and in doing so they create new zombies. “Zombie-ness” therefore spreads like a disease.
It might be taking the zombie analogy one step too far, but is it possible that within large organisations one zombie decision might spawn other zombie decisions? It seems reasonable to believe that one decision that isn’t made might cause other decisions to not be made. Could this happen so often that the whole organisation becomes over-run with productivity-destroying zombie decisions?