Why do some decisions fail?

Gladys has just received a notification from her company’s security guild that they will be adopting a tool to manage application secrets.  She is happy that someone has made the hard decision.  She will happily use it when she next needs to deal with secrets in the applications she works.

Zanele has just received a notification that to enhance pairing all developers are required to use emacs with the same environment settings.  Zanele is incensed with the decision.

Gladys may have actually forgotten what the decision was by the time she actually needs to use it.  Hopefully she’ll remember that there is a solution and ask.

Zanele is likely to ignore the decision for as long as possible.  She will resent the decision.  She will complain about how management force developers to do things.  Maybe she will check out what is available on the job market tonight.

Two stories, both fictional, but they both speak true.  What is the difference?  Why can some decisions that come from elsewhere be happily embraced while others really not?

Gladys is not being expected to change what she does.  She is just happy that someone has made a decision about something that she may not be doing yet or that she does not do frequently.  Gladys is not invested in the solution that is being presented.  Fundamentally she doesn’t really care though she is happy to be provided with a solution.

Zanele cares very deeply about using vim and has honed 10 years of skill using it.  Her setup is exactly as she wants it and all the hot keys are mapped like she wants them.  She has no desire or reason to change but she is being told to.  She has not been given a voice in the conversation in deciding the solution that fundamentally changes what she does on a day to day basis for a problem she may or may not be aware of.

Instinctively Gladys understands that the solution presented is needed.  It hasn’t been explained in detail (or it might have been) but her response is based on a belief that the request is reasonable.

Zanele has been given a solution to a problem.  She does not like the solution and perhaps she can see other ways to solve the problem.  She resents the solution and does not feel it is reasonable.

Making a decision around what Zanele actually does on a day to day basis without consulting or including her in the problem solving is a recipe for push back.  “Making” the decision was not hard.  We’ll just tell all the developers to change what they do.  Getting acceptance that the decision was a good idea – is something completely different and may turn a “good” decision on paper into a failed decision in reality.

The scenarios that play out are different and these examples may be simplistic but the majority of frustration I see is when autonomy of how I do my work is taken away from me.  Ironically, the more autonomy I have about the way that I work, the touchier I may be about what I expect to be in control of and influence.

Make decisions I don’t care about without me

Gladys didn’t care about the decision hence she was happy it was made.  (Someone had to make it.  Thankfully it wasn’t me.)

Include me in decisions I do care about

If Zanele were involved in the decision-making process it is possible that she would agree that the solution presented was the best possible outcome.  Alternatively, she might have provided some other options.  Being involved with the conversation would have given her insight and understanding.  The outcome of the decision might be the same but the emotional response to the decision may be completely different if she is involved.

So how do we know what decisions people don’t care about?

I don’t think we can know what decisions people will care about and hence it is very difficult to know that any specific decision is going to get push back.  A reasonable baseline may be that if you are going to impact what someone actually does, and they actually have to change their current behaviour and actions from existing ones, they are probably going to have an opinion on it.  Even more so, it will fail if those who need to implement the change do not think the problem is worth solving.

The first step is awareness.  In my early days of doing things more collaboratively, I was often reminded by a colleague “have you asked the team” for a decision that I thought was simple and obvious.  Sometimes we just are conditioned to making the obvious decisions even when they impact others far more than ourselves.  (I think I am better at this now…)

Once we are trying to be aware that decisions influence what people do, we should deliberately structure things that allow people to opt in to the conversation about what they care about and out of what they do not care about.  We need to foster a culture where expectation around autonomy and being involved matches with actually being involved.

The decision could be easy.  Achieving adoption might be less so.  Changing what people do is hard.  Being aware of that is useful.

There is much more to be said here.  This is just one aspect, but it is one that has struck me time and again that is too often not acknowledged.  If we start with actively respecting the people impacted by the decision, maybe things would be a little better for everyone overall.

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