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Story 11: Learning to Lead

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The Decision-Making Process

Written by Mike Spock

When an idea was about to become a decision you had to ask yourself: who was missing? Who were the other stakeholders? It wasn't that everyone had to be in on every decision. It was only that all the stakeholders had to be heard before the decision was made.

Recording meetings on large pads of newsprint kept everyone "on the same page." Nothing was hidden. Everyone was encouraged to challenge and correct the recorder's interpretation of what was said and what was meant. Sticking these pages up on the meeting room walls, taking them to the typist after the meeting, and distributing these as notes to all stakeholders—whether they were in attendance or not—became a record of the meeting and decisions that everyone could count on. We felt naked when this system of shared note-taking was neglected. In fact my obsession with newsprint, smelly markers, drafting tape, and easels was learned at the feet of my McBer mentors and became a source of amusement to staff, board, and colleagues until they saw the light, too.

Brainstorming was a way of getting things out there where everyone could see, consider, and build on each other's ideas. The rules were: don't edit your own or other's ideas; the more ideas the better; critical thinking and decision-making should happen after—not during— brainstorming; criteria for choosing or ranking ideas could be prioritized only after brainstorming was over.

Underestimating attendance (therefore income) was always a good strategy. If you failed to make your numbers it made you feel awful throughout that budget period. Not only did you loose sleep, but it was hard to recover from the loss in the middle of a project or budget year. If you exceeded your estimate you looked very smart, and even more importantly, felt terrific!

During tough budgeting sessions (these were never easy since we were always working to protect our wonderful programs and key staff) we were usually trying to figure out how much non-budgeted income we could anticipate before the grants and cash were actually in hand. Otherwise, we had to let people and hours go and then rehire folks later if the grant came in. We finally figured out how to calculate simple probabilities of possible grant income in a way that reassured the board that we were not in danger of going over the cliff, and the staff that they still had a job. The system of probabilities worked. We never were caught without the bridge we needed to smooth out cash flow.

Next: The Big Questions