The decision-makers’ trap


The secret of a company’s success is never based on a single factor. The strategic business elements (business vision and model, strategy and quality of the organization) are always key success factors. However, sometimes the simplest and most operational factors —if not well resolved— are the main obstacles standing between an adequate strategy and its results. The choice of decision-makers is frequently one of these.

The combination of a business vision with a well-designed strategy and the proper organization of a professional, motivated and aligned team is a necessary condition of success for any business. But these important elements, which form the basis of strategic business planning will be insufficient if you do not take action: realize the vision, implement the strategy and achieve optimal team performance.

In a start-up or small business, the step to action is easy and immediate, since it is the founders who design, decide, execute and adjust the plans in the way they think is most appropriate. But as the business grows and the organization becomes more complex, this step from strategy to execution becomes more complicated.

To turn a strategy into results and achieveexcellence in execution in a more complex organization, a second level of management tools is needed: for instance, the definition of key business processes (backbone of the value chain), effective resource allocation, organizational design, controlling systems, human resources management, standard procedures (who and how does what) and, not least, a properdecisions allocation. The decisions allocation consists of a clear, consistent and unequivocal definition of who is empowered and accountable for making each type and level of decisions. The attribution to people, functions or teams of the capacity and responsibility to make the decisions that ensure the execution of the plan (who decides what) is clearly set in the decisions allocation chart.

Counting with an adequate decisions allocation chart does not guarantee the efficiency of the decision-making process or the quality of the decisions: a solid definition of the key business processes should take care of that. But not having this management tool, as simple as it is relevant, might potentially jeopardize the company’s success. Surprisingly, this is the case of many companies, with various negative effects analysed below.

Allocation of decisions: clarity is key

All the company’s team members, from the chairman of the board of directors to the most junior factory worker, going through all hierarchical and functional levels, constantly make decisions that impact on the value chain and the business result.

Logically, the number and importance of the decisions assigned to the individuals vary according to their function and their position in the organization. In addition, there are decisions made in groups and, even, there are decisions delegated in an algorithm or computer program.

Paradoxically, the allocation of decisions does not always receive the attention it deserves and is often limited to the financial and legal field: for instance, establishing who can buy or pay or who will receive powers of attorney so that their decisions have effects before third parties.

Nobody is the ideal decision-maker in all areas

When business decisions allocation is flawed, incomplete, improvised, inconsistent or simply non-existent, the organization is very likely to fall into what I callthe decision-makers’ trap. This has several potential harmful and persistent effects: on the quality of execution, on the ability to correct and learn from mistakes, on the motivation and quality of the staff and, finally, on the success of the strategy.

A clear assignment of decisions and accountabilities

The decisions allocation chart of an organization counting with an adequate decisions assignment might look like this:

Each organizational level is assigned -individually or as a team- a set of responsibilities and decisions, of a strategic nature at board / management level and more operational at lower organizational levels. Every individual knows their attributions and responsibilities, takes autonomously – according to their best professional criteria – the decisions that correspond to them, rectifies or adjusts them when necessary and is accountable for the result.

The decision-makers’ trap

The problem arises when, for various reasons (rapid organizational growth, lack of trust in the team, weak leadership, difficulties in delegating, insecurity in the face of weak control systems, etc.), the decisions allocation chart becomes blurred or -more frequently- is not respected in practice.

The most common situation in these cases is that, occasionally or systematically, consciously or not, some people invade decision areas assigned to lower levels, making or —even worse— correcting or reversing decisions that should correspond to lower-ranking managers, middle managers or even operating staff.

A decisions allocation chart example that would illustrate a generalized case of such a disfunction could be as follows:

In the example above, higher organizational levels invade the areas of responsibility assigned to their teams. All decision areas are affected and some decisions are not made. This company has fallen into the decision-makers’ trap.

A bewildered organisation

Although the foregoing is an extreme example, it is helpful to analyse the potential harmful effects of this type of disfunction:

Vicious circle: the ‘invasion’ of lower organisational levels competencies tends to be contagious throughout the chain of command; on one hand, due to the example given by upper management and on the other hand as a way to replace the ‘stolen’ responsibilities by someone else’s.

Poor organisational alignment and focus on the business: nobody knows exactly who should do what, procedures are invalid, there is a risk of disorientation and, most probably, of general inaction.

A bewildered organisation

Responsibilities’ gap: someone taking care of others’ responsibilities may not pay due attention to their own. Some relevant decisions -blank areas on the chart- might not be made.

Reluctance to decision-making: general inclination of professionals to avoid making decisions and being accountable for them, even those that theoretically belong to them, since they fear being corrected by a manager at any time. Some relevant decisions potentially skip.

Breakdown of the chain of command: the capacity and autonomy of professionals is questioned, damaging their authority and creating confusion at lower levels.

Silos creation: propension to work in isolation, in silos, with poor collaboration between people and teams, so preventing eventual further responsibilities’ overlap.

Wrong, hidden, uncorrected decisions: nobody is the ideal decision-maker in all areas; an individual is more likely to make a mistake when they decide on something that is not their day-to-day responsibility. Furthermore, a higher-level manager will hardly be confronted with their mistakes, which will probably be hidden and not corrected. Eventually, if the blunder is detected, it will maybe be disguised with wrong or incomplete information, diluting or diverting responsibility, which rarely will fall on the decision-maker.

Impact on talent, motivation and performance:

  • Low level of commitment through the entire organisation, due to lack of mutual trust.
  • The most capable professionals, demotivated, either leave (talent is lost, maybe for the benefit of the competitors) or accommodate (talent is wasted).
  • Average professionals tend to stay at their comfort zone due to the lacking accountability. If something goes wrong, any eventual reproval is not followed by negative consequences.
  • The organisation loses quality decision-making skills.
  • If, in addition, there is not a proper performance appraisal system, it is the perfect storm: there will not be an easy way out of the trap.

Stepping out of the trap

It is not easy to detect -from the inside- if an organization has fallen into the decision-makers trap and so to start taking steps to get out of it.

Ingrained habits, a hardly visible decisions flow, the fear of professional retaliation, the avoidance of conflict or just the aim to remain at the comfort zone sometimes prevent the detection of the problem and, therefore, the search of solutions.

Extermal vision comes to the rescue

Besides, the solution frequently involves changing the behaviour of the highest organisational levels, with the consequent difficulty from a political and cultural point of view

The fastest and most effective way to detect this situation and rescue the organization out of the decision-makers’ trap is to resort to the external vision of an experienced, objective, independent executive sufficiently empowered to change behaviours without long term negative consequences.

Author’s profile J. Miguel Noriega

Managing change: 4 practical tips


There is no doubt — in today’s environment — that the organization that does not change to face challenges and seize opportunities, or does not do it in time, is doomed. The effectiveness and speed of change are therefore key to survival and success.

I share herewith some practical tips, learned from mistakes made and avoided over several decades of triggering, managing and culminating processes of company change of all kinds: organizational, business model, strategical, cultural, etc.

Organizations must adapt to a constantly moving environment to survive

1. Let’s make it simple

As complex as a change management project can be, its overall objectives can be broken down into concrete, simple and individualized sub-goals. This will help us making some decisions and increasing the speed of implementation, by dividing the project into simpler and delegable parts that, in addition, will be easier to adjust when needed.

For instance, the goal of placing the customer at the center of our action and improving our understanding of his needs and opinions, formulated as such, can be seen as a vague, interpretable and difficult to translate into individual behaviors. On the other hand, if we ask the sales team to include in their sales reports – simply and systematically – a number of customers’ answers to specific questions, the effort required to for this group to contribute to the process is greatly reduced, without diverting individuals from their priority objective: to sell. Area managers, back office staff and the sales manager can as well have specific sub-goals relevant to their activity, always consistent with the overall objective.

2. Change is about behaviors

Every complex change management project can be translated into a set of modifications of individual and collective specific behaviors and habits.

Behaviors relate to people, individually and in teams. No matter how high in the organization the change intent comes from or how much pressure is exerted for its advancement, if most of the individuals and teams responsible to actually modify their behaviors are not committed to it, change will not happen or fail.

According to psychology experts, the thought-feeling-action axis is a key to understand human behavior. We do what we think is right, what we understand and agree with, or what we believe that will positively impact us and our group and make us feel best. Last, sometimes we act automatically, without questioning our reasons, driven by habit or comfort. In any case, these three elements – thought, emotions and action- are always there to some extent behind our behaviors.

Logically, it is essential that the originators of change, at top level base their drive on their shared conviction of the need and determination to carry it out; they must accompany that conviction with its decisions, gestures and daily behavior. Shared or, at least, consensual thinking is essential at that level.

Beyond that top group, throughout the whole organization involved, the reasons for embracing the new behaviors can be diverse: sharing the analysis and the convenience of the proposed change, trusting the management, feeling part of the team, expecting positive personal outcome, contributing to the organization’s future, etc. Some individuals will just follow instructions without further questioning.

The change manager must assure a clear and consistent communication about the reasons, benefits and implications of change. This will offer everybody a reason to join the common goal. Everyone should be able to select what seems the best reason for him/her. Trying to gather a uniform team of convinced, enthusiastic or obedient individuals is unrealistic and, above all, useless. There will always be a mix of elements, and that’s good.

3. The perfect plan is never implemented

In complex processes, such as business change, it is impossible to anticipate everything and consider all the possible impacts and reactions of the environment. Waiting for the perfect plan to initiate change is a guarantee that we will not move forward (the well-known “analysis paralysis”).

It is compulsory to establish very clear targets and ultimate goals, the “red lines” that will never be trespassed and, in addition, provide for very agile and effective routines of monitoring, reporting and adjustment of decisions. This action-monitoring-adjustment routine, besides facilitating the process acceleration, brings the added value of enhancing the organizational understanding and know-ho on the key factors and dynamics of the business: it brings organizational learning.

In short, once the overall goals, the individual and team targets and the expected specific actions are set and shared, we should move ahead and be prepared to make corrections on the fly.

4. The value of the outside look

There are three relevant elements normally present in every change management process:

– Any substantial change process implies for the organization an overload of work and a potential defocusing on the business which, in the meantime, must go on (the plane must be modified in mid-flight!)

– Changing methods, organizations and systems that were once effective and successful can generate susceptibility among the people – managers and the rest of the team – who implemented them, even if they understand the need and convenience of doing so. Not taking the change objectives personally requires a significant effort of objectivity from internal staff.

– Every process of change, especially if it touches organization and culture, generates tensions and sometimes involves making difficult decisions which might affect the work of some people and harm the long-term stability and harmony of the team.

To address these three potential adverse effects of the process of change, it is highly convenient to bring on board someone experienced in processes of change who brings an external and objective look, not contaminated by the history of personal relationships and without having to simultaneous this mission with the day-to-day life of the business.

Author’s profile J. Miguel Noriega

Moments of Change


Organizational change is a complex matter. To better understanding and approaching it, it is useful to classify it by kind, looking for differences and similarities between the different types.


We can identify three big categories of change, with different implications and consequences each of them, depending on the moment it happens:

  • Change during crisis times

Organizations going through crisis frequently suffer change. They suffer it as it is normally imposed to them from the outside (the market, regulations, competition). Saint Ignatius of Loyola advised ‘not to move in time of trouble’ but this kind of change is seldom in the own hands of the organizations undergoing it. Quite the contrary, when managers perceive the need for change, the process is already out of their control.

This emergency change, usually traumatic, will probably leave scars in the organizations suffering it and there is value loss in the way. When the magician “turns” a rabbit into a rain of confetti, the audience applauds, but nobody thinks of the rabbit again!

An example that could well fit in this type of change is observed these days at DIA, Spanish multinational operating in the discount supermarket field. They went into technical bankruptcy, closing stores and dismissing workers. No one doubts the traumatic nature of this situation for shareholders, workers and other stakeholders.

Change to face threats

Companies with adequate strategic management detect storms well in advance and introduce changes in their business models and operations in order to neutralize the threat and minimize its negative impact on business.

Defensive change poses certain difficulties: it must be planned and executed in parallel to continuation of ordinary business, precisely at times when these require the utmost executive attention; on the other hand, when facing a threat in real time, it is difficult or nearly impossible for companies to test different alternatives so they must choose one, with limited information available, between a reduced number of options.

We can observe this type of change, for instance, in two giants of mass distribution in Spain: El Corte Inglés and Mercadona. They are introducing changes in their successful models (i.e. reinforcement of online strategies or change in the models of collaboration with strategic suppliers) in the face of the threat of the irruption of competitors such as Amazon or Alibaba.

  • Change during good times

The most beneficial type of change is also the less frequent for various reasons, usually due to the old say: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’.

Nevertheless, in the current social and economic environment, we know that sooner or later we will be forced to change elements in our business that are considered fundamental and almost ‘untouchable’ today.

Management teams with the vision and ability to initiate change in times of growth and prosperity increase the possibilities of intensifying and prolonging their company’s favourable situation over time.

Strategic change is not intended to face threats currently affecting our business. It aims to create and seize opportunities, to generate competitive advantages long before competitors can perceive and fight the threat they pose.

The difficulty of detecting the opportunity and the audacity to invest resources on strategic change are widely compensated for the value it can create and by the low risk it represents. Having more time available to analyse and plan the change, the various alternatives can be tested through pilot programs, without interfering with ordinary business.

It comes to my mind -as a good example of this type of change- the recent move of IKEA, the Swedish manufacturer and distributor of furniture and household products, entering the furniture rental business (expanding its customer base and acquiring more knowledge of the use of their products so enabling the product improvement and offering a more ecological business model by means of recycling).


We have gone through the differences between the three types of change analysed. They also have similarities:

  • They require management teams to detect the need for change (avoiding as much as possible the emergency changes).
  • They require a timely and objective diagnosis of the elements and the direction of change.
  • They absorb a significant amount of a very scarce resource: senior executive capacity, that, simultaneously, must pay attention to running current business.

That is why, in any case, having an adequate external support available in quantity (for the necessary time) and quality (experienced enough) can make the difference between success and failure in the processes of change.

An external senior executive or executive team brings:

  • the external view of the company and its environment, unbiased by the adherence to the current strategy.
  • the compulsory dedication and focus on the analysis and implementation of change, allowing the management team to focus on the current business while keeping them on the driver’s seat.
  • New or unavailable knowledge and skills, so accelerating the implementation and efficacy of the process of change.

Some organizations have embedded change and systematically allocate resources to it, as a key strategic process in their business models. For most companies, having external senior teams available is an excellent alternative to address change at any moment it becomes necessary.

Author’s profile: José Miguel Noriega

Also published at interimTalentia