Oftentimes, it feels like political principals are actively resisting making a decision. Delays fritter away precious opportunities, while compromises lead to strategic plans a mile wide and an inch deep. Meanwhile critical weaknesses go unremedied until it’s too late, because no-one wants to face up to the trade-offs.

In such cases, it’s all too easy to yell that leaders should “do their job”. I’ve done this myself—frequently and vigorously.

But that ire is usually misdirected. For most policy dilemmas in fragile states, the reality is that disputes concern domains of action that are all broadly legitimate. In this never-ending conflict over priorities, the people at the top are certainly targets of opportunity … but shooting at them will only get you so far.

In this piece I’ll look at some process approaches to help address a culture of non-decision, drawn from work on policy-making in the key moments after crisis. Consider it engineering advice for building better decision points.

Principle #1: The management team acts as a unit.

In a post late last year, I looked at decision-making in Cabinet systems. Here, the starting point for analysis is that one is dealing with a “federation of departments”. Within that federation, civil servants “expect Ministers to support the large objectives with which their lives are identified”.

Put more simply, executives are expected to fight their corner. They fail to do so at the risk of their day-to-day working lives becoming very difficult, very quickly.

That holds equally true in the UN family or in humanitarian clusters. In fact it may even be more true — the high stakes and risks that characterise major crises will usually reinforce organisational solidarity, not soften it.

The implication follows: If you want executives to be able to compromise departmental interests in favour of the greater good, it’s critical to provide a safety valve for internal pressures. Japanese management thinking has even coined a specific phrase for this: gaiatsu (外圧 ), a decision that’s made under external pressure but is probably for the best.

What this means, in practice, is that the executive team can debate all it likes in private. But once it decides it must do so jointly, visibly, and on the public record. And where decisions go wrong, they must accept responsibility in the same way.

Principle #2: A crystal-clear process leading up to decision meetings.

In management consulting, there’s a fine art to giving feedback. A single engagement might last six months or longer; sometimes they stretch into years. But usually you’ll get one precious hour with top executives as a group.

In that setting, here’s the usual formula: Ten minutes presentation; thirty minutes discussion; ten minutes defining next steps. (Plus another ten minutes for people showing up late, chatting about the latest screwup or press blunder, etc.)

Why? Hard experience demonstrates that this is the maximum bandwidth of a group of people with different interests and disciplinary backgrounds. People need to register their perspectives, and be seen to do so, before they’ll get anywhere near a compromise.

Getting a presentation of the issues down to ten minutes is something of a black art, of course. Analysts talk reverently about the “money slide” that captures the stakes in a single visual. But from a process standpoint this boils down to three things:

  • a decision paper written by a “pen-holder” (not a committee);
  • a fair consultation process for other stakeholders that need to be involved; and
  • a procedure for recording the disputes that can’t be resolved.

This provides the maximum opportunity possible to “clear the decks” at deputies level. It sharpens the submission by getting it challenged in a slightly adversarial setting, and thereby tested and clarified.

Principle #3: Troubled relationships need a counsellor.

Inter-agency policy-making is a good illustration of the prisoner’s dilemma. In the long-run everybody wants a joined-up process, because they’re hurt as much as they are helped by fragmentation. In the short-run, however, their interests may well be best-served by skipping consultation, end-running to the executive team, and locking out options that they don’t like. It’s hard to look past that without a great deal of trust that it’ll be reciprocated when it’s your turn on the outside.

In this situation, a mediator plays a critical role. A well-functioning coordination secretariat can:

  • Test common sense, through light challenges to options and ideas.
  • Facilitate communication, by re-phrasing and translating ideas to avoid unnecessary confusion and provocation.
  • Enforce good process (see Principle #2), reducing the need for tactical behaviour.

The requirements to play this role effectively are pretty well-established. First up: No operational responsibilities. You can’t have the fox guarding the hen coop. Second is strong inter-personal relationships and deep contextual knowledge of agencies which DO have operational responsibilities. You can’t read between the lines unless you’ve authored a text or two yourself.

In Westminster-system governments, this often leads to high-performers serving a “tour of duty” in the Cabinet office. In a more ad hoc way, we find the same thing with initiatives like the UN’s Resident Coordinator system. Credibility, and direct relationships with people in operational agencies, is the key ingredient.

When all else fails

It’s abundantly obvious that there’s no panacea for clashing priorities. As one of my podcast guests recently summed up:

If we are really good in this work, we are right 70% of the time. Our M&E models preach 100% success rates, but that’s ridiculous. You’re going to make huge mistakes, and tons of small mistakes, all the time.

That fact is psychologically hard. It takes a toll on even well-equipped leaders; and leads to paralysis in the less-competent. For this reason, decision-making under uncertainty is a burgeoning field of research, with a good deal of it pointing to habit formation and training over time.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t put the basics in place. A great executive team might be able to work without good process, but a middling one certainly can’t. Pragmatism dictates that we plan for the latter.