March 7, 2022

Want something done at work? First, you need to figure out who can make the call

One of the greatest challenges new leaders face is figuring out how to get things done. You need to analyze the situation, explore solutions and land on the best option for all involved. Then, after all that work, there’s still one more hurdle. It can be a big one.

You need to get it approved.

Even small, one-person operations have stakeholders who may have some influence in decision-making. And most people don’t work in small, one-person operations. In 2019, nearly 173.4 million Americans were employed by organizations with 20 or more employees, and nearly 71.3 million were employed by organizations with 500 or more employees, according to the Census Bureau.

Decisions in these organizations may flow through a clear vertical chain of command. If you don’t have deciding authority yourself, you turn to your manager, who sends the decision up the chain if she isn’t authorized to handle it herself. More commonly, however, organizations are matrixed, meaning chains of command are rarely so clear or direct. Usually, more than one person has a say in any important decision. And sometimes many people from multiple teams must be involved.

In either case, identifying how decisions are made (and the people you need to influence) is a core leadership skill. But those who work in matrixed organizations will especially need to hone this skill and put it to good use.

The matrixed organizational model

Matrixed organizations are most easily understood in contrast to traditional hierarchical models, where the chain of command is vertical and decision making is concentrated as you go up, from manager to senior manager to assistant vice president and so on. In these traditional organizations, there is little ambiguity about who you must persuade if you want something, and deciders are held accountable for the decisions made on their watch.

In a matrixed organization, there is likely still a board of directors or trustees, a C-suite and other traditional markers of hierarchy. But teams are less siloed, and some people may report to multiple managers who oversee different functional areas or business units. The model is intended to foster collaboration, shared accountability, engagement and innovation. It’s also intended to ensure no one person can concentrate power inappropriately.

These are good characteristics of a healthy organization, but matrixed organizations can also be plagued by ambiguity. The model can be “an organizational design where everyone can say no and no one can say yes,” according to one joke I ran across. When matrixed models are done well, this shouldn’t be the case … but the anecdote does underscore some of the trickiness new leaders encounter as they try to get things done.

Because most professionals are promoted based on their subject matter expertise, they have a long list of skills to hone as they move into leadership. Among the most critical are the skills needed to advocate for their work and their teams. That’s why I spend so much time with new leaders on skills like negotiation, tough conversations and navigating professional relationships. But before they put those skills into practice, they need to know where to start and who to talk to.

Whose decision is it?

Decisions in matrixed organizations often need to pass through multiple chains of command, sometimes at the same time. These chains of command are populated by people who may all be focused on different priorities at any one time. And those priorities are dynamic, influenced by shifting trends, emerging challenges and new opportunities.

What’s important to recognize is the people who need to be involved in your decision will depend on the situation. Also, they won’t all need the same level of involvement. Not everyone has signing authority, and not everyone has veto power. Meanwhile, some people really don’t have much say at all; they simply need to be made aware.

When I help a client analyze the decision structure in their organization, I like to group people according to their role in decisions and their level of influence. These are the groupings I find useful:

Deciders

If only one person needs to sign off, the decider is that person. They have full signing authority – and full veto power. You need this person on board.

Backups

Backups are authorized to make decisions when the decider is unavailable. You need this person on board, too. Especially if the decider is on vacation.

Consultants (Influencers)

These people do not have authority to make a final decision, but they do have influence, and you need to involve them in some way. Their recommendation to the decider could make or break your project. The specifics of consultants’ involvement will vary by organization and decision, but it is always worth your time to gather their input and support.

Stakeholders

These people may be affected by your decision, and as such they have a voice in a healthy organization, even if there is no technical requirement to seek their input. Soliciting and responding to their voice may aid your cause. And regardless, they should be kept informed.

Implementers

Implementers make decisions happen. So, although they don’t necessarily have a role in deciding, their effectiveness will determine how successful the outcome. If you have made a decision that affects their life, and especially if it complicates their life in some way, you will be far better off if you have kept them informed if confidentiality allows.

There are other ways of delineating these roles (here is one and another with small differences) and thinking about how people make decisions. But they boil down to understanding the level of influence someone has so you can make the most of it. Which brings me to …

Getting your decision approved

Once you know who is involved with a given decision, you must make the case for your desired outcome. To succeed, you’ll need to draw on a variety of skills. These include leveraging the relationships you have across your organization, utilizing effective negotiating tactics and navigating difficult conversations. These skills all rely upon emotional intelligence, which helps you know who you are talking to, tailor your message accordingly and read the room so you can adapt as needed.

It may take time to build your case. Even when you do everything right, you might not achieve the outcome you hope. Regardless of how it turns out, you will learn. And you can lean on additional tactics like the snowball technique and feedback on how you pitched your idea so you succeed next time around.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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