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Two Tricks To Banish Ghost Decisions And Conquer The Zombies

Erik Larson Oct 31, 2023 12:06:57 PM
Halloween is a perfect time to turn attention to the ghost and zombie decisions that haunt the halls of your company.

Halloween is a perfect time to turn attention to the ghost and zombie decisions that haunt the halls of your company, spooking productivity and draining away employee engagement.

Like shambling ghouls, zombie decisions continue to affect business operations long past when they should have found their final resting place. The original decision-makers have left the building, business conditions have changed, yet policies remain the same, and the same line-item investments continue to be made.

Meanwhile, ghost decisions seem real to the people in the room when made, but their details fade as soon as the meeting ends. Spread by word of mouth, the rest of the company receives only a pale and shifting understanding of what was decided and why, leaving a fog of confusion that hampers crisp execution.

The exorcists and axes of horror movies cannot defeat undead decisions. Instead, business leaders are best served by bringing the powers of the heart and the pen to bear.

Trick #1: Embrace Empathy For Others, Including Your Future Self

The underlying reason that zombie decisions persist long past their best-by date and ghost decisions fail to drive decisive action is a failure of the heart. It is hard for decision-makers to empathize with those affected by the decision, including their future selves.

Such empathy is hard because decisions feel deceptively clear and complete when we first make them. Why consider how others will see the decision when the answer is obvious? 

Unfortunately, decisions feel more real than they are. To test this, make an effort to write down a detailed description of a decision immediately after you make it. Often, you will find this difficult, and the decision is less pinned down than you thought, with many details still missing.

Now imagine how ghostly the decision would seem to someone who wasn’t in the room with you when it was made. How crisply can they execute this ghost of a decision? Then imagine trying to dredge up your reasoning five years later when the decision persists, but conditions have changed, and no one, not even you, can remember the basis for the original choice. How comfortable are people when faced with axing past decisions that are long-established but poorly understood?

Remembering that empathy will help motivate you to pull the next scary trick.

Trick #2: Write Decisions Down To Tie Them To Reality

Writing down and tracking decisions over time is a proven method to banish ghost decisions and conquer the zombies. This trick is not a treat. It requires discipline and hard work – no magic wand will cast out undead decisions from your company with a wave of the hand.

Discipline comes into play the next time you are in a meeting and a decision is made. Don’t just look around the room and say, “OK, great, let’s go do it.” You will feel a sense of clarity, everyone will nod, and then the game of telephone begins. Each person in the meeting will understand the decision slightly differently. When they share it with others, those people will hear it slightly differently, and so on. Eventually, the decision becomes a ghost of itself.

To banish the ghosts, write the decision down to communicate the decision to people who weren’t in the conversation and would otherwise only see the decision’s ghost. Specifically, include a sentence or two about:

  • The context for the decision, explaining why a decision needed to be made.
  • Your choice, including additional details that still need to be worked out.
  • Any other alternatives you considered, in straightforward terms. You do not need to explain why they weren’t chosen, just that they were assessed.
  • The key reasons for your decision, including expected impacts on your business goals.
  • The names of other people involved in the decision, including their titles or departments.

This information helps bring everyone together with a shared understanding of the decision, reducing ambiguity and increasing commitment to execute the decision.

While banishing ghost decisions requires day-to-day discipline, hunting down zombie decisions requires focused hard work. Specifically, you need to start a decision log for the significant decisions that impact each primary policy, process, brand or department you are responsible for.

Set aside several hours to write down all the past decisions you can find. Search through emails, review old calendar entries, look over quarterly presentations and talk with experienced colleagues. Write down a shorter version of the ghost-banishing list above: what decision was made and why? Then, for each decision, answer this question: Would we make the same decision today, or is this a zombie decision that should be put to rest?

Vanquishing zombie decisions is a lot of work upfront – while ghosts exist primarily in our minds, zombies walk the halls, leaving a mess in their wake. However, cleaning up that mess is necessary to align your business with today’s reality. And once you clean up the current mess, the day-to-day discipline of communicating decisions in writing will make future zombie hunts much easier.