This Month’s Pattern *

17 Endless Huddle

The right of infinite appeal ensures that no decision is ever final.

Many project teams do not regard any decision as final. Apparent acceptance of a decision merely indicates a determination to pick up the fight later on. Decisions made during January come back for re-discussion and re-decision in February, March, and beyond.

The worst effect of this behavior is squandering time, the project’s most precious resource. Project leadership has many decisions to make during the course of the development cycle. Making one decision over and over again almost guarantees that it consumes more time than it deserves and that the most important decisions receive less attention than they require. Moreover, if Marek, Zelda, and Zac are spending their time grumbling about the decisions they disagree with, they are not using their energy to move the project forward.

Why does this happen? The endless huddle can be so pervasive that it appears to arise from the culture of the organization. But the root cause of the endless huddle is the team’s leader. Team members who disagree with a decision will appeal it just as long as the leader tolerates it. It is up to the leader to know when to break the huddle and to have the courage to do it.

A characteristic of an established profession is an effective decision-making process that contains the rules for making decisions along with rules for what happens afterward. Warfighting, the United States Marine Corps’s concise publication about military doctrine,[1] contains a well-understood set of decision-making rules:

“Until a commander has reached and stated a decision, subordinates should consider it his duty to provide his honest, professional opinion—even though these may be in disagreement with his senior’s. However, once the decision has been reached, the junior then must support it as if it were his own.”

But there must be some disagreement with decisions. How do marines avoid the endless huddle? They accept that once a decision has been made, they must abide by it. They recognize that there is a difference between abiding by a decision and agreeing with it. There is little point in telling people that they must agree. If you have a different opinion, then the fact that someone has made a ruling is not going to change your opinion. Abiding by a decision means that you will take the defined action and not spend energy fighting against it—regardless of whether or not you agree.

Avoidance of the endless huddle requires a decision-making process that suits your project. For example, the product design company IDEO realized that it needed a defined way to choose between designs without dampening creativity.[2 ]During the first part of each project, groups within the project team investigate the problem and create some kind of prototype. Then each group presents its prototype to the rest of the team, giving everyone a chance to state his opinion and recommendations. After the discussion, each project team member casts a vote for his preferred design idea. If there is no consensus, the project manager decides which path to follow. This procedure works for IDEO because everyone knows what the process is and what tangible artifacts will serve as input to the decision-making process. So, all team members abide by the decision once it has been made, regardless of whether or not they agree. And the project moves forward.

Endless huddles happen when people believe it is acceptable to abide by a decision only when they agree with it. It is the manager’s job to establish an ethic of abiding by decisions and living with them once they have been made.

 


  1. Warfighting, United States Marine Corps (Washington, D.C.: 1997), p. 59.
  2. Tom Kelley, The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm (New York: Doubleday, 2001).


* Each month we plan to publish here one of the patterns from our Jolt Award book, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies — Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. (Watch this space for a mere 86 months and you'll have read the whole thing.) The book is published by Dorset House Publishing, in the US and Hanser Verlag in Germany. It is available at Amazon and also as a Kindle book.

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