Downloading Decisions

Harvard is not the only institution of higher learning in the Boston/Cambridge area, so I’m now reading MIT’s Sloan Management Review, in addition to HBR. Petere Senge is at MIT, so he’s got a great article in the Winter 2007 issue (blogged about it at Association Renewal).

There’s also a nice one about “downloading,” or communicating to the rest of the organization what decisions you and other leaders have made. It’s sad how rarely this happens (or at least happens well). One problem is essentially the “curse of knowledge” that the Heaths write about. Those who make the decision are so deep in it, by the time they decide, it seems like it should be obvious to everyone why they did it (but those of us on the outside may be perplexed by the decision and annoyed at the leaders for not being more transparent).

Another is the somewhat paternalistic notion that the “troops” don’t want to hear the messy details of decision making, they just want the bottom line. I’m reminded of what a senior government official once said to me during an organizational assessment interview:

You just have to tell people. If you don’t tell them, they’ll make it up! And I guarantee what they make up will be MUCH worse than the truth.

The authors did some research and categorized leaders into three levels of effectiveness in downloading:

  • Robust (I officially place that word on the overused list)
  • Restricted
  • Remedial.

Then they surveyed the employees of these three groups. 88% of those reporting to the robust group supported the direction of the organization, while only 26% of the remedial group did. Similarly, 89% of those reporting to the robust folks supported decisions, while only 41% of those reporting to remedials did.

So why are we holding back? Are we afraid we might reveal that we aren’t as smart as we make ourselves out to be?


  1. 28.02.2007 at 1:28 pm

    I have a hard time making the time to explain why I made a certain decision. It doesn’t seem like real work, so I move on to something that seems more productive. Not saying it’s right, just saying that for me, it doesn’t have anything to do with how smart I want to make others think I am.

  2. 28.02.2007 at 1:46 pm

    Hi Ben. Yes, I didn’t mean to imply that the fear/self esteem was the ONLY reason, but maybe one possible reason. Sorry to go all consultant on you, but I guess “it depends” (we have to say that once a day to maintain our consultant status). It’s only “real work” if the explanation (or lack thereof) makes a difference to people. So if you’re not sharing the reason, you just have to make sure your direct reports aren’t steaming about it. If they don’t care, then obviously you don’t need to explain. So it gets down to quality of feedback in the office.

  3. Peter Sursi
    28.02.2007 at 9:57 pm

    I was so glad to see this post, as this is something I talk about a lot at work. In my workplace, I am lucky to be at the decision-making level, but the bureucratic process to implement things post-decision point is glacial. By the time the word trickles down to the front line, we are three projects ahead.
    As you noted, it seems very “old news” to us by the time the official announcement moves out, and so we do not effectively communicate the whys and wherefores of the actual decision. And then we get annoyed by all the “but did you consider this…?” or “what about that…?” questions.