WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21:  Joint Select Co...

The United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction would have had to publish its plan yesterday to meet the vote deadline of tomorrow.  They did not.  It's not really a surprise.  Few expected them to be able to overcome the deep divides on how to balance revenues and expenditures.  They also had a structural problem in that level three decisions rarely work.

Think about five levels of decision making:

  1. Level one: party A decides on their own
  2. Level two: party A decides with party B's input
  3. Level three: party A and B decide together
  4. Level four: party B decides with party A's input
  5. Level five: party B decides on its own

Levels one and five decisions can be costly

We saw an example of level one decision making with the health care reform.  Party A (the Democrats in this case) couldn't get party B (the Republicans) to play ball.  So they decided on their own and rammed the bill through.  Surprise, surprise, the Republicans were not happy with this and devoted themselves to unseating the Democrats.  Levels one and five decisions are made without the benefit of others' knowledge, experience, or support.  Thus, they tend to be sub-optimal

Level three decisions rarely work.

The issue with level three decisions is that no one's in charge.  Everyone can say no.  No one can say yes.  Forget the tyranny of the minority.  This is about the tyranny of equals.  Someone needs to break the tie.  This is why the constitution of the U.S. has the vice-president break ties in the senate.  This is why there are an odd number of supreme court justices.  This is why there is always a single incident commander in disasters.  This is why a committee of six democrats and six republicans with equal votes had a low likelihood of success

The way forward lies in levels two and four decisions.

It's better for everyone for someone to be in charge.  It most certainly should not be the same person or same party in all cases.  But someone needs to break the ties.

Coca-Cola's CEO Doug Ivester was one of the best I've seen at this.  He was extraordinarily clear on when he was going to make a decision with our input and when he wanted to give us input into our decisions:

You're in charge on this one.  I'd like to give you some input to consider.  But you're going to make the decision.

Level four: My decision.  His input.  (Of course, since he was the CEO, we took his input to heart.  Often we'd be guided by it.  But ocassionally he was wrong.  We quickly discovered that he didn't like it if we came back and said "Thank you for the input.  We decided it you don't know what you're talking about and went a different way."  On the other hand, he was happy if we came back and said "Thank you for the input.  We did some more digging and discovered some things you could not have known.  Based on this new information, we went a different way."

See these stripes.  I am the chief executive officer.  I'm going to give you direction which you are going to follow.

Level two: His decision.  My input.  (Okay.  Sometimes these were level one.  But the point is that these were his decisions.)

Implications for congress

Use the system you've got in place.  Debate.  Discuss.  Lobby.  Negotiate.  Then, have a system in place for someone to break the ties.

Implications for you

Banish shared decisions.  Of course they can work sometimes.  But they fail too often to risk it.  Put one single person in charge of each important decisions.  Put one single person in place as the team captain.  No co-captains.  No co-chairs.  No shared decisions.  Be clear on who's deciding and who's providing input.