Does Everyone Understand How Decisions Are Made?

Last time, I mentioned I was launching a “strategy alignment” project with a professional membership association. Consulting partner Regina Neu and I were hired to help the association: 1) hone in on the most crucial of their current strategic plan’s long list of priorities, 2) create an actionable implementation plan with accountability, 3) develop greater alignment between board and staff and 4) assist them in developing “clear decision-making criteria.”

The reasons for the last item were unclear until we interviewed staff, board and committee members and discovered frustration and confusion around how important decisions were made. It was not widely understood how far each staffer’s decision-making scope went, who actually was responsible for decisions impacting staff workload and the allocation of other resources, along with the processes used to come to such decisions. There was also a lack of transparency about how and to whom decisions were communicated across the complex organization.

To shed light on how the group was currently making decisions and to develop more robust and transparent processes for making future decisions, we created a retreat exercise to map decision-making processes. Before the retreat, the client Project Team made a list of key decisions they felt would be good to use in the exercise. At the retreat, we asked board and staff teams to draw a flow chart showing the process they recommended be used to make each type of decision, specifying who (which person or body) should be involved at each stage and in what capacity, and then, once the decision was made, how/when it would be shared across the organization.

One team mapped a robust process for developing the annual association budget, another team drew their “ideal process” for deciding whether to host a resource-intensive meeting, while a third group mapped how they thought the creation of a more sustainable funding model for a signature program should be developed and approved.

Some of the resulting flow charts (see example below) depicted a relatively simple process, while others showed a multi-step process with various feedback loops and an “appeal process.” The board and staff expressed appreciation of this exercise and the meaningful discussion it provoked and noted it was their first opportunity to open up the “black box” of decision-making in their organization.

As management consultant Jon Huggett wrote in The Nonprofit Quarterly in 2008, decision-making is about power dynamics. When complaints around decision-making surface, as they did in our staff and board interviews, it usually means decisions are currently being made informally in ways that are opaque to people affected by them, creating frustration and confusion, contributing to low morale and reduced productivity.

To replace ambiguity with transparency, he recommends the use of a decision-making tool developed by Bain & Company (a more sophisticated version of the simple tool we used with our client to map decision-making processes). But he cautions that not every organization is ready to clarify informal power dynamics and control issues noting that once such a tool is introduced, “ambiguity is no longer an option….The genie is out of the bottle.”

For those that are ready and willing to open up their power dynamics and improve decision-making, Huggett cites several benefits including those achieved by Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit that opens and operates public charter schools in California. As it grew, Aspire was experiencing confusion around the roles of executive staff, particularly those of the Chief Academic Officer and the VP of Secondary Education. Aspire used Bain’s RAPID* tool to clarify each position’s role and responsibilities, including the boundaries of each person’s decision-making scope.

Buoyed by its use of the tool to accomplish this clarity, Aspire took it further to develop an organization-wide “accountability chain” -- a chart depicting which person or department of the organization is accountable for different levels of success (in the classroom, school and throughout the Aspire network). Consequently, Aspire’s leaders are finding it easier (and quicker) to make decisions by assigning the RAPID roles* and identifying responsibility for decisions.

* RAPID is an acronym used to remember the different roles in decision-making (but not in a logical order):

  • R stands for Recommend, where the process begins
  • I is for Input and refers to people whose input is especially valued
  • A is for Agree, the group/individual who must agree
  • D stands for Decide (ultimate decisonmaker)
  • P is for Perform, or carry out the decision


Numerous other decision-making models and tools exist to guide organizations. At the retreat, our client’s board appreciated the mapping tool we introduced. And they were intrigued when we introduced the Matrix Map, a decision-making tool developed by Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka and Steve Zimmerman and presented in their book Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability. Learn more about the Matrix Map here.