Breakthrough decision-making: how to cultivate context

Leadership Blog

Achieve Breakthrough

Written by Achieve Breakthrough

Breakthrough decision-making: how to cultivate context

The success of any organisation hangs on its leadership’s ability to make the right decisions. But in our VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), it’s flipped from being just one skill within a C-suite leader’s stack to the most crucial. 

The decision-making process itself is less simple or binary than ever. In this blog, we explore how understanding context can help us to navigate it.


Decide against the pitfalls of process

Time served procedures can keep an organisation running smoothly. But they should never become a replacement for the ambition and collective alignment of teams working tightly around a clear goal.

This point was made by Gene Kranz, the lead Flight Director of Apollo 13. After the first lunar landing mission he felt that NASA had “become just another federal bureaucracy beset by competing agendas and unable to establish discipline within its structure.” 

After placing an American on the Moon, Kranz knew that NASA had an amazing array of technology and one of the most talented workforces in history. However, a lack of top-level vision saw it morph into a process driven organization without any smart context or agility. 


Standout decision making 

Your organisation may use models like RASCI, where a matrix, chart or framework is used to allocate stakeholder roles and responsibilities within a project. 

In the case of RASCI, deciding who is Responsible, who is Accountable, who can provide Support, who will be Consulted and who you will keep Informed at each stage of the process can resolve conflicts and efficiently manage projects. A process like this eliminates confusion, documents, distributes and identifies if tasks are onerous and provides clarity on hierarchy.

Yet that doesn’t address the whole picture. To do that, we need more than a catch all process. We need to understand both the nature of the decision and the relationship between cause and effect.


Types of context

Context is decisive. To make the right calls, we need more than a watertight process, we need to understand the environment we’re acting in and responding to. The Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden at IBM is a helpful guide here:


  1. 1. Simple

If your decision sits within a simple or obvious space where cause and effect is crystal clear then there’s no more to it than following best practice. You sense, categorise and respond, being swift and efficient in communication as you do so.

Systems are not without value. The opposite is true. Experience confirms some of the most successful organisations are built on impressive strategies and processes. These are ‘good to have’ at an operational baseline but the truly standout businesses we work with have breakthrough ambition to go faster, further and with more agility. 


  1. 2. Complicated 

Your context is complicated when you’re making decisions against a multifaceted backdrop with many dimensions. It’s a little like chess, where there are defined ways to move your pieces, and there is clear cause and effect. However, the implications of each move are not necessarily clear at first glance, and the behaviour of the opposition can complicate matters.

Best practice rarely applies neatly in complicated situations, so go for good practice instead. Revisit your winning moves and tap into past perspectives that have worked for you, your team, your organisation. Investigate your options, assess the data, take your time – if you can – and then make a call.


  1. 3. Complex

If complicated contexts are like chess, complex contexts are like poker. There are curveballs and tells; an element of luck and guesswork. Here if you rely on what has worked before, you might lose everything.

This is where most industries are operating today. Some elements are clearly decipherable, but there are plenty of invisible elements that might factor too. This is especially true in sectors like retail and FMCG.

Complex contexts are all out at sea. You need to feel the ebb and flow. Like a surfer you absorb the movement and seek balance. You find emergent solutions and take a stance. You paddle a little, anticipate, probe and iterate. 

In complex situations, you won’t have all the data, but you may have some and over time you will gain more insights to make decisions. In many industries this is where you fail fast, take a lean startup approach and spend as little as possible to drive the developments you can afford.


  1. 4. Chaos

This the time to adopt novel practice. It’s about taking swift action in an emergent and chaotic space. Here cause and effect are practically unrelated. Everything is so fast moving it’s impossible to determine what will happen. You act without historic data or past results because it’s all new. There is no precedent. Just an open-ended opportunity to learn fast. 

Things change super speedily in hyper disruptive industries or where an emergent hyper disrupter enters a traditional market. This is where action is essential above all else. Doing something is required before you have full sight of the situation. 

Not responding to chaotic situations is often the worst decision to make. Like at the start of the global pandemic, action had to be taken, rightly or wrongly to learn from a world-alerting situation. Then after the initial response, leaders could start to learn and iterate on what worked – bringing the situation back from chaos and to a more mangeable ‘complex’.


A caveat on advocating for agile 

Your decision making shouldn’t be fixated on agile. It’s about tuning into where you are at a moment in time, within your industry or the bigger picture. On occasion the entire world appears to be pivoting on its axel but is that right for your organisation or your team? 

Agile is about much more than speed and flexibility. Leaders who have cultivated an agile mindset will sense-check alignment or misalignment to their organisation’s values and ambitions. Sometimes that means staying true to what has worked before, at other times it means probing and iterating. 

Context is decisive. You’re not going to run a nuclear power plant in an agile fashion because safety means best practice is paramount. Yet when it comes to empowering people to go beyond BAU, there’s scope to step into the unknown without losing sight of core objectives. 

Looking to push the boundaries of what’s possible? Get in touch to explore how we can help you ignite your ambitions.


Published 29/05/2024

Subscribe by Email

Achieve more breakthroughs. Get expert leadership ideas, insights and advice straight to your inbox every Saturday, as well as the occasional bit of news on us, such as offers and invitations to participate in things like events, webinars and surveys. Read. Lead. Breakthrough.