6.3 The decision-making process
4. Who is the ‘audience’? Who do I need to persuade?
5. What benefits of the proposed change will those making up the audience value? What is their perspective on the proposed change?
6. What is the process by which their decision will be made? What are the criteria that will be used? How and when can I influence the decision-making process?
The manager in the position of making the case is acting as advocate for the project, and in effect as a salesperson. The objective, after all, is to persuade one or more groups of people of the value of a particular course of action, in the same way as the sales role is to persuade the customer to buy. The golden rule of effective marketing and selling is to ‘know your customer’ or if you prefer, in this context, ‘know your audience’. There are two elements to this:
Who are the individuals and groups who must be persuaded, and what is their perspective on the issue you will be asking them to consider?
What is the process by which these people will make a decision on whether or not your proposal should go ahead?
The identification of who you need to persuade might be very straightforward. For example, it might be an investment decision taken by the board of directors or agreement from a single senior manager that you seek. These people might have very clearly defined criteria by which they will make a judgement, such as the level of financial return. Even in such apparently clear-cut cases, however, there are likely to be additional factors worthy of your consideration. You may know, for example, that the board has come to regret investments in similar technology in the past, and that you may have to work extra hard to persuade them of the value of your particular proposal. Or your senior manager may not relish the thought of conflict with the workforce over your proposed change, so it makes sense to show you have thought about possible problems and taken steps to reduce or eliminate them. Or perhaps one of the board is particularly keen on environmental protection, and you can show that your proposal has environmental advantages. ‘Bullet-proofing’ your proposal requires pre-empting all the various potential objections or concerns – anticipating the arguments, as is discussed further later.
Marketers seek to identify the members of the ‘decision-making unit’ when they design their approach to a potential customer. In business purchase decisions, there are often several individuals with different perspectives on the purchase – different objectives for it – who must all be satisfied if it is to go ahead. In the case of purchase of equipment the following people might, for example, be involved in the decision-making unit:
the purchasing manager, whose main objective is low cost – this is often seen only in terms of the initial purchase price, but a more enlightened approach would consider the entire cost of ownership (including, for example, maintenance and disposal costs)
the user, whose main objectives may be technical performance
the senior manager who must sign off the purchase, with the objective of avoiding expensive financial mistakes and who will want evidence of a reputable supplier and competitive pricing
the technical support manager, who may want to see compatibility with existing technology, ease of maintenance and so on.
Your objective is to define your decision-making unit – the people who have a say in the decision, not necessarily just those who have the authority to give formal approval or sign the cheque.
Having defined who is involved in the decision, the next step is to define as closely as you can the process by which the decision will be made, including the informal as well as the formal elements. Your aim is to identify appropriate ways to intervene in this process, in order to influence (positively!) the decision outcome. At its simplest, your proposal may be put forward to the board in written form, with or without the opportunity to present the case verbally. Large organisations may have multi-stage processes using sub-committees to screen proposals. Small organisations may be much more informal and the proposal ‘merely’ needs to capture the imagination of the chief executive to get the go-ahead. You need to understand the criteria at work at each stage in the decision-making process. It might, for example, be a mistake to burden a committee with masses of detail if they are operating a fairly coarse screen at an early stage in the overall decision-making.
Whatever the nature of the process, it is often helpful to prepare your audience in advance of any formal consideration, perhaps by informal discussions with key individuals, so that they feel familiar with the basic idea, if not the detail, and become well-disposed towards you and your project. This can be a good way to defuse any knee-jerk objections and might even earn you invaluable high-powered support in the board room. You should certainly seek to gain the commitment of a senior manager willing to act as ‘project champion’ through both proposal and implementation phases.
Not all decision criteria are entirely rational – there are factors in addition to the financial rate of return or objective analytical assessment of benefits to the organisation that influence the decision. Personal preferences, organisational politics and individual insights and intuitions play their part. However, formal boards and committees do need, most of the time, to demonstrate rationality in their decision-making, and you need to make this easy for them by providing the relevant evidence.
Only after you have defined both the precise nature of your proposal and the nature of the audience and its associated decision-making processes should you proceed to the next stages of building your case.