How Effective Leaders guide, support or decide on a proposal



In continuing with the post on “how to get a favorable decision for your proposal – every time”, I want to present the view from the opposite side of the table in this post.  As a leader you will be called on numerous occasions to guide, support or decide on a proposal.

Here we look at a situation where someone has a proposal and is approaching a leader for supporting the proposal, getting guidance on how to proceed with it, or seeking a decision.

While the tasks and situations considered in this post related to a corporate or business setting, you can extrapolate this framework to a personal situation as well.

This could be a proposal at the work place, or for your project.  It could be an organizational re-structuring or building a non-profit organization.  It could be a community activity or something that is being contemplated at your sports club.  It could also be a personal, career or family decision that you are contemplating.

Why is this important?

Reviewing proposals and providing inputs/guidance/direction is very important for effective leadership development.  It is a self-fulfilling cycle.  As folks come to you for guidance and support, and receive valuable guidance, word will spread.  More people will know about you and approach you with their needs. The act of reviewing, connecting the dots and presenting a workable proposition, will continue to fuel your learning.  You will also get to know about ideas and thoughts even as they are being conceived.

You will get opportunities to understand personalities and the team around you.  Those that come to you with proposals could be the people to lead some of your initiatives.  In other words, you will be able to identify (and groom) future strategists, planners and people that can execute challenging initiatives.

In considering such a proposal, there are three possible roles that you could play:

1. You could be helping out as a guide or mentor.  In this role you are more like a mentor, who is helping a colleague build a solid proposal.  You may not have an active interest in the proposal or be impacted by it.  In fact, you may not even be very familiar with the organization where the proposal will be implemented.  You are simply providing guidance to someone who values your inputs.

2. You are the decision-maker.  In this case, your department or projects are impacted by the new proposal.  It could be an innovative proposal and may seek funding from another project of yours.  It could help grow your department, your project portfolio or enhance your reputation/image.  You have a lot at stake in this position.

3. You are adversely impacted if the decision goes through.  In this position, you are the victim.  You or your project is in danger of being sideline in favor of the new proposal.  Your time and ability to fight the decision will be quite limited.  Once the decision is made, you will have to then support it.

In this post, we are not considering the situation where you are neutral, i.e. you are not affected by the proposal regardless of which way the decision goes.

Whatever the situation, there are three things to keep in mind:

1. Emotional mindset CANNOT be conquered by LOGIC.  This is true as much in a corporate setting as in a personal situation. Impulsive shopping, addictions and excessive borrowings are examples where people indulge in such behavior even though logic does not support such actions.

2. Sheer weight of numbers (i.e. more people supporting a certain point of view) can help break-down resistance.  Therefore, you need to round up support from your early adopters.

3. Never make it about a person or personality.  Always look at it from a task perspective.  Make your arguments about the task, the business benefit/impact, reputation of the organization, etc.

Now let us consider each of the three roles and how to provide effective inputs from that position:

1. You are helping out as a leader, mentor or peer.

First of all critique the proposal and ensure that what is being proposed is solid.

If possible, provide inputs to solidify the proposal/business case.

Look for gaps, unfounded assumptions, unconfirmed hypotheses, and erroneous conclusions.

Lay out (or review) the steps that are required to be accomplished.

Help identify key metrics that will indicate whether the proposal (after implementation) was a success.

Help identify key decision maker, early adopters and staunch opposers.

Try to identify people that could benefit if the proposal is implemented.  Use that information and even support from those folk to further refine the proposal.  Almost always, having another person’s perspective helps enrich the idea.  Moreover, when people are involved early, they have a sense of ownership in the proposal and will support it.

Conversely, identify people or projects that will suffer if the proposal is implemented.

A previously approved project will now have to be shelved to make way for the new proposal.  Even more difficult is a situation where a project has started, but has to be stopped in order to allow the new proposal to move forward. Provide a way to quantify the cost.

While you must not approach these people in the early stages of the proposal, you cannot leave it too late either.  Timing becomes important.  Provide guidance around how and when to approach this group.

In some cases, the existing project can move along in parallel with the proposal.  In other cases, the proposal can be implemented only at the cost of the other project.  Provide some guidance on how to assess these alternatives.

Indicate where you can pull your weight, to inch the proposal along.

Try to make time and clearly state how much support you can provide.  Ask relevant questions to understand other dependencies.  Provide a date/time by which you will provide your inputs, and stick to that date.

Periodically, follow up on the proposal.  Find out how the decision was made, and how it was executed.  Guiding, mentoring and then showing interest in the final outcome are hallmarks of effective leaders.

2. You are the decision-maker!

As decision-maker, you OWN the final decision.  No matter what was proposed and who proposed it, once you provide the decision, you are responsible.

So you must do your due diligence and review BEFORE you provide the decision.

Ensure that the business case is solid and the benefit far exceeds the cost.  If you, as decision-maker are NOT one hundred percent convinced of the merits of the proposal, you MUST NOT move forward. Challenge each assumption, each statement and the conclusion.

Place this proposal in the overall strategy, and try to connect other dots (or initiatives) that could support/harm the proposal.

If you decide in favor of the proposal, then you also want to get an idea of the complete path to execution.  It is not enough to decide on a strategy, with no plans for execution.  Sometimes the person conceiving the idea may not be the best person to lead the implementation.

As decision-maker, you must support the proposal through its entire lifecycle.

You not only have to identify the early adopters and people or projects that will benefit by the proposal, but also other projects that will be adversely affected.

For people that will benefit from the proposal, it will be easier to get their vote or buy-in.  Cover this group first.  Make it as personal as possible for this group.  Also check from these people if your assessment about other impacted projects is correct.  It always helps to get a different perspective.

Approach the group or projects that will be adversely impacted after you have the support of some of the early adopters, but before you have formally approved the proposal.  For this group, make it about the task or activity.  DO NOT make it personal.  See if it is possible to mitigate the impact of the proposal on those projects.  Let them know all things that you considered before arriving at this (difficult) decision.

Ultimately, there will be a few cases where it is just too bad, and the decision has to be firmly taken.  Once again, ensure that the business case is only about the task and nothing is personal.

3. You are the victim of the decision.

You are adversely impacted if the decision goes through.  It is likely that your project could be shelved.

Chances are that you have been approached quite late.  Chances are that you do not have much time to consider.  Chances are that the decision has been taken and you have to deal with it.

First thing you must do is respect the decision and remove any personal bias off the table.  Consider the merits of what is being proposed.  Understand the merits of the case, the context in which the proposal is being made and the impact of the decision.

Be mindful that the decision would not have been an easy one to take especially given that at least one project (yours) will be impacted.

First, consider the possibility (however miniscule it may be) that someone has missed something important.  Put in all your efforts to see if there is any gap that has been left out, which makes the business case less than what it is perceived to be.

This is your only chance to have the decision reversed and save your project.

Second, see if it makes sense for your project or initiative to still continue and run in parallel with the new proposal. Things to look out for are compliance with regulations, a major sales event, loss of capital investment, damage to brand/reputation, likelihood of a lawsuit being filed on the company, employee morale, etc.  You want to convincingly highlight the probability of any of these happening if your project is shelved.

Lastly, if neither is possible, then respect the company decision and support the new proposal.  See if you can manage the execution of part of what is being proposed.  By showing flexibility and mature understanding of a sensitive situation, you make it easy on the decision-makers.  Such actions do not go unnoticed, and you may yet salvage something out of a bad situation.

Image (c): Kay Leadership Academy