A lesson about decision-making from Walmart

Walmart and Decision-Making

You can say a lot of things about Walmart, and for most people the majority of them would probably be somewhat negative — although they did just make a move to increase their minimum wage — but it would be hard to argue that the dudes at the top don’t know something about business. They employ over 2 million people (Jesus H. Christ) and they racked up $485 billion in sales last year. (That’s like 7-8 Bill Gates’ being sold in a year.) They’re maybe not the most dominant company in America/the world anymore — Apple kind of took that mantle from them — but I doubt the top executives are wondering where their next meal is coming from, you know?

The current CEO, Doug McMillon (who is pretty much the definition of “promote from within,” as he’s been with Walmart his entire career), spoke at Stanford Business School in late February. Here’s a summary. Video’s at the top of the post. Here’s perhaps the most interesting section:

Walmart insiders use the phrase “Who owns the D?” It means, “Who is the decision-maker?” says McMillon. A good manager may have 80% of a problem figured out, he says, and the other person in the room may know the other 20%, so “your job is to help communicate what you think about the 80 but also to listen so that you can find the other 20.”

Top executives need to gather the collective wisdom of their teams, but waiting for consensus “can kill you, because speed matters, too.” The challenge for Walmart, McMillon says, “is to get the right few people in the room to make the best decision and get on with it.”

I like this because it’s essentially work in a nutshell. Basically, people barely want to collaborate as is, and despite that we consistently chase consensus in every business discussion. That’s a complete clusterfuck, and here’s why.

It’s the same concept as “brainstorming;” it makes almost no sense, has never been proven to be successful, and yet we consistently try to get ideas out of a group via that method.

Now look, if I was in a room with a bunch of Type-A Walmart executive alpha males barking “WHO OWNS THE D,” I’d probably throw myself into the nearest industrial-strength fan head-first. That sounds awful in every conceivable way. But in reality, it’s kind of the essence of work: who does own the fucking D? Stop jerking around with “Well Nate, what do you think?” and instead figure out who calls the shots, who needs to be involved, what their roles are, and honestly, why you’re doing the whole thing in the first place.

But the decision-making needs to be clear. Otherwise, you sit in a lot of pointless meetings where people chase “everyone’s viewpoint,” even though half the people in the meeting probably aren’t even invested in the end product.

Ted Bauer

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