Years ago, a pressing issue came up at work.  I made an appointment with the company president to discuss the looming problem.  After a few minutes of discussing the situation, he said, “ I simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the problem at this time.”  I was stunned.  What did mean, he didn’t have the bandwidth? This was a huge issue that had to be dealt with right away!  Or, did it? 

Bandwidth can be defined as the volume of information that can be transmitted over a connection over a set period of time.  The word bandwidth has  also crossed over into the management lexicon, where it has developed a secondary meaning: the mental capacity and/or the physical energy required to deal with a particular issue, problem or situation.  In this case my president was telling me he was already overwhelmed with other problems and couldn’t handle another one at this time. I would either have to deal with it myself or wait until he could provide additional guidance. 

How or why does this happen?  Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2003, championed and popularized the concept of System 1 and System 2 in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow.  System 1 thinking is fast, automatic, effortless and composes the bulk of our decision-making processes. It is intuitive and sadly, often wrong. System 2 is much slower, resource intensive and is the rational part of our thinking processes.  Heavy duty problems require a decision-maker to engage System 2, but this takes a lot of effort. System 2 is lazy and gobbles up a significant portion of our mental processes. Put another way, using System 2 is exhausting and we often avoid using it.  Yet, engaging System 2 is essential when dealing with any type of complex problem. 

There are several lessons here for NFP managers. NFP executives are already working in an environment with very little resources. NFP organizations are typically short-handed and their executives spend a lot of time putting out fires.  This by itself is time and resource consuming. It can be both physically and mentally exhausting. We then ask the decision maker to turn on System 2 specifically for our problem.  It is no wonder they don’t. Even if the executive seems to be listening she may not be.  If that is the case, the executive is not processing the information we are transmitting because she has not engaged System 2.  Consequently, any time you walk into an executive’s office and want their undivided attention, you need to be ready to do three things:

  1. You must quickly demonstrate why the executive needs to turn on her System 2 for this particular problem now. This may mean you need to demonstrate to the executive her priorities need to be reordered and she needs to concentrate on your project now. Be prepared to discuss the risks and rewards from delaying a decision on this particular project.  This also presupposes you have already reassessed your situation and determined it does require an immediate decision.  If that is not the case, it might be better to wait before you bring the situation forward for a decision. 
  2. You need to have the discussion layed out in a professional manner.  While this little article doesn’t deal with professional communications and presentations, attempting to get the executive to turn on her System 2 with a rambling conversation will be deadly to your efforts to get the executive to focus on the problem. 
  3. Make sure the decision maker has actually employed System 2. Even if you do everything right, you may not have generated the sufficient attention and motivation on the executive’s part for her to engage System 2. At the end of the day, people are just people.  Unlike the rational decision-maker classical economics suggests we are, behavioral economics suggests we are often irrational decision makers precisely because we are human. We all can be tired, distracted, unmotivated etc.  A good NFP manager will recognize the executive is really not engaging and therefore not processing information about the situation.  When these things happen, forging ahead with  the actions apparently approved by the executive could have some unfortunate consequences.  How many times have we heard our managers say, “I didn’t say that” or “That’s not what I said to do”?  In many of these situations the decision maker  is not changing her mind or shading the truth.  They may not even remember the conversation or subsequently realized the decision was  a mistake because System 1 was used to make the  decision about the  problem and not System 2.  Consequently, if you are discussing a complex problem with the decision maker and you are not sure she had employed System 2, you should confirm her decisions after an appropriate amount of time. This will give her a graceful way to rethink the situation and hopefully engage System 2. Do not be surprised if the decision changes when it is revisited!

In short, in the helter-skelter world of NFP management, make sure the decision maker has the bandwidth to make the decision and has received the information in a clear transmission. That is the only way you will get the right decision.