People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2022

Decision-Making During Uncertainty

One of Comcast Cable's most important strategies in the face of the pandemic was almost immediately adapting its decision-making process with new data and vectors, constantly calibrated against the changing dynamics that the pandemic thrust upon it.

By Bill Strahan, Comcast Cable

No one could have predicted the course of events that we would have to navigate during the global pandemic. As a leadership team we knew that traditional ways of thinking and working, as successful as they have been for us, were not going to withstand the crisis confronting us. We would have to operate with a different kind of agility to meet the novel and complex demands of the pandemic. 

One of our most important strategies in the face of the pandemic was almost immediately adapting our decision-making process with new data and vectors, constantly calibrated against the uncertain and changing dynamics that the pandemic thrust upon us. These changes not only became a way for Comcast to keep our business running and our employees as safe as possible, but they also became a core ingredient to building longer-term organizational resilience.

Implementing a Rapid Risk-Based Decision-Making Model 

During the pandemic, the normal risk profile gave way to one with an acute focus on the health and safety risk to our teammates, customers and the communities we serve. We faced the challenge of simultaneously maintaining our focus on safety and rapidly adjusting our operations while also meeting the urgent demand for our services, driven by the sudden shifts from school and work to home-based environments. 

Finally, this entire challenge came in the context of fear and uncertainty of what the novel virus would do, and a regulatory and medical response that was learning, adapting and re-directing priorities by necessity as new data emerged. Our decision-making process had to not only adapt to the moment, but to also serve as a primary tool to reinforce trust in the absence of certainty across tens of thousands of employees and their loved ones. 

The nature of the adaptation was two-fold. First, the pathway from decision-making to execution became dramatically more streamlined and direct during the initial phases. We infused more cross-functional collaboration among leaders who would quickly operationalize key decisions into day-to-day interactions—with consistency—for every employee role, from field and frontline to office-based. The calibration was informed by and sensitive to the understanding that the risk and impacts of every decision significantly changed on an ongoing basis during the pandemic. 

Second, as we adapted our decision-making process, it was key that those making the decisions had a thorough understanding of the ramifications of each decision on the organization. It began with convening the decision-makers, similar to many organizations, with twice-daily calls of cross-functional groups. 

Rather than bringing in specialists as call leaders, these conversations were primarily staffed by senior leaders with a deep understanding of the logistics and core of our operations for how things got done, as well as the people implications of our decisions.

Each call was run by a universally respected executive who was the HR leader for our technology, product and engineering organization and had many years prior experience across a diverse range of roles and business knowledge of the company. Her institutional knowledge, organizational ability, unadorned courage and the “broad view” an executive has, made her the perfect choice.iStock-472923810.png

Calls started with a readout of the public and occupational health status along with any regulatory type updates—usually from the CDC. The “1 o’clock call” had up to almost 200 people on it, all with critical functional responsibility supporting our COVID-19 response. These workstreams shared status updates and worked through dependencies, asked questions and discussed pending decisions, any redirection or course corrected needed, and confirmation of executed decisions. The 1 o’clock call enabled quick dissemination of information and decisions to teams across sales, technical operations, customer experience, retail, supply chain, network engineering and HR. Those meetings allowed us to quickly identify when new workstreams needed to be stood up, or whether to support changing or emerging policies, processes or issues. The call would end with agreement on an agenda for the “5 o’clock call.”

The purpose of the 5 o’clock call was to settle any outstanding decisions or conflicts of opinion. This call was smaller—only about 12 to 18 people—all of whom had been on the 1 o’clock call, with the addition of the CFO, CHRO and general counsel. While originally structured as a report-out to those roles, their ability to either make a call in the moment, or to resolve an issue overnight, was critical to the cadence of the rapid decision-making process. The CEO provided strategy guidance based on a nightly briefing from the CFO and CHRO.

The outcomes of this process largely traveled along functional paths in addition to our traditional organizational model. Traditionally, we would have communicated first to geographic general managers and presidents, and then worked to cascade messaging. But in this new model, we leveraged organic communications that travelled on a primarily functional basis and path—sales, technical operations, retail, etc. in parallel to general managers and presidents. The guiding principle for how we made decisions—health and safety as our priority—was consistent and clear, the pace of decisions was responsive to the pace of the environment and those involved in making the decisions provided the expertise and operational knowledge necessary to carry those decisions forward. 

The full-on acceleration of digital tools and processes, distributed work, work from anywhere, etc., forced us to reinvent the way we made decisions, how information flowed, in a short timeframe, under pressure and without much certainty. Now, as the pandemic has eased, in many ways decision-making protocols have moved back to their legacy structure. This is perfectly appropriate. The decision-making process we followed for those many months wasn’t inherently better or worse than our legacy processes—but it was an important adaptation in a changed risk environment. Learning that lesson has added a tool to our kit as an enterprise for staying nimble and resilient over time, at scale.

Three Considerations to Inform a Decision-making Model and the Implications for Leading

First is the acknowledgement that conversations about making decisions often anchor on the question of “decision rights.” That is, who should have the right to decide when a consensus is unavailable? When we realized that we would have to make a series of fast-paced, high-frequency, high-impact decisions, based on atypical data sets and patterns of risk, we pivoted our traditional methods for decision-making. Never once did we argue about decision rights. The focus was subject matter expertise in service of coming up with the best decision. We reinvented our decision-making systems to address the risks being presented and therefore built our resilience in the moment.

“Decision rights” seems to be an authority-based model that may be anachronistic in many ways, at least for a healthy organization. Perhaps in a team or organization that is working through dysfunction, the “I’m the boss” model is needed or at least helpful. For a healthier team, especially one managing through urgency, crisis and ongoing uncertainty, we found the most effective approach was adapting to a risk-based decision model, where the focus was not on who was making the decision, but on the decision itself. Our cross-functional workstreams helped us more quickly think through the broad-reaching implications of a decision and tapping into their expertise created well-informed recommendations to “take to the 5 o’clock” for a final checkpoint. Our cultural health here, built on teaming, was an advantage.

Based on our experience, the risk-based lens (vs. the decision-rights lens) worked because it was inherently aligned to the new risk profile that informed the organizational mission. But this approach also required transparency and rapid dissemination across the organization.

iStock-472923810.pngSecond, organizational resilience can at times be viewed as primarily an exclusive characteristic of culture. Rather, we would suggest that culture celebrates or punishes behaviors that can directly lead to building, or breaking down, resilience. Our culture—collegial, smart, outcome-focused—allowed and enabled swift adaptation. 

We have a culture built on strong relationships and high performance “teaming.” This leads to and demands a level of trust that allows us to tolerate and implement swift adjustments, but these adjustments could not have simply been conjured up without structure. Rapid, data-driven and transparent decision-making that was quickly disseminated, created the movement of tactics, capital, OpEx and organizational attention to the right areas of focus on a 24-hour cycle for a business with over 100,000 teammates and 30 million customer end points. Our cultural orientation toward “team” emerged throughout every behavior, action and delivery of our services and fueled how we collectively rose to the challenge. 

Finally, the last element to creating resilience and value from our adapted decision-making process was constant, clear communication with timely cascades to leaders, teams and individual teammates. Our communicators were in every meeting, participants (not observers or stenographers) in every decision and they themselves worked on the same daily cadence to finalize the words, protocols, real-life process flows and “methods and procedures” that brought the decision-making process to life at scale. They moved the work product of the daily and the eventually twice-weekly 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock calls into the hands, minds and hearts of the rest of the company multiple times a week or more. 

Organizational resilience can at times be viewed as primarily an exclusive characteristic of culture. Rather, we would suggest that culture celebrates or punishes behaviors that can directly lead to building, or breaking down, resilience.

The pandemic accelerated many processes led by digitization and virtualization, and we will likely not go backward in these areas. Remote work and education, telemedicine, and reliance on video for other accelerated technology-based practices are today very different than just two or three years ago. The building and strengthening of the broadband Internet network in residential and other areas was essential to working through and enabling these changes. 

Looking back, the guiding principle that allowed us to achieve this level of momentum and ability to thrive through the pandemic at Comcast Cable was to adapt our decision-making process to re-align to the new risk profile that was presented to us—decision-making that ultimately built resilience into the core of every action and into the new way we needed to operate during this uncertain time. We have learned, we have grown, we have expanded our skillset and our toolkit, and we are grateful to move on.  

Bill Strahan is Executive Vice President of HR at Comcast Cable.