Organizing Team Decision-Making

Reaching consensus for better decisions:

While many of the decisions we make on a daily basis are quite simple, some are not. These decisions may involve assimilating a huge amount of information, exploring many different ideas, and drawing on many strands of experience. And the consequences of the right or wrong decision may be profound for the team and the organization.

So, should leaders be decisive, think the issues through on their own, and take firm action? In some cases, no.

There’s a limit to how much information any one individual can process, and a limit on how many perspectives one person can see. Many decisions need full group participation to explore the situation, provide input and make a final choice. As you’ve probably seen, groups can often make better decisions than any one person operating on his or her own. This is one of the main reasons that good companies have boards, to which important decisions are taken.

What’s more, many decisions need “buy-in” from the people affected by them if they’re to be implemented successfully, and it’s hard to get this buy-in if people haven’t been involved in the decision-making process.

The problem is that when you bring other people into the decision-making process, you need to approach decisions differently. These approaches vary, depending on a number of different factors, including:

  • The type of decision.
  • The amount of time and resources available.
  • The nature of the task being worked on.
  • The environment the group wants to create.
  • The amount of buy-in needed.

Understanding why and how best to organize decisions for your team is an important skill.

Using team input is challenging, and it takes a fair amount of preparation and time. As the saying goes, if you put three people together in a room, you’ll often get four opinions. People can often see issues differently – and they all have different experiences, values, personalities, styles, and needs.

Trying to include all of these differences in one decision that satisfies everyone can be difficult, to say the least. Team decision-making strategies should therefore be used when needed, for example, when consensus and participation are necessary.

When time is of the essence, a good decision is one that’s made quickly. That doesn’t usually happen with full team decision-making. And when one or two people have the necessary expertise to make the decision, it doesn’t make sense to involve the whole team – the experts provide most of the input and make the final choice anyway.

However, where the situation is complex, consequences are significant, commitment and buy-in are important, and where team members can work together maturely, team decision-making is often best.

When your whole group needs to be involved in the process, you need to explore consensus decision-making models. With these, each team member has the opportunity to provide input and opinions. All members discuss alternatives until they agree on a solution.

With consensus, there’s often compromise. Not everyone gets everything they want out of the final decision. However, because everyone has fair input, the decisions reached are often ones that can all live with.

Let’s look at a few team decision-making strategies.

  • Ensuring Participation.  A consensus decision depends on hearing everyone’s opinion. In a team situation, that doesn’t always happen naturally: Assertive people can tend to get the most attention. Less assertive team members can often feel intimidated and don’t always speak up, particularly when their ideas are very different from the popular view.The Stepladder Technique can help manage these differences. Each team member thinks about the problem individually and, one at a time, introduces new ideas to the group leader – without knowing what ideas have already been discussed. After the first two people present their ideas, they discuss them together. Then the leader adds a third person, who presents his or her ideas before hearing the previous input. This cycle of presentation and discussion continues until the whole team has a chance to add their opinions.The benefit of this process is that everyone feels heard and acknowledged. Once all the ideas are presented, the team can look at ways to narrow the options down, and make a decision.
  • Voting for Consensus.  Voting is a popular method for making decisions, and it’s a good approach to use where opinions are strongly divided between two or three options.Unfortunately, it becomes less useful where there are many options – imagine an election where people have only one vote to choose between eight candidates: It’s possible that a candidate could win with as little as 13% of the vote. This would leave 87% of people feeling very dissatisfied with the result!This method allows more people to have input in the final decision. There may still be people who give the final choice no votes, but that number tends to be significantly reduced. This method is popular when time is an issue and full buy-in isn’t essential for success.
  • Establishing Group Priorities. A similar situation is where you need to prioritize a set of options, where everyone has different views, and there’s no objective framework that people can use for decisions. (The classic situation in which this occurs is where people are allocating resources between competing projects.)
  • Anonymous Contributions. Sometimes, people with deep expertise that you need to draw on may dislike one-another so much that they have difficulties working together. In others, people may need to discuss issues which are real, but unpalatable or embarrassing. In still others, proposals may need to be developed and explored in tremendous detail, suiting individual scrutiny and analysis away from a meeting. For these situations, managing the process in a way that allows anonymous and remote contributions can help you avoid destructive situations and reach a good, well-thought-through decision.Conducting these discussions is very time-consuming, and you need an experienced facilitator who can help individuals come together to find a solution. But the result is usually a robust final decision that has been fully explored, and is supported by each team member.

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