Archive for August, 2009

Organizing Team Decision-Making
Reaching Consensus for Better Decisions

Consensus is often essential.

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 for 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 reasons that companies have boards, and why important decisions are taken by these boards.

What’s more, many decisions need “buy-in” from the people affected by them, if they’re to be implemented successfully. 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 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. We’ll show you some useful tools to use when you want to involve your whole team in the decision-making process.

The Challenge of Team Decisions

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 just 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.

It’s easy for managers to “go overboard” with group decision-making, sometimes as a way of trying to avoid responsibility for decisions. Use team decision-making where it should be used, and individual decision-making where it’s appropriate.

You can find out more about this in much more detail the Career Excellence with our premium members’ article on The Vroom-Yetton-Jago Decision Model. This gives you a well-thought-through decision tree that you can follow to work out the best approach to use.

Team Consensus Methods

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 most can live with, however grudgingly.

Let’s look at some useful 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 so 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 unhappy with the result!

    Multi-voting can address this problem. Proceeding through a number of rounds of voting, individuals are given a certain number of votes in each ballot, which they can allocate to the various options any way they want. Essentially, they provide a “weighting” to their choices. They can give one vote to each of several different choices, all of their votes to once choice, or any combination in between. After all the votes are placed, the choices with the highest number of votes are carried through to the next round, until a winner emerges. Click here for our members’ article on Multi-voting.

    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.

  • 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.)

    Here, Nominal Group Technique provides an effective framework for ranking priorities and choosing the option that best fits those priorities. First, the team discusses the problem, and they narrow down the issues to the choices they must prioritize. From there, participants each rank their top choices. The team totals the rankings for each alternative, and the options with the highest ranking emerge as the group’s priorities.

  • Making Contributions Anonymous

    Sometimes, people with deep expertise that you need to draw on may dislike one-another so much that they have difficulties working together. In other situations, people may need to discuss issues that 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.

    With the Delphi Method, a facilitator helps participants individually brainstorm solutions and submit their ideas anonymously – other team members don’t know who submitted which ideas. The facilitator collects and organizes the input, submits it to others for development, critique and refinement, then goes back and forth to all participants until everyone agrees to a final set of choices – and, eventually, a final decision. (Mind Tools premium members can read our article on the Delphi Method by clicking here.)

    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.

The other advantage of the Delphi Method is that it helps to eliminate groupthink.

In some situations, group cohesion and consensus can subconsciously become more important to people than reaching the right decision, with the result that the group may ignore anything that contradicts the newfound consensus. If groupthink isn’t recognized and corrected, it can lead to very poor decision-making and severe negative (and even fatal) consequences.

Key Points

Team decision-making is often time-consuming, meaning that it makes sense to prepare for it properly. Before you organize full team participation, make sure that it’s appropriate, and that you have the necessary time and resources for it.

However, teams can often commit more enthusiastically to decisions reached through consensus. Using a variety of techniques, you can do this in such a way that everyone has a chance to contribute to the final result.