Teams, boards, task forces and other working groups often stumble over decision-making. It is often not actually about making decisions. Rather it is that the group has never had a conversation about how they make decisions – what is their process? Are they working on consensus? Majority rule? The boss decides? Often the group has a practice. Yet if that practice is not made explicit, then misunderstandings frequently occur.
Have we decided or are we still discussing?
A very useful model for understanding what often happens comes from Sam Kaner’s book, Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision Making. When a group is considering an issue, ideally there is a discussion that considers a wide range of options. Then the discussion comes to a clear end point with a decision. Once a decision is made the group moves to action. This image illustrates this ideal.
What happens more frequently is that those who are more action oriented believe a decision has been made. At the same time those who want to consider more options believe the item is still under discussion. This image shows this too frequent reality of group process
The value of separating the how from the what
I was once on a large cross-functional team working together on an enterprise wide IT project. In doing some work with the team, I uncovered that one of the team members’ biggest fears was that each person, representing their department, would have wish list items. They feared the group would end up in conflict over priorities. And feared that a political process would override considering options on their merits. We took time before we had to make any specific decisions to talk through how we were going to make the decision. We framed overarching project goals and then agreed to prioritize the options/wish list items based on how they aligned with the goals. We then created a decision tree out of the criteria the group had jointly discussed. When it ultimately came time to prioritize our features list, the group was able to make the decision is just one meeting. The time we had spent up front saved the group time when it was decision making time and spared the group the conflict it feared.
Discuss Decision Making
Taking the time to have a discussion about how your group makes decisions helps take the guess work out of the equation. For each decision the team needs to be clear what issue is being decided. In the course of the discussion, multiple issues may have been raised making it a bit cloudy what is actually being discussed and decided. Then clarifying who is deciding this particular issue – is it a team decision? Would it be helpful to have a subset work on the issue and bring back a recommendation? Is the discussion serving as an input while the decision ultimately lies with the person in charge? Groups often want to jump to action and resist taking time on ‘process’ issues. Yet taking the time can actually save time in the long run.
I work with teams and organizations to improve their effectiveness, by identifying challenges that impede progress and helping the group create processes that will work for them. Have a team or group that needs help? Let's talk.
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