I sometimes use a simple exercise as an icebreaker with any new group or team I work with. It is a simple maths challenge, adding up 8 numbers that appear in a vertical column on the screen in a slow reveal. The challenge I give the group is to shout out the answer as soon as they know it. It is an interesting exercise as the way the numbers are revealed tends to trick our predictive brains into giving the wrong answer. What is really interesting however is the number of people in the group, (usually around c25-30%) who do not shout out any answer at all; despite competitive peer pressure to do so. Even though the sum is something any 8 year old child would easily get right.
The reason for this silence I believe is not a sudden temporary loss of simple mathematical intelligence. It is an in-built fear of giving the wrong answer and potentially looking foolish in front of peers. This is the same fear that makes taking decisions in a team a difficult thing to do well. This in-built fear of failure needs to be overcome if good quality decisions are needed and in this short article I offer you 6 alternative decision making processes that can help you make better decisions when working in teams.
Step 1 – Make sure a decision is needed.
All 6 alternative processes start with the same step, the recognition that a decision needs to be taken and needs to be taken now! This is only true if the consequences of not taking the decision now are clear and compelling. It can occasionally make sense to delay decisions to the last possible moment so current reality gets the best chance to offer as many clues as possible and the uncertainty of the future can be minimised.
However, to balance this desire to delay, it should be remembered that you get one thing by taking a quick decision that you never get by delaying and that is the window of opportunity to change the decision if it turns out to be wrong! The longer you delay a decision the longer uncertainty of action remains and therefore the window of opportunity to change the decision could well close. We have all seen decisions that get made that are well past their use by date….
The 6 decision making options
Democracy – Get everyone’s views and vote to select the most popular outcome with the Chairman taking the casting vote if necessary. The advantages of this process are that it appears to be fair, the majority get their way and it is relatively quick to do. The disadvantages are that it creates an opposition and the role of the opposition is to oppose, so it is not a great process for gaining commitment from all and should not be used for decisions that require full commitment.
Autocracy hard – Here the person who has the most authority in the group makes the decision and states their reasons. This is the quickest of all 6 decision making processes and it produces clear accountability as everyone is left in no doubt who has taken the decision. It of course does very little to gain commitment from the rest of the team – the leader is making a withdrawal from their ‘credibility bank’ and if their account is in ‘credit’ then they will receive support, if not the they will not. This process also relies on the leader knowing best, which for many decisions is not the case, so it is the least effective of the options available and should only be used when there is a real emergency to deal with.
Autocracy soft – If a quick decision is needed and compliance rather than commitment is required then this is the best of the 6 options to use. The person with the most authority makes it clear that they intend making the decision but before they declare what their decision is they ask everyone in the team to state what they would do if they were them and why? This process has two real advantages over hard autocracy, it lets the leader see who will support the decision they are about to declare and it creates the opportunity for them to change their mind if they hear a compelling argument or insight they had not thought of.
Meritocracy – With this option the decision is made by the person in the team best qualified to make it. Again accountability is clear and that person is drawing from their credibility bank. The more credible they are in the eyes of the team, then the more support they will enjoy for the decision that they take. It seems strange to me how some teams want to debate and discuss decisions they have no real expertise in or real knowledge about. I think it happens because we all have opinions and if our opinion is sought then it usually is readily offered and a heated debate starts that gobbles up valuable team time without any tangible increase in the quality of the decision that eventually gets made. To be avoided if at all possible!
Random – A rarely used decision making process as the work of organisations is considered a serious business and taking a random decision seems far too trivial, so as a process it is rarely used. However, if the various decisions that can be taken all have similar value outcomes and similar risks then putting the options in a hat and letting serendipity help is an option that should be considered. The process can be quick and can prevent the team wasting too much time on pointless debate particularly if the decision is not that important in the general scheme of things.
Consensus – The only process of the 6 that will give a team the best chance of gaining real and genuine commitment to the decision. This is a process that requires a great deal of skill to do well and its downside is that it takes the longest time of all of the 6 options to complete in a team. However I have noticed it is preferred process by most teams I have worked with and as a result it is the default process for most team decisions. I challenge this reality as it is not the best process if compliance rather than commitment is required and for many decisions compliance is all that is required. I fear teams strive to seek commitment far too much and this is one of the key reasons meetings take far too long.
In order to reach consensus in a team there is a proven process to follow that requires good interpersonal and team skills to complete well. If you want to understand how to do this well then contact me and I will be happy to explain the process I use to build consensus in a team.