Demystify Decision Making, Apply Structure and Process

Updated: a day ago


Any chance this scenario or aspects of it sound familiar?


“Our team is great at making decisions when everyone agrees, or the stakes are low. But we struggle otherwise. If we need to make a big decision, our goal is to decide together. We make sure we all have the right data and information. We discuss and propose a decision but then someone or a couple people disagree. We talk about it some more but at this point people start to shut down. We then run out of time and schedule another meeting but the team engagement on the issue dwindles. We can’t come to consensus.

Sometimes, we end up not taking on interesting or meaningful work because we can’t land on a decision about it.”


The example is a good one for demonstrating a lack of intentional process around team decision-making.


Humans perform best with structure and routine. Think high performing athletes, surgeons, and brick layers. What do they all have in common? Consistent end products. Athletes win, surgeons heal, and brick layers build all through steady and reliable behaviors. When I ask a team how they do something and everyone has a different answer, this points to an absence of structure.


When we lack that, we become inconsistent and therefore, sloppy. Who wants to be sloppy?


It’s time to tighten up the way you and your team make decisions. This week we address the goals and roles of decision making and examine four different approaches.


Goals and Roles

When presented with any decision, a clear goal or outcome is needed. Questions include:

1. What are we trying to accomplish?

2. What outcomes do we expect?

3. Who is impacted by the decision and how?


All parties need to be aligned on the answers to these questions. While leaders and teams think they are on the same page (believing the answers to the questions are obvious) many are not. It is worth the time to ask these questions upfront, discuss, and make sure there is a shared understanding of the issue. This, in turn, drives who needs to be involved, the process to apply, and the creativity needed to make the right call.


Next, who is the decision maker? Is a single individual making the decision or is a team deciding together? All involved must understand their role. This means, if there is a single decision-maker, then there are also multiple providers of input and perspective, and maybe a devil’s advocate tasked with pushing the group to consider alternatives. Alternatively, is the group deciding? This means, all parties may play an equal part in the process.


Regardless, everyone needs to understand what is expected of them before deliberations take place.


A quick note about team size. Some research indicates that five to six members is the maximum size for effective decision-making. Bain & Co, found “After the 7th person in a decision-making group, each extra member reduces decision effectiveness by 10%.” The proverbial, too many cooks in the kitchen.


Some work groups, committees, and teams can’t avoid having more than seven members. If that is the case, then the decision-making process, the actual approach taken, is crucial.


Four Approaches

The most common approaches to decision-making are the following:


1. Executive Decision – A single decision maker who gathers input and decides. This is efficient and effective, especially when there is unresolvable disagreement. The leader should solicit feedback and opinions individually to encourage candor and prevent groupthink. It is also beneficial for the leader to withhold personal beliefs so as not to sway individual opinion. This approach can negatively impact buy-in and engagement if the team perceives decisions are made regardless of their input.


2. Vote – The greater part of a group decides, very effective and efficient for team decision-making. Consider the following when using voting:

  • Plan for ties if there is an even number of voters for two options.

  • Simple majority vote with two options creates winners and losers. This can degrade team dynamics if it is the only approach to voting used.

  • Avoid simple majority for more than two options. It splits the vote resulting in more people having not voted for the selected option.

  • Multiple options, ideally three to four, enables ranked choice voting, a best practice for team decision-making. See here for how the approach works for a hiring decision in academia.

3. Consensus – A group comes to common agreement. This is a powerful team experience and creates significant buy-in and shared ownership. It is not efficient but very effective. Prior to discussion, conditions and ground rules are agreed upon such as what amount of agreement is necessary for consensus: “I fully agree”, “I can live with it” or “I do not agree but will support the decision.” Other conditions might include a shared value for the time needed to reach consensus and group accountability for the decision. A facilitator is needed, especially for teams new to the consensus building process. Read here to learn more.


4. Coin Flip – Chance decides. Best for low stakes decisions when only two options are available.


Whatever approach is taken, all involved parties must know in advance before deliberations take place.


For an Executive Decision, a leader might say, “I would like everyone’s opinion on this issue. I will make the final call, but your guidance will inform what route to take. I’ll be sure to inform you of the decision.” For team decisions, discuss decision-making processes now, before you have to determine anything. Find out if the team wants to try a true consensus building exercise or a ranked choice vote. The discussion will pave the way for next time a big decision is needed.


People are agreeable to about any decision-making approach if they’re informed of it in advance.


Selecting the Approach

It would be ideal to have a scientifically driven rubric that prescribes which decision-making method to apply for any situation. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist for many of the reasons why workplace issues can be tricky: it all depends on context, people, skill set, and time.


That said, setting criteria can be helpful. Assessing urgency and risk are useful standards to inform which approach to use. For example, if there is an urgent decision with high risk, it might be wise to use Executive Decision, but a non-urgent/high risk decision might benefit from Consensus.


Step by Step Process

Below are basic steps for each approach to decision-making (except for Coin Flip. Self-explanatory). Test one of these out at your next team decision-making opportunity. Share the steps in advance with the team and go for it.

Team decision-making doesn’t have to be confusing, obscure, or frustrating, let alone take a lot of time. Many teams benefit from putting structure and process into place. This frees up the energy that was put into trying to figure out how to decide and redirects it into intelligent discussion and debate. Higher quality decisions will result.


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Until next time!