Overlooked Practices Which Improve Team Decision-Making
The practice has two steps, both frequently overlooked. The first is the easiest: For each topic you introduce for discussion as team leader, say whether your intent is to (a) make a decision or (b) simply to discuss.
If your intent is to make a decision, you include a second step: Tell the team, up-front, “how” you want that particular decision to be made. To do this, my clients find it’s helpful to use a simple continuum that identifies how decisions can be made. This framework (a synthesis and simplification of some already “out there”) gives teams a common language, making it easy to quickly get aligned on which decision-making process you’re going to use:
- Directive decision – You make the decision yourself, based on information and other considerations you think are relevant.
- Consultative decision – You ask your team for their input about the best decision to make. This may involve a robust group discussion where team members try to influence one another, but the focus is not on developing a consensus among team members (see next option). The focus is on persuading you about the best decision to make.
- Consensus decision – You frame the issue that requires a decision, and you facilitate a team discussion in which the objective is to arrive at a decision everyone in the group is genuinely willing to support, even if not everyone fully agrees with the decision. (Consensus is not unanimity. That’s the fourth option). During the discussion, your role is to balance between being a participant (you don’t withhold your own views) and facilitating the discussion so that differing views and expressed and explored. It is part of your job to test along the way for consensus. (For example, “It sounds like we are now agreed on the first two points, but haven’t come together yet on the third point. Is that how others see it?”) It’s good to clarify at the outset that, if the team can’t come to a genuine a consensus within a reasonable period of time, the “back up” is that you will make a consultative decision.
- Unanimous decision – You frame the issue and facilitate the decision as you would for a consensus decision, but you state at the outset that you don’t want to move forward on this issue unless the team can get to full agreement about the decision that should be made.
Regardless of which process you use, the final step is to communicate your decision clearly to the team and answer any clarifying questions.
I would encourage you to take a moment to self-assess what percentage time you use each of these options.
How do you know which decision-making process to use?
To the extent that you want a decision that benefits from multiple perspectives and that results in strong commitment to implementation, you should move beyond directive decision-making to one of the more inclusive options. However, if you have already made up your mind and, upon reflection, are really not open to changing your mind, it’s best to be honest and make a directive decision, making the reasoning behind your decision clear and answering any clarifying questions.
In most client organizations with whom I work, the starting “decision-making culture” is to lead very heavily toward directive and consultative decisions. The downside of such a culture is that openness to differing points of view is minimized, an approach that leads to its share of mistakes and missed opportunities.
I’ve also worked with a few organizations where the decision-making culture leans heavily toward consensus and unanimous decisions. The downside of this culture is that it can produce a chronic slowness in decision-making that can be quite problematic. While the intent is to produce maximum commitment to implementing the decisions made, unanimous decisions in particular have the disadvantage that they, in effect, give each team member “veto power” and can take a great deal of time. As a result, some team members may withhold differing views, just to avoid taking the time to work things through to everyone’s satisfaction.
Given the rapid pace of change and the increased need to consider the views and priorities of key stakeholders, organizations with the most effective decision-making cultures are more balanced toward the center of the spectrum, placing primary emphasis on consultative and consensus decision-making.
Why do this?
Being explicit about how a decision will be made may seem like a no-brainer. However, my experience from three decades of consulting to leaders, teams, and organizations, is that it’s quite unusual for team leaders to do this. The five years of research I did on leadership skills needed for the 21st century leadership confirmed this impression, finding that only about 10% of leaders are currently inclined to make this a regular practice. (See the book, Leadership Agility).
These leaders have a different mindset about decision-making that sees the value in focusing not only on the substance of the decision, but also the process by which it is made. Consequently, it is easy and natural for them to step back to clarify that process before diving into it.
Given the very small amount of time required to be explicit about decision-making, the ROI is quite high. It almost invariably results in greater trust in the decision-making process and increased commitment to the decisions made.