I recently have the opportunity to do training with Michael Tardiff, a gifted facilitator and trainer for Solutions IQ. One of Michael’s specialty subject is group decision making. We take different approaches to teaching this topic, i’m more about getting to any answer, Michael is more about knowing the method used to get to the answer so that it has the greatest chance of surviving use over time. Michael is right of course, the goal of decision making is to get to the right answer (for now) and to avoid future “I never agreed to that” problems. Whilst consensus isn’t necessarily the key, finding agreement that persists over stress and time is the purpose and goal.

Michael says there are four basic types of decision making process, and others are a combination of these –

  1. King Rules (gets to live why we like their decisions, then beheaded)
    speed: fastest, risk: high if technical, long-lasting: until change of king
  2. Majority Rules (works while the minority of the last decision believes they will be the majority one day)
  3. Consent (staying silent means you agree)
  4. Consensus (hardest to achieve, but once agreed it was so hard, it tends to stick)
    speed: slowest, risk: low if the right people agree consensus, long-lasting: good

Its important to call out (when its unsaid) how a decision is being made or has been made. Consensus is the longest and hardest to achieve, but tends to stick because people are invested in the decision. Consent offers middle ground if there is time and capability to handle objections. If your system demands King Rules, just acknowledge it. Majority rules is a muddy area. You haven’t managed to sway the minority opinion who might believe their day will come. But, if a decision is needed by a certain time, or total agreement may never be achieved it is a (often) fair way to resolve decisions. But it may not stick for long.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Theory (see here)

Decision making styles can be culturally impacted. Even within one country, there are very different styles in lively discussion one coast to the other (in the USA, West coast are more consensus introverts, and East coast more Extrovert). Pay attention when working with experts from cross geographies that the ability for challenging authority varies, and you may just think you have consensus. The classic measure of this is Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Theory which ranks countries based on set of interesting dimension relevant to decision making attributes. I’ve found an awareness of Power distance index (PDI): The Power Distance Index is defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” important. And Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO): This dimension associates the connection of the past with the current and future actions/challenges. A lower degree of this index (short-term) indicates that traditions are honored and kept, while steadfastness is valued, key to understanding some group dynamics. More ideas can be found in these articles and books: Wikipedia: Cross Cultural Decision Making, and the book Advances Cross Cultural Decision Factors Ergonomics.

Its key that even the introverts who know why a decision is a poor or impossible choice gets heard by the group, independent of salary or positional power. If the decision is more technical than opinion, weight the technical voices in the room higher than the opinion voices.

Reducing Thrashing

To reduce elongated analysis time, I often nudge teams in the following directions –

  1. “Good for now” Agree for how long you are going to test the decision and revisit it for further analysis. Often by helping people remember a decision isn’t in stone, but for now, they overcome hesitancy to commit based on uncertainty.
  2. “Close the gap” Narrow in on a few actionable things. Even if you cant decide on the whole solution, can you agree on first steps. Often, the team realizes that most of the value in the decision is achieved.
  3. “Guard Rails” Identify what factors occurring invalidate any key assumptions and need the decision revisited. Helps people agree for now and feel that dooms-day scenarios are protected against.
  4. “Agree on Research” If agreement on the decision can’t be reached, identify what research inputs are needed to proceed and get a decision. Document what is in the way of reaching a decision and what data would clarify and get clarity or reduce uncertainty.
  5. And Sebastian Eichner (@stdout) mentioned another important tool. “Roll a dice and pick at random.” Often people find reasons why the one picked at random isn’t a viable choice, or if the decision is really that similar in risk and reward, its as good a choice as any! Use it to draw out opinions.

Its good to have teams make smaller, less risky decisions to practice putting contrary views in a productive way. Decision making is a skill to be built in a team, and a great indicator of team maturity.

The one final point often mentioned. “Who is responsible for a decision if one can’t be reached?” There is an eventual moment where King Rules needs to and should apply. If the cost of no decision outweighs the risk of moving forward, someone has to make the best decision they can. If thats you, and you are in a position of power you have a couple of acceptable choices –

  1. Delegate to the most informed expert, and say “which one, we need a choice and i think you have the most information” and then cover them if it goes badly.
  2. Break the deadlock. If two options are equally liked by different people, make it clear that no decision is worse and that you are going decision A for two or three months (as long as you need to see if it was likely right). By making it clear you are only stepping in because of the cost of no decision as a tie-breaker, you still give the team a good chance of making their own choices. If this is re-occuring, you need to make staff changes!