Exceptional teams do not take decision-making lightly. They know that when there are a variety of choices on the table and a wide range of personalities, interests, and perspectives around the table; things will get thorny. These teams carefully prepare before making a decision. Their preparation work always includes deciding how to decide. There are at least four approaches groups can use to make a decision. Each has its strengths, weaknesses, and most appropriate uses. Successful teams work hard at choosing the right approach in each situation.
All or Nothing
The “all or nothing” approach means that everyone agrees on the “right” answer. If they don’t all agree, the team does nothing. The process is slow and can be quite painful. Since not reaching a decision often feels like failure, the majority pressures the minority to conform so that they can all feel “successful.”
This approach is good when doing nothing is preferable to making the wrong decision. In a capital murder case, all the jurors must agree to a death sentence before it is imposed. The system was created to minimize the chance of killing an innocent person. In business situations, such dramatic circumstances are few and far between, meaning that this approach is seldom a good choice for the team. In those rare situations, this approach might be just the thing that prevents the company from making a “fatal” decision.
Most people are comfortable with the idea of voting to reach a decision. It’s democratic, expedient, and generally considered to be fair. Unfortunately it doesn’t always produce good results. Since it’s so easy, groups often jump to this method rather than doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. By giving everyone an equal say in the decision, it discounts expertise. It can also hurt a team’s cohesiveness because after the vote the team is now split into winners and losers. Instead of supporting the decision, the minority usually continues resisting the decision, making implementation difficult or even impossible. Voting is seldom a good approach for a decision that really matters.
It is an excellent choice when the group needs a quick decision and the outcome isn’t going to have any serious consequences. Choosing where to hold the next meeting, narrowing a long list down to the top 3 – 5 options, or selecting food for a company event might be a good decisions for voting. In each situation, making the perfect decision probably isn’t worth the time and energy.
Authority Rules (Expert Rules)
In this approach, the group defers the decision to an authority. This might be the meeting leader, a perceived expert, or anyone else the group thinks could and should make the decision. This approach is quick and painless for the group. The problem is that the authority may not be an expert and end up making a poor decision.
Like the “majority rules” approach, this works well in situations when no one much cares about the outcome. It should also be considered when the issue is strictly personal preference, and one person’s preference is as good as another person’s. Finally, it a great choice when the decision requires expertise the group does not have and a true expert is available.
The approach best suited for making most important decisions is consensus. A group has reached consensus when everyone can and will support the decision. This doesn’t mean everybody agrees on the best choice, but they have found a choice they can all support. Consensus promotes hard thinking that really gets at the issues. It’s slow and often painful, but when the group finally reaches consensus, it has developed a solution that will have the support it needs to be implemented. Since consensus requires so much energy, the group should agree that the outcome of the decision is worth the effort. Here are a couple situations that would be ideal for using consensus: 1) Changing the organization’s structure, 2) Developing a strategic plan, 3) Designing a new product. In each situation, people probably do care deeply about the outcome, and their support will be required to successfully implement the decision.
All four of the decision-making approaches can lead the group to a decision. The important thing is matching the approach and the situation. Choosing the right approach will help the group avoid doing the wrong things, speed through decisions that don’t warrant the time, and focus efforts on those decisions that will have the greatest impact on success.