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How to Make Good Group Decisions

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Decision-making is an important function of many groups, especially project teams and management teams. Setting ground rules about how decisions will be made is a good idea, since otherwise groups may develop some bad decision-making habits.

Groups also need to differentiate between major and minor decisions. Taking half an hour to reach consensus on the color of program folders is probably a waste of effort, but reaching consensus on the approach to a major project is well worth the investment of time.

COMMON DECISION-MAKING PITFALLS

The decision-making pitfalls below often cause problems for work groups and project teams.

1. Rushing to Conclusion

Groups sometimes rush into decisions without considering all the facts or gathering needed data. Leaders who want input from their group should never start a decision-making discussion by saying “Here’s what I think. Now, what’s your opinion?” Having declared their own views, they may not get much disagreement. Whenever a team seems to be making a hasty decision based on hunches, assumptions, or past personal experiences, someone needs to slow down the process.

2. Analysis Paralysis

The opposite of rushing to conclusion is to spend so much time gathering and analyzing data that nothing ever happens. While using data is important, groups seldom have all the data that they could possibly wish for on a subject. The key is to identify the critical information needed and not waste time collecting data that is only marginally useful.

3. Voting

Voting is often used to resolve situations where clear preferences for opposing choices are expressed by group members. The advantage of voting is that it resolves the issue quickly. The disadvantage, however, is that it creates winners and losers and tends to polarize people. For any important decision, voting needs to be avoided if possible.

4. Vocal Minorities

Sometimes decisions are determined by small numbers of people who strongly express their opinions. If those who disagree remain quiet, the result is a decision that is only supported by a minority of the group. When this appears to be happening, someone needs to encourage other members to speak up, in order to assess everyone’s support for the decision.

5.  Lack of Response

Sometimes decisions are made by default, when no one responds to an idea or suggestion. If one person suggests a course of action, but no one comments on it, the group will just go on to the next topic and the idea is dropped. A decision has thus been made not to pursue that idea. The hazard for the group is that good ideas may get lost this way. If a suggestion seems to have some merit, the group should be encouraged to at least discuss and consider it.

6. Groupthink

"Groupthink" occurs when members of a group are reluctant to express disagreement. The result is that everyone agrees on the surface without expressing their underlying concerns or reservations. Decisions are made without the careful scrutiny that occurs through open discussion, often resulting in unfortunate outcomes. Groupthink is frequently caused by leaders who discourage disagreement and shut down discussion.

7. The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox occurs when a group makes a decision that no one actually supports. This usually occurs because everyone is being polite and believes that other members support the decision. The name was coined by a consultant who took a miserable trip to Abilene with his family, then later learned that no one really wanted to go.

TOOLS FOR REACHING CONSENSUS

When possible, groups need to make important decisions by reaching consensus. Consensus does not mean unanimous agreement. Consensus does mean that all members can support the decision, even if they do not agree with it 100%.
The disadvantage of the consensus-building process is that it takes time. The advantage, however, is that everyone supports the final decision. For important issues, this will usually save time in the long run and result in better outcomes. Here are some suggestions for helping a group reach consensus.

1. Focus on Facts

Groups often debate their opinions for hours without ever checking factual information. For example, we may have strong feelings about why our turnover rate is high – but to make good decisions we need to look at factual information from exit interviews, employee surveys, comparative compensation data, and so forth. Sometimes gathering factual data can help to resolve differences of opinion.

2. Agree on Criteria

Before starting to make a decision, the group can first agree on the criteria that will be used to decide. This can reduce the amount of disagreement about the final decision and give everyone an opportunity to discuss the aspects of the decision that are most important to them. For example, a family about to buy a car might agree beforehand that they will buy a four-door sedan with automatic transmission and a six-cylinder engine. This narrows the options that will be considered.

3. Expand the Options

When groups get caught in an "either-or" debate about two different options, it is often useful to expand the ideas being considered. First, group members should identify the positives and negatives of each existing option, then have members brainstorm additional possibilities to consider. This often produces a solution that is better than either of the two original ideas.

4. Test for Consensus

As a decision is being discussed, the group can stop at various points to see how close they are to consensus. Here is one method for consensus-testing: the group uses a 10-point scale to assess agreement, with a rating of 7 indicating that the member can support the decision, even without complete agreement. Periodically, when the group appears to be coming close to a decision, the members are asked to rate their level of agreement at that moment. Those with a rating lower than 7 are given a chance to express their concerns. Discussion continues until an acceptable decision is reached.

5. Multiple Voting

Multiple voting can be used to narrow down options in a decision-making process. The steps in multiple voting are as follows:

  • A list of options or ideas is generated.
  • The group agrees on criteria for selecting options. Options not meeting the criteria are eliminated.
  • Each remaining option is identified with a number.
  • Members are asked to vote for a specific number of options by writing down the ones they prefer.
  • Members take turns calling out the numbers of options they selected (one number at a time).
  • Options with the most votes are selected for further discussion.

When eliminating options, it is a good idea to check for any strong feelings group members may hold about them. (Voting can also be accomplished by allotting a certain number of "sticky dots" to each member, then having them put the dots under their preferred options. This is not only faster, but also breaks the tedium of sitting by allowing people to get up and walk around.)

6. Structured Discussion

Structured discussion is most useful when options have been narrowed to five or fewer. This approach encourages everyone to express opinions and focus on areas of agreement. These are the steps in structured discussion.

  • Members agree on criteria for selecting options.
  • Members take turns expressing their opinion without discussion.
  • The leader summarizes areas of agreement.
  • The group discusses areas of disagreement.
  • The leader periodically tests for consensus.
  • Discussion continues until a decision is reached. 

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