The adage “the buck stops here” was popularized in the 1940s and since then has represented a scenario where a single, influential individual is responsible for making decisions and accountable for their outcomes. Although many of today’s business leaders are influential enough to warrant wearing power suits and networking over power lunches, their decision-making powers are frequently shared with others.
While group decision-making may take longer since multiple schedules, perspectives, and personalities are involved, the following benefits explain why we see increasingly more instances of group-decision making in our travels through companies across the globe:
In our experience, group-decision making works best when the process is buttoned up so that the group’s time and energy is focused on the content of the decision. When we work with clients to create governance processes or improve decision-making effectiveness, we start by making sure that the following components of the process are in place:
If a team is not crystal clear about the decision that is being made, a lot of time can be wasted discussing tangential issues, clarifying expectations, or reworking decisions. We observed one client’s leadership team struggle through a new product development stage gate meeting because it wasn’t clear if project teams were merely providing updates to the leadership team, asking for advice on how to handle project issues, or requesting the green light to proceed. Needless to say the process was frustrating for all in attendance.
We recommend that the scope of the decision be clearly decided and communicated in advance of the meeting to all the parties involved.
Equally important to knowing what decision is being made is agreeing on the criteria that will be used to decide amongst the various options. To ensure a thorough and objective decision, the criteria for assessing each option should be made in advance. In some cases, it also makes sense to determine if certain criterion are deal-breakers or should be weighed more heavily than others. Clearly defining the criteria ensures that all key parts of the decision are considered during the discussion and the right information is available to make the decision.
For example, in the case of go / no go decisions for new product development projects, we recommend creating a formal scoring framework. Decision criteria in such scoring framework might include strategic alignment, consumer demand, technical feasibility, competitive differentiation, and return on investment.
Even with defined criteria there are many different ways for a group to make a decision. In some cases complete consensus is required whereas in others majority rule is sufficient. To avoid confusion about what it takes for a group to reach decision, the group must agree in advance on which decision-making approach is best. The following table provides a summary of the most popular options, including a description of when each option is most appropriate.
Nothing stalls the process or decreases quality like operating without critical information. Take appropriate measures to ensure all relevant data, opinions, and requirements are collected in advance. When possible, share this information with all members of the decision-making team as a pre-read and set expectations that participants attend the meeting fully informed.
When making a group decision everyone comes to the table with different objectives, assumptions, and agendas. Marketing wants the packaging to be “sexy cool,” R&D wants the packaging to keep the formulation safe, and Supply Chain wants the packaging to be cost efficient. It’s important that everyone has the chance to advocate for their own point. After everyone has stated their position, however, the best teams are able to set aside their individual, functional or departmental agendas and adopt a broader, enterprise-wide perspective.
It is hard to ensure all team members share the air waves, capture key points, and identify issues for the parking lot when you’re in the heat of high-stakes decision-making. To ensure focus and efficiency, the group may want to assign the role of facilitator to a trusted individual. The expectation is that the facilitator will drive the conversation and not advocate for their own point of view. If it is not possible for a member of the group to give up their right to advocate, then a 3rd party individual should be considered. The facilitator may also be responsible for pre and post meeting admin (i.e. preparing pre-reads, developing agendas, distributing meeting minutes).
After a decision has been made, it’s important to walk the talk. All decision-makers must commit to sharing ownership of the decision and aligning their messaging and actions with the spirit of the decision. Without total commitment, you risk diluting or voiding the decision.
Considering all the factors involved, it is fair to say that group decision-making is a part-art and part-science. If the above procedural best practices are in place, then the group is liberated to focus its energy and wisdom on brainstorming, assessing, and selecting options.
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Leadership Crescendo - Reflections and thoughts on leadership learned after thirty years of thinking about, experiencing, teaching and coaching executives for leadership effectiveness, written by Kaveh Naficy