Three Crucial Elements of Team Decision-Making

By Liz Kislik

Teams that have trouble bringing matters to an actual decision are often unaware of how their own inconsistent processes reduce their chances of coming to agreements that everyone can live with.

Whether the team discussion is meant to provide insight to a single executive, who then has full responsibility for the decision itself, or the group intends to reach a full consensus, the process is smoother when several crucial elements are present. Unfortunately, however, one or more of these essentials can be forgotten in the team’s eagerness to come to a conclusion.

Establish Alignment

All too often, the participants in decision-making don’t have a sense of the “guidelines and guardrails” that are embedded in their organizational culture, so it’s beneficial to take the time to recap the context and review the team’s goals. At a minimum, that means acknowledging what you want to accomplish and reaffirming your values — the way you believe it’s appropriate to go about things.

It helps when the decision-making process is structured to include a real discussion rather than just a drive-by conversation or an obvious sales job. Is there agreement about what the decision will cover and who will be bound by it? The discussion can be structured as a brainstorming session, research forum, “blue sky/deep future” thinking, or analysis and selection of one alternative over another; it’s best if people are clear which approach you’re taking.

Make Sure Minds Are Meeting

The participants’ general level of optimism or pessimism, fear of failure, and zest for risk will inform the nature of the decision-making process. Be conscious of this. Pessimists or skeptics may need to see more research and hear expert opinions; optimists or true believers may trust in general explanations and anticipate too rosy a future.

Such individual differences in perspective and expectations develop and can be resolved more easily in dialogue, when more than one person is helping tease out all the thoughts. You may need a sounding board or facilitator to ensure that all points of view are being considered, so that you don’t end up with an ill-considered plan that’s poorly accepted later.

Work Through Scenarios to Logical Conclusions

Sometimes alternatives look similar on the surface, but they’re actually quite different when you consider all of the details and consequences. Here are some questions you can ask as you discuss the requirements and implications of each option:

  • What resources, staffing, etc., would it take for us to pursue that particular route?
  • What other conditions would we need to have in place before we start?
  • Are there other ways to get to the same result?
  • Would following this course of action produce any negative effects?
  • What are all the upsides and downsides, challenges, and incremental opportunities to each option we’re considering?

Next, do some scenario building and contingency planning, even if it’s only a back-of-the-envelope calculation or one more drawing on the whiteboard:

  • What happens if the expected outcome falls short by 20 percent or comes in 10 days late?
  • What if the result is 20 percent higher, or the project finishes early?
  • What would it take to sustain any of these scenarios for the long-term?
  • Could they create positive but messy action that’s better to account for now?

Make the Best Choice Better

After you’ve pursued the ramifications of each of the major choices, take a step back to explore whether there are aspects of any option that could add value to one of the others. Even after you’ve picked the best option, be sure to trim, prune, or add to make it as strong and productive as possible.

Once you’ve agreed on the purpose of the decision and what it will actually cover, and you’ve reviewed the premises of the decision thoroughly to account for future consequences, then you’ll have crafted a decision-making process that can keep your team moving forward. But you’ll still need to beware of common pitfalls that can throw team decision-making off the rails on the way to implementation. We’ll look at some of those in next week’s post.

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