The loudest decide – the rest follows? Not.

Sep 01, 2020

25.1.2016

It was a good meeting. We walked out of the room believing that we all agreed and the decision was clear. A few weeks later we found out that nothing had happened. People disagreed on what had been decided. Sounds familiar? People complain about bad meetings full of tension. What is much worse is that we don’t even notice the meeting was waste of time.

How can we make sure that the whole group does agree and not just the loudest people? It could be that my colleague Lisa was given a specific task, but she understood it differently from others and didn’t find it feasible. Perhaps she wasn’t sure how to begin working on it. So she did nothing, thinking that it’s not so crucial anyway. After all, doing nothing is also a decision.

What is the cost of bad decisions?

The owner of a design firm decides to fire the shop manager after it appears that their shop was closed on a special Sunday. All other shops in the same shopping center were open and the city was full of foreign tourists, their key target group. He was furious. The same morning there had been a half a page advertisement in the largest local newspaper. Old customers became angry and called the owner to wonder why the shop is closed. The owner blames the shop manager not thinking of the company interest at all when deciding to close the shop on such a day. Of course the owner himself had been working hard, and he was blaming the staff, saying that they were trying to avoid working, being very slow, untrustworthy, and not committed. He had to take care of simple everyday matters all the time. The design firm owner was telling me this story over dinner some time ago. Had it been in an office, I might have started making a root cause analysis but quite bluntly I asked instead, “how have you made your strategy, I don’t mean what is your strategy, but how did you get it done?” “The CEO wrote it”, he replied. “Did the shop manager take part creating it?” I asked. “No, she most likely doesn’t know it at all. Actually I don’t really agree with the strategy as far as I understand it”. Then we started discussing a possible process, how to find the root causes and key questions together with his staff.

How to create understanding and commitment?

All key people should take part in creating strategy together – finding the direction and solutions about how to reach the targets. And everyone, meaning the entire staff, should take part in understanding it and making if concrete in their own work. Being aligned helps everyone’s work! Managers (17%) say they know the company strategy. If you’d ask their staff, most people (98%) would answer that they don’t know what the strategy is. How can you implement the startegy if nobody understands and remembers it?

Three tips for collaborative decision-making

1: Participate, if you need people to be engaged in the decision and to do something

To be efficient at participation, the group leader needs to concentrate on designing and leading the group process –instead of being involved with the content. Someone else can take the facilitator’s role instead of the person who is normally leading the group. What is difficult here is that to be a good process leader, one must be as neutral as possible – even if you have your own opinions and expertise. Otherwise the participants might suspect there is a hidden agenda, or someone else has the right answers and they don’t really need to think themselves. Let’s say the CEO has great ideas about what the strategy should be, then he is most likely the wrong person to be the facilitator, he should be a participant. On the other hand there is no point of anyone participating if there is no genuine possibility to influence the decision at hand, so don’t ask if you are not ready to listen.

2: The perspective is too narrow if only the fast and loud ones talk

There are many facilitation methods that can be used to manage the group dynamics and to activate the silent ones. In a group situation, the first one who opens her mouth anchors the discussion to a certain direction. There is a workshop about creating a new system to motivate landowners to take care of their land in a way that would benefit the whole nation. An old politician says in the very beginning that an emotional connection to the land is the largest obstacle from the economist’s point of view. A nature conservationist doesn’t get any change to say a thing. An actual large landowner is trying hard to get his point forward. It’s impossible to create shared understanding, commitment and buy-in if not all perspectives are taken seriously and made visible. What to do? Use the method “Me-We-Us” where everyone has first some time to think on their own, then discuss the matter in small groups and at the end with the whole group.

3: The decision making process has to slow down and include more than just voting

If you have just spent 75% of the time in diverging, creating ideas, you have too little time left for converging, making the decisions. Try to stop the idea creation phase at the latest when you have spent 50% of the time available for the workshop portion of the meeting. Next to time management, you will need more converging methods. The most common converging method is voting. The problem is that only the winning voters are committed. The rest is not really engaged, as they lost.

Instead of voting, try this:

Field of criteria1 . Write down all alternatives on a flipchart or whiteboard, visible to everybody. Ask people to explain or comment.

2 . Narrow down alternatives by asking people to select the most interesting ones. Feasibility doesn’t matter. If there is disagreement, there is energy, so continue with ideas that people love and those that create tension.

3 . Analyze alternatives, e.g. rate by feasibility and impact. Ponder the impact of different options in practice.

4 . Ask the group what is the best option. Check acceptance for example with “Five finger voting”. Ask comments and improve the choice if necessary.

5 . Clarify what was decided, from when on is the decision valid, what are the very first steps, how the follow-up will take place.

6 . Document the decision. Write it down, take a photo or screen shot.

It can’t be so difficult to make decisions together, right?

Piritta Kantojärvi