Working Together series
Published April 1999.
Most of our daily decisions are pretty automatic. When we need to make a decision, we very quickly measure the choices against our internalized personal values and interests. Typically, we then see a fairly obvious range of acceptable alternatives. We choose one and move on. We alone enjoy the benefits (or suffer the costs) of the decision.
We give up some of this autonomy when we become part of a group. What we gain in return is an ability to influence and add value to something larger-something that we care about but can't fully control ourselves.
Organizations of similar people pursuing similar interests often struggle with making decisions. When diverse groups of people are involved, the challenge is even greater. Nonetheless, the quality of your partnership is reflected in the quality of your decision making. A decision-making process that is clear, open, and understood will lead to better decisions.
This publication addresses several issues facing groups when making decisions.
The meetings management and communication skills discussed in EC 1508, Effective Meetings Management, and EC 1510, Effective Communication, also can help your group do a better job of decision making.
It is critically important that your group agree on how it will make official decisions, and that your bylaws specify how those decisions are to be made. If the decision-making process is unclear, different people can leave a meeting with a different understanding of the decision. Conflicting pronouncements then are made, leading to confusion, mixed messages, and distrust among group members.
If there are official and nonofficial members, group bylaws and meeting protocols need to make that distinction clear. For example, some groups have an executive committee that has authority beyond that of the general membership. Similarly, technical teams may have the power to make decisions in their subgroup without endorsement by the general membership.
Member orientation packets (including bylaws, membership, officers, vision statement, etc.) can make these roles clear. Additionally, a one-page decision-making "flow chart" can be handed out at meetings to remind everyone how decisions are made. This reminder is especially useful for those who may not attend regularly.
A common problem in groups is "discussing a decision to death" but not making a definitive decision. Often, the group's energy wanes before a decision is reached, again leading people to different conclusions about the decision.
Whatever your decision-making process, you can manage this problem by using a flipchart dedicated to tracking decisions. When an issue comes up that warrants a formal decision, the meeting manager can instruct the recorder to write it on a flipchart visible to the group. The manager then determines whether the decision needs to be made immediately, deferred until later in the meeting, or saved for another meeting. Be sure to review decisions and non-decisions at the end of the meeting.
Include decisions and non-decisions in the minutes. The following is one possible ground rule: A decision isn't a decision until it is written down and entered into the minutes of the meeting. Make sure the entry in the minutes includes the following:
There are many different ways individuals and groups make decisions. Most are appropriate for some decisions; none is appropriate for all decisions. It's important to select a decision-making process that is appropriate for the decision at hand. Listed below are 10 common ways groups make decisions and the limitations of each of these methods (Miller et al.).
Sometimes we make decisions based on whatever feels right at the moment. This method lacks any thoughtful consideration of how the choices relate to our key objectives and to other alternatives.
When we phrase a choice as a yes/no question, it implies a choice between change and no change. There is no third option. This approach doesn't consider how the choices might affect the things that are important to us. It also eliminates consideration of other alternatives.
These choices are similar to yes/no choices and have similar limitations. Also, we tend to structure either/or choices so that one alternative clearly is best. Then we collect information that supports that choice.
These choices are the crutches of noncritical thinkers. Examples include, "That's the way we've always done it," "Low bid wins," and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Such automatic behavior keeps us from looking at how the choices relate to what we value. They can keep us from making more appropriate choices.
"Letting the facts decide" gives more power to the people who collect the facts than to the people who have authority to make decisions. Unless the group's values are stated explicitly in the form of criteria for decision making, there is no guidance to the people who collect and interpret data. This approach also limits creativity and win/win alternatives and often leads to "analysis paralysis" because all of the data never are available.
This is a more thoughtful approach, but still is overly simplistic and resembles yes/no and either/or choices. As in those approaches, the choices aren't weighed against values. This method implies that more than one alternative is being considered (which is good), but creative "new" choices are unlikely to emerge.
To this list of specific ways people make decisions, Mosvick and Nelson add four general "approaches" to decision making: the authoritarian, majority, minority, and consensus approaches.
In this method, a chairperson makes a final decision with minimal, if any, input from others. This method is fast, but rarely effective. It excludes valuable input from the people who will have to implement the decision.
Voting is democratic and participative, but votes often are framed as either/or choices that oversimplify the issues.
In practice, majority rule often is distorted by two or three people who force a minority decision on the entire group. Persistent individuals can dominate the thinking of others and lobby for votes by appealing to factions in the group.
Consensus decisions are the easiest to implement because everybody affected agrees not to block the decision. The disadvantage is that this method is very time-consuming and is vulnerable to sabotage by ill-intended members.
Many groups strive for consensus in their decisions; some are required to use it. Consensus typically is described as an agreement that all members can live with and support-or at least not sabotage-even if it is not everyone's preferred decision. The protocols for coming to consensus vary widely. Consensus is an approach for working through issues, and can be part of any decision-making method.
The purpose of raising the standard of decision making to consensus (instead of majority vote) is to encourage people to work through an issue rather than around it. It's easy to avoid thinking seriously about the concerns of a minority when all you have to do is outvote them. Majority voting systems often create factions within the group and lead to power plays outside of meetings.
Deeper issues and fundamental interests emerge when people spend the time and effort trying to reach consensus. The group is forced to explore the assumptions and motivations behind each position. The key question to ask is, "What line of reasoning led you to your position?" This question seeks to identify people's "interests" rather than their stated "positions."
Groups often are surprised to find out how often supposedly "opposite" positions actually share many common interests. Decisions based on fundamental interests lead to solutions that everyone can support.
A potential pitfall in trying to achieve a consensus decision is that you may end up with a "lowest common denominator" decision. The challenge of consensus decision making is to make decisions that incorporate the fundamental interests of everyone but still are worthwhile.
Frustration with consensus can result in a desire to institute a voting procedure, usually a "super majority" vote of some high percentage. Although this method is efficient, it is not always effective. Reverting to a vote reduces the imperative to get to the bottom of important issues and undermines the spirit of coming to consensus. A better solution is to develop good facilitation skills for achieving consensus (see below).
Most groups use some form of parliamentary procedure to run their meetings. Robert's Rules of Order is the contemporary version of this ancient English tradition (De Vries, 1994). The benefits of this method for managing meetings are its familiarity and use in many of the groups in which members are involved.
The down side to using Robert's Rules of Order in a consensus-based structure is its use of the majority vote for making decisions. Seeking consensus is the opposite of "voting." The point isn't to tabulate yea's and nay's, but to establish a consensus position on a motion. An initial "vote" gives the group a sense of how close it is to consensus, but mixing and matching processes can be confusing. See EC 1508 for more information.
The following approach can be used if your group blends Robert's Rules of Order with consensus decision making. Follow Robert's Rules through the "motion" step. Then, instead of asking for a vote, ask "can any official member not support this motion as stated?" If nobody speaks out, you have consensus. If any official member cannot support the decision, the meeting manager needs to assess whether to proceed with seeking consensus right then, postpone the decision, or see whether there is consensus not to make the decision. Whatever the decision, it needs to be documented in the minutes of the meeting.
The job of the meeting manager is to run the meeting and make sure decisions get made. That is, to get the group through the agenda in the time available. It is a full-time job. When the group needs additional help with an issue, a facilitator can be very valuable.
Facilitators can be useful when the group moves from reporting and conducting general business to a more task-oriented situation such as decision making. These situations might include seeking consensus on a sticky topic, brainstorming lists of new ideas, prioritizing activities, mediating disputes among members, or going through a decision-making process.
The value of the facilitator is that he or she serves as the group disciplinarian. Once the group decides what they need to do and what the ground rules are for doing it, the facilitator holds them to it. It isn't always a popular job. Good facilitators develop skillful ways of helping groups be productive while maintaining civility and goodwill among members. See EC 1508 for a more detailed discussion of meetings management and facilitators.
Many methods for problem solving and decision making are available to groups (Mosvick and Nelson). The book Rural Resource Management (Miller et al., 1994) offers a comprehensive framework and a clear process for making decisions. An important part of this method is that it checks the tendency to make hasty decisions.
Two important principles in this approach are: (1) separating creative thinking from critical thinking, and (2) establishing specific criteria for a good decision before coming up with a decision. Both techniques require people to make thoughtful decisions, not quick ones.
Creative thinking is the generation of ideas and solutions free from constraints. It lets you explore potentially better ways of doing things. Critical thinking is the challenging of ideas based on known constraints. It tests your creative ideas against reality. Both are essential to effective decision making.
For example, when brainstorming a list of ideas, facilitators ask that people not criticize any idea until after the brainstorming session. After brainstorming, all of the ideas are evaluated critically. This separation of creative thinking from critical thinking increases the range of possible solutions and then helps the group select wisely from that list. Criticizing ideas when they are offered stifles creativity and leads to "group think."
It's critical to establish clear criteria for determining "what a good decision would look like" before coming up with a decision. Criteria are "essential elements" that the group thinks need to be part of the final decision. Criteria are statements of values and key interests held by the group.
Identifying and refining criteria for decision making is similar to the consensus-building technique of focusing on people's interests instead of their positions. When making complex decisions, the point is to first identify the elements that members think any good final decision must have. Sound decisions then are crafted according to key criteria shared by the group.
If groups spend adequate time agreeing on their criteria, adopting the final alternative is easy. This step is especially useful for groups that must use consensus.
The decision-making framework at the left is a model for making important decisions on complex issues. The "deciding" in these cases actually is an extended form of problem solving.
After generating a few alternative solutions, the group decides which one is best under the circumstances. As business consultant Peter Drucker says, "A decision is. . . a choice between alternatives. It is rarely a choice between right and wrong. It is at best a choice between 'almost right' and 'probably wrong.'"
The framework below incorporates a step-by-step process that guides the sequence of your questions and answers in a way that helps separate creative idea generation from critical evaluation. It also forces the group to fully develop decision-making criteria before selecting an alternative.
Following this framework will lead to more thoughtful decisions. Probably the most important points are to generate more than one alternative and to compare the impact of alternatives on each criterion. These steps counter the tendency to jump to decisions.
The decision-making approach described above takes discipline to put into practice. Unfortunately, many groups (especially those without facilitators) abandon the structured sequence once fast-paced interaction and conflict begin. Here are some common pitfalls that groups encounter and some tips for avoiding them (see EC 1511, Dealing with Stumbling Blocks, for more information):
By now, you should have a better understanding of how groups can improve the quality of their decisions. Different groups have different needs for their decision-making structure. The most important thing is for your group to agree on a process, make sure everyone understands it, and stick to it. Also, as your group makes decisions, be sure to document them and enter them into the meeting minutes.
Consensus raises the standard for decision making. It offers the best chance of finding effective gain/gain solutions. It also is slower and less efficient in terms of time. The trade-off is effectiveness over efficiency. Coming to consensus usually requires a skilled meeting manager or facilitator.
Big decisions need a more sophisticated process than little ones. Whatever the framework, it is important to develop clear criteria about what a good decision would look like before making the decision. The generation of good alternatives is helped by thinking both creatively and critically.
Consider the following checklist when thinking about the decision making of your group:
Review the section on different ways groups make decisions. During your next group meeting, notice which methods are used (e.g., majority decision, yes/no, or default). Do the methods change depending on the situation? Are there times when a more complex decision-making process is necessary?
At your next group meeting, pay particular attention to whether or not your decisions are documented. If necessary, propose formal adoption of a decision-making process and a means for documenting and tracking important decision.
The OSU Extension Family Community Leadership program at Oregon State University has excellent publications and training opportunities-often free or for a nominal charge-in many Oregon counties. Contact your county office of the OSU Extension Service for details.
University Associates offers a variety of training programs on group process and organizational development. They can be contacted at 3505 North Campbell Ave., Suite 505, Tucson, AZ 85719; phone: 520-322-6700; fax: 520-322-6789; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web: www.universityassociates.com
Dialogue Dynamics, Christopher Roach, is a Corvallis-based trainer who has expertise on this subject. He can be contacted at 966 NW Sequoia, Corvallis, OR 97330; phone: 541-754-5521.
How to Run a Meeting, by M.A. De Vries (Plume/Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York, 1994). ISBN 0-452-27128-2. $7.95
Rural Resource Management, by S.E. Miller, C.W. Shinn, and W.R. Bentley (Iowa State University Press, Ames, 1994). ISBN 0-8138-0686-0. An excellent resource for problem solving and decision making in community groups. Chapters on facilitating decision making "when no one is in charge" are especially useful.
We've Got to Start Meeting Like This! by R.K. Mosvick and R.B. Nelson (Park Avenue Productions, Indianapolis, 1996). ISBN 1-57112-069-6. A comprehensive treatment of how meetings are run and how they can be improved. Good chapter on decision making in groups.
The following Program for Community Problem Solving materials are directed at community collaboration for a broad range of purposes, including economic development and social programs as well as land-use planning. All are available from Program for Community Problem Solving, 915 15th St. NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005; phone: 202-783-2961; fax: 202-147-2161. Involving Citizens in Community Decision Making, by J.L. Creighton. $30. Directed at government agencies, this manual covers the formation and development of public participation programs, how to prepare a public participation plan, and specific implementation techniques.
Pulling Together: A Land Use and Development Consensus Building Manual, by D.R. Godschalk et al. $30. A detailed and comprehensive "guidebook for community leaders" with sections on developing a game plan, getting all parties to participate, building consensus, improving meetings, and learning from others. Includes case studies and sample materials.
Solving Community Problems by Consensus, by S. Carpenter. $15. This guidebook geared toward local government managers and other community leaders covers strategies and techniques for using participatory group processes to resolve community problems, including: when consensus programs are appropriate; what types of problems lend themselves to the consensus approach; and the formats, phases, and considerations for running a consensus program. Includes case studies illustrating the techniques.
On your own, use the lines below to fill in steps, actions, thoughts, contacts, etc. you'll take to move yourself and your group ahead in improving decision-making skills.
"In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America."
Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America
De Tocqueville wrote this observation in 1831. Some things haven't changed.
We all belong to groups. De Tocqueville called them "associations," but yours could be a council, committee, commission, delegation, alliance, club, lodge, union, partnership, organization, or coalition. It could be voluntary or professional, advisory or governing, official or casual. Whatever it's called, and however it's configured, a group is made up of people working together on what's important to them. The publications in this series (see page 16 for a list) are designed to help members of a group be more effective. Do they work? We think so. After all, we work together in groups too.
To order copies of the above publications, or additional copies of this publication, send the complete title and series number, along with a check or money order for the amount listed (payable to Oregon State University), to: Publication Orders, Oregon Sea Grant, Oregon State University, 322 Kerr Administration, Corvallis, OR 97331 Please call 541-737-2716 for price quotes on bulk orders
(c) 1999 Oregon State University
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