You leave the meeting feeling satisfied, maybe even a little triumphant, and undoubtedly relieved.
At last, there’s consensus on an outcome and plan so you can all move to the destination via the agreed route.
Days turn into weeks, which turn into months, and your relief sours into frustration when you increasingly observe little or no follow up actions being taken.
What went wrong?
It’s often the case that acquiescence is understandably mistaken for agreement and commitment.
The reality is sound decisions are only achieved where we:
- Involve the appropriate people and have access to relevant information to help shape the decision
- Allow sufficient time for preparation and proper consideration before reaching a decision
- Understand and evaluate the options, and consider the longer-term consequences
- Reach a resolution which is soundly based, timely, understood by those who will be affected, and are consistent with previous decisions and the agreed strategy
- Achieve genuine commitment to implementation by all involved in the decision – What, Who, When.
It may sound easy, but the theory does not always translate into practice!
Here’s the reality.
6 Factors about the Decision-Making Process
There is no one sequence that applies to all decisions.
We each start where our motivation is strongest, follow a pattern that is unique to us, and may not consider all aspects of the decision.
When you come together with colleagues to consider a proposition, you will probably know individuals who will:
- Conclude what is to be done without the need to gather information, consider alternatives, or look beyond the immediate impact
- Wait until the meeting is nearly over before saying that the agreement you are about to reach will not work, and then go on to explain the flaws in the proposed approach
- Voice all the negatives that could go wrong, remain unconvinced by the positive views expressed by others and be unwilling to commit to a decision because the risks are too high
- Request more and more information before being prepared to support an idea
- Argue for their particular solution until it is the one accepted by the group
- Suggest an unconventional solution which takes everyone by surprise and provokes the response ‘that will never work’.
You may understandably think colleagues are:
- Being unnecessarily difficult
- Don’t really understand what is being considered
- Protecting their self-interest
- Not seeking a solution which is in the long-term interests of the business.
While there certainly are individuals who can be calculating and manipulative, our assumptions about motivation are frequently wrong.
In making decisions, we tend to adopt a particular approach on auto-pilot.
We can learn to modify our thinking process, but it will not fundamentally change.
The way we think will have an impact on the decisions taken.
So too will the interaction around the table.
Sharing ideas, or thinking privately, is how we relate to the world.
You will know people who constantly share ideas and others where it is difficult to know what they think.
Thinking by talking does not mean that the view expressed is set in stone; it is quite likely to change.
Those who need to think privately can be seen as having little to say, and as a consequence can be dismissed.
When they are ready to share, however, it is often worth hearing their thoughts.
Each individual will need to share or be private in their thinking to different degrees, and at various stages of the decision-making process.
This can mean that contributions from around the table are very uneven.
There are three broad stages in the decision-making process, although the sequence followed will not necessarily follow these stages!
Researching – which covers the whole process of discovery – finding out, probing, classifying, getting the facts, broadening the scope, generating alternatives and looking at a problem or situation from different angles.
Intending – which encompasses the process of getting to grips with the issue and getting it right – building resolve, creating a strong case, being determined, evaluating and weighing up issues, taking a stand and being realistic.
Committing – which is the process of setting the stage for action, of moving forward – getting something done, seizing the moment, establishing the goal, and the steps required to achieve that goal as well as keeping a running check on progress made, and seeing the longer-term impact.
An example of differing interaction needs might be:
This group is unlikely to explicitly agree on what is important and what should be done.
It might be difficult to have confidence that the three members of a group like this are signing up to the same decision.
That is of course, unless the Chairperson is prepared to summarise the decision and check it is what everyone has agreed to.
Interaction when decision-making is complex, and will impact how the group works together.
If an individual with a high need for sharing does not have access to other people they can become very uncomfortable.
Contact can take any form; the overriding need is to share ideas.
Where the individual has a high need for privacy, they will be discomforted if they are constantly subjected to the chitter-chatter of others.
The request, “What are you thinking?” is likely to prompt a meaningless response. It is unlikely to gain genuine commitment to the idea under discussion.
5 Decision-Making Examples
Here are some patterns you may recognise.
1. Commitment or Acquiescence?
The discussion ends with everyone nodding in agreement.
It is understandably assumed that everyone involved in the discussion has signed up to a decision.
It is expected that the decision will be implemented within the agreed timescale and resources.
But this does not always happen.
At the next meeting, a progress report is expected, but there is nothing to report since little or no progress has been made.
In many cases, there are no consequences for missing the deadline: the item simply moves to the next meeting.
The discussion did not end in a genuine commitment to a decision, merely acquiescence.
Once outside the door, some people think, ‘I cannot sell it to colleagues’, and so distance themselves from the decision.
Perhaps they see the decision is not in the interest of their own group, so do not actively promote it to their colleagues.
Or perhaps they think they have too many other priorities, so the required action will have to go into the pending file.
Whatever the motivation, unless there is a genuine commitment, the decision will not be implemented as intended.
At the end of the discussion, the Chairperson needs confidence that agreement has been reached on:
- The action required
- Who will take lead responsibility and be accountable
- When the action is expected to be implemented
- What will be achieved once the action has been implemented.
“Genuine commitment requires explicit agreement on these aspects of decision-making. Without this, implementation is unlikely to occur on time. Opportunities may be lost, and unnecessary difficulties encountered.”
2. Being Heard
There are two distinct ways of being heard.
Some colleagues will speak forcefully and authoritatively.
They will ensure their message will be very clear, and they will only give up when it is clear that their proposition will not be supported.
Others will be more tentative in putting their case forward.
If their view is not accepted, they may withdraw and find ways to raise the issue time and again in the expectation the group will eventually accept what they are saying.
Neither approach is right or better.
Both reflect the ingrained patterns of the individual, and both deserve to be heard.
It is easy to be convinced by the dominant speaker and to cast aside the more tentative argument.
- Two or more dominant speakers pursuing different agendas can result in the group becoming too combative and dysfunctional
- The dominant speakers can deprive the decision-making group of hearing ideas that should be considered
- The more tentative members might find it hard to contribute even if they have crucial information.
“When the Chairperson recognises these patterns and is prepared to take the time to create an environment in which everyone can be heard, the group is more likely to agree and implement the decisions reached.”
3. Endless Discussion
It is often assumed that if the discussion is long enough, the group will reach a decision to which they are all committed.
A decision is often reached because the Chairperson has lost patience, or the group has lost the will to go on!
It may well be that a member of the group needs additional information, or wants another option to be considered before they sign off on an issue.
Or perhaps they feel the group is settling for a short-term solution which will buy time, but which could well cause problems in the longer-term.
When it is not possible to obtain a genuine commitment to a decision, it is worth taking a break and resuming the discussion at a later time.
Perhaps a few minutes is all that is required or maybe enough time for further work to clarify things.
“Being clear about the purpose of the discussion and prepared to take time out so that information can be obtained, or options looked at more closely, will save time and lead to better decisions.”
4. Unable to Commit to the Decision
A member of the decision-making group kept raising questions, and however thorough the response, never seemed satisfied.
The individual was thought to be awkward and unprepared to make a decision.
The reality was that the individual was unable to give any commitment until they felt they had sufficient information to support the decision.
Rather than ‘tolerate an irritant’, the group learned to ask the individual to scrutinise the information they thought relevant ahead of the formal meeting.
“Encouraging an individual to do what they do best ahead of the meeting enabled them to play a positive part in the discussion, and to support the decision reached.”
5. The Enthusiastic Leader
The CEO was always picking up on ideas and applying them to his organisation. He was an intellectual kleptomaniac.
The energy of the CEO was infectious, and colleagues wanted to support him.
He wanted things to happen quickly and staff did their best to implement the new scheme or idea.
However, time and energy were frequently wasted because the CEO did not evaluate the alternatives, nor did he see the longer-term consequences.
Colleagues learnt to slow things down.
The result? They could put the latest idea into context, see if there were alternatives which would achieve the required outcome, and be clear about the longer-term consequences.
The CEO recognised and accepted the value of adopting this approach.
Your 8-Point Checklist: To Get the Most from Group Decisions
- Allow all participants an opportunity to think about the issues to be covered ahead of the meeting
- Alert people ahead of time if you want them to present information to the group and make sure they understand the context
- Allow people some private thinking time during the meeting to assimilate what they have heard before you ask them to make a decision
- Ensure that everyone has the opportunity to share their thinking and recognise that some valuable contributions will only become apparent after the meeting has ended
- If the subject matter is complex consider meeting on a later occasion to progress matters further – do not take a decision against an artificial deadline
- Be willing to have your assumptions challenged and do not take it personally
- Summarise outcomes so that everyone is clear on progress
- Produce an action plan to which everyone is genuinely committed.
Your Next Step
If you’re determined to achieve real sustained change within your organisation, we should talk.