Deciding How to Decide

Making decisions is at the heart of most meetings. Some decisions are small and innocuous. Others are important and impactful.

Deciding how to make decisions is an important step because how decisions get made significantly influences the quality of the decision and the commitment to implement it. Be strategic in deciding whether and how to engage others in making decisions and to make how you want to engage them explicit at the start of a meeting. Doing so sets clear expectations for participants and enables them to participate more effectively.

Given the complexity of issues that most organizations and communities face, the key question is how to enhance people’s participation in making decisions about important issues so that problems get successfully solved.

Too often we can get caught in a false dichotomy—either I decide or everyone decides. There is a spectrum of possibilities from simply informing people of decisions to involving them in decision-making to varying degrees.

Potential options for making decisions in organizations are:

  1. A leader makes the decision and announces/sells it;
  2. A leader proposes a decision, asks for feedback, and modifies the decision based on the feedback;
  3. A leader asks for input before arriving at a decision and then makes the decision;
  4. The group decides by consensus; or
  5. A leader identifies the criteria or constraints for a decision and delegates it to an individual or group.

Next week, I explore options for decision making in public/political processes.

Although participation increases as you move from option 1 to option 3, the leader still makes the decision. The difference between asking for feedback and asking for input is significant. When a leader asks for feedback, they already have a possible decision in mind. For example, “I think our organization should develop this new product. What do you think?” When a leader asks for input, they don’t have a decision in mind. For example, “Do you think our organization should develop new products? And, if so, what do you think those new products should be?”

Option 4 (deciding by consensus) or Option 5 (delegating a decision) involves more participation than options 1-3. However, “consensus” does not mean unanimity. Consensus means that everyone in the group, including the leader, is able to say, “I understand the decision. I have had my say. I can and will actively support this decision.”

Consensus works best when there is still a way to make a decision if consensus cannot be reached. This is known as a “fallback.” In hierarchical organizations, the leader is usually the fallback decision maker.

The following criteria can help you decide which decision-making option makes the most sense:

  • How much time do you have to make the decision? If it is urgent, you might need to make the decision yourself (option 1). However, if you have time, use the other criteria to decide the degree to which you want to involve others.
  • What is the potential impact of the decision? If you anticipate little impact on people or how they do their work, it might not be worth anyone’s time to make the decision in a collaborative way. If, however, you anticipate substantial impact, involve stakeholders. They have invaluable information to help make the best decision.
  • Will you need buy-in to get the decision implemented? If commitment is essential to getting a decision put into effect, then involve as many stakeholders as possible. Without their participation, you might get compliance but not the commitment you need for successful implementation.
  • Do stakeholders have the information and expertise they need to help make a sound decision? If not, and the decision will have a significant impact and require buy-in, take time to educate stakeholders so they can participate in an informed way.
  • Is making this decision a developmental opportunity? If so, then set the group up to succeed by providing adequate information and clear constraints and/or criteria for the decision.
  • As a leader, are you flexible or have you already made the decision? If you have already made the decision, do not engage people in a “puppet” process.

For any meetings that involve making decisions, decide how you want to decide. Communicate this at the start of the meeting and follow the process as advertised. If people think they are providing feedback, input or building a consensus, but you have already made the decision, they will likely be angry because they rightly believe they have been betrayed or manipulated. They will be leery of engaging in any so-called participatory decision-making process in future.


4 thoughts on “Deciding How to Decide”

  1. You can read my mind. The topics and contents of this blog and related workshops keep coming up as the orgs and groups I’m involved with are dealing the issues. It’s starting to get creepy. Thank you so much. I do believe these discussions can help us be better people and better leaders in our community. Keep it up.

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