Escaping the Decision-Making Quagmire (Part 2)

This is part two of a three-part series on how organizations can make faster, more effective decisions. Read part one here.

For months, the team at a global company had been trying — and failing — to make a decision on whether or not to expand into Japan.

The salesperson with the initial idea was frustrated. The potential partners in Japan were frustrated. And the rest of the team, who had been worrying this idea to the bone meeting after meeting, were frustrated. 

The deal that had been draining the team’s energy for months was about to fall through, all because they couldn’t come to a decision. 

Group decision-making is a skill that many organizations struggle with. On the one hand, gathering perspectives from the group is critical to coming up with the most robust answer. Yet if it’s not done effectively, you end up holding meeting after meeting without ever taking action.

Most organizations try to solve the problem in one of two ways: dictation or consensus.

Dictating a decision is fast and easy — the leader simply decides what the best course of action is, and the team implements it.

The downside is that many leaders who take this approach think they have all the information they need from their team, but that’s rarely the case. That’s because, as humans, we’re very good at reading subtle social cues. If we can guess which way the leader is leaning on a decision, we’re more likely to give them information that reinforces that decision rather than our honest opinion.

Worse, dictating decisions can lead to “malicious compliance,” where your team disagrees with the decision but doesn’t say so. They may end up going along with the letter of the decision but resisting in spirit, and therefore undermining the effort.

On the other side of the scale is consensus, making sure that everyone is a “yes” on every decision. On the surface, this path seems like the antidote to the problem of dictation, but in reality, teams that decide by consensus can quickly come to a standstill, bogged down in too much information.

When your goal is consensus, it becomes easier to kick the can down the road by planning meeting after meeting without ever finalizing anything. And because true consensus is difficult to achieve, the most straightforward answer is often “no.” Defaulting to no stifles the risk-taking and innovation organizations need to grow.

A third option: Consent

When the company that was struggling with the decision to expand into Japan asked me to facilitate, I walked them through a decision-making protocol that is incredibly powerful in helping teams make stronger decisions with clarity and speed: consent.

Consent is one of the healthiest, most productive ways to make team decisions. The goal of this method is not to get everyone to “yes”, but to instead make sure nobody is a “no.” We’re not trying to create a proposal that eliminates all risk; rather, we’re trying to create something that is “safe to try.”

To achieve consent, we separate the decision-making process into distinct phases:

  • Understanding: A proposal is made, and team members ask clarifying questions to get a full understanding of the problem and proposed solution.
  • Reaction: Team members react, and the proposer amends or clarifies the proposal.
  • Objection: Team members may bring up objections if they believe the proposal will cause harm or move the organization backward.

If there are objections, those are integrated into a revised proposal. If there are no objections, you’ve achieved consent.

In this process, you tend to surface all the relevant information and objections you need to make a firm decision without spiraling into overthinking. Every team member is able to make their opinions heard and understood, and even if they don’t love the idea, at least they don’t believe the proposal will cause harm.

Interested in learning more? I’ll outline how I use the consent decision-making protocol in the next blog post of this series.

Bob Gower
Co-Founder of The Alignment Company

PS: I’ve held a variety of leadership positions and advisory roles over the years including design director of a major newspaper and consultant to leaders of organizations (multinationals, local nonprofits and everything in between). 

These days I coach and advise leadership teams to get everyone aligned and pulling in the same direction. 

I also work as a dedicated in-house facilitator and fixer for organizations going through deep transformation.  

People usually find me when they have high stakes projects that need to go well. It may be that their team feels out of sync, decision making is (needlessly) difficult, or that there’s confusion about who owns what and why. 

My work helps improve culture and operations — aligning teams on all levels so they can be their best. 

If you think a conversation might be helpful, you should reach out.

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