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Nonprofit Management

How Groups Make Great Decisions

A growing body of knowledge is leading to happier teams and better choices.

When organizations enlist employees in making major decisions, such as a going through a rebranding or strategic planning, the process is crucial to reaching a successful outcome.

Unfortunately, we often rely on default modes of brainstorming and communication, diving in without a clear plan. These methods rarely bring out the best in participants. By intentionally crafting a decision-making process, organizations can greatly increase the chances that the best ideas will emerge and that the team will embrace them enthusiastically.

In 2012, the nonprofit Youth Art Exchange (formerly known as Out of Site Youth Arts Center) began a rebranding process. Disagreement quickly surfaced about the need to change the organization's name, with longer-serving staff mostly representing the opposition and newer staff in support.

Initially, staff and board members generated ideas in meetings, then passed them on to other stakeholder groups such as faculty and students, where the suggestions were almost universally rejected. A series of more inclusive processes followed, involving a wider variety of constituents, but the results of those sessions also failed to produce a consensus. Ideas that one group loved were often rejected by another; groups tended to form alliances along functional lines; and certain reluctant participants couldn't find a single suitable option from a long list of choices. Large group sessions floated ideas to committees who narrowed the choices from 50 to 10 to just two, and the group eventually replaced the two final choices during yet another process.

"Adhering to a collaborative process and adjusting the process to ensure inclusivity over time was challenging, but important," says Reed Davaz McGowan, the organization's executive director. "Just the naming process alone was probably 300 hours [of staff time]."

Almost a year after the renaming process began, and two years after participants first debated the idea, the organization chose a new name.

The challenges faced by Youth Art Exchange are not uncommon. Business meetings often drive us into advocacy for one position or another. We tend to favor our own positions and those of people with whom we feel allied over the ideas and contributions of others. When combined with a confirmation bias (the psychological term for a tendency to seek out information that confirms what we already believe is true) and office politics, we tend to see only what supports our position and to oppose ideas for reasons other than their merits.

One of my favorite tricks for combating this problem comes from the strategist Roger L. Martin. When working with groups he poses variations of the same question: "What would have to be true for this idea to work?" This forces the team to set a framework for what would make an idea great before evaluating the merits of any person's specific idea. Ideas get tested against the measurements the group agrees on in a structured way, making it more difficult for people to get stuck pushing their own ideas. (More information on this approach is available in the book Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, which Martin co-authored with A.G. Lafley.)

In their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, authors Chip and Dan Heath do a fantastic job of chronicling a number of equally important tricks for making better decisions. Perhaps one of the most useful is their idea of "escaping a narrow frame." A narrow frame refers to our tendency to only see a couple of the options that are available in a given situation. We often struggle to choose between two options, when it may be possible to act on both at the same time. Groups often debate the merits of options A and B without even considering that they might do both, or without ever thinking about different options altogether. 

Another common pitfall is a "status quo bias," whereby groups gravitate toward what is already in place rather than taking bold new steps. This can lead to mediocrity and an inability to adapt to changing conditions. Decisive is full of great examples like this, and is a powerful resource for individual and group decision-making.

Visual design tools can also play an important role in improving the decision-making process. Facilitators often introduce "process checks," or pauses in the conversation that make sure the group has not spiraled out of the system he or she is guiding them through. By capturing these systems visually through something as simple as writing down the goal of a particular process on a white board, participants have something they can refer back to.

In a similar way, while mapping the experience clients have across all interactions with an organization, service designers will often mark down each interaction on a series of Post-its. This allows everyone to get a clear view of the process, both in its entirety and specific interactions. Writing on white boards and large pieces of paper can ensure that the group captures ideas, people feel heard, and the conversation moves forward.

In addition to these simple tricks, there are a number of more-sophisticated tools. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers is one of many books with a wealth of tools for visual facilitation. Written by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo, this book highlights visually driven group processes that promote better communication, understanding, and decision-making. When organizations utilize these tools, the process goes much smoother, morale improves, and the results are typically much better.

More and more research is confirming what facilitators who work in organizational behavior have seen for years. The default mode of most groups is rarely adequate for excellent decision-making, and debates over important issues often lead to contentious infighting. To achieve great outcomes, organizations have to put great processes in place. Luckily, there is a wealth of information on the topic, and with even just a few simple tools results can improve dramatically.

Have you been a part of a major organizational overhaul? Did politics sidetrack the best ideas or prevent anything meaningful from happening? Did you participate in a highly effective group decision-making process? I'd love to hear about what did or didn't work for you in the comments below.

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COMMENTS

  • I work in an environment rife with contention. Finding consensus seems impossible and getting people to see beyond rigid concepts of “the people” vs. the bureaucracy has proven to be an intense challenge. I’ve been in some ineffective group decision making looking forward to improvements! This article works for me, now on to read the books you referenced.

  • What an excellent article! I really resonated with it as a facilitator and manager. We are building an open source application to try and support the best kind of group decision-making processes online. It’s a constant design challenge, but we’ve come up with what you might call a deceptively simple tool to cut through groupthink, and be inclusive without having to slow down. If you’re interested, have a look at http://www.loomio.org

  • BY MJ Kaplan

    ON July 1, 2014 08:08 AM

    Building on Alanna’s comment, we started Loomio – an online platform for collaborative decision making—to make it easier for people to make better decisions together.  Loomio makes it practical for people to participate who have a stake in the decision but may be remote or not able to join meetings.  We believe that when people affected by decisions are able to contribute, the result is better outcomes and increased engagement.  The online environment can make it more comfortable for introverts and reflective learners to contribute and other power dynamics may be diminished as well.

    Our users across 75 countries have shared many examples of how Loomio makes collaborative decision making more inclusive and effective – such as city governments engaging citizens in policy change;  businesses developing strategy; nonprofits using Loomio so that people with disabilities can have a stronger voice in their communities; networks making agreements across institutional boundaries and technology platforms.

    We’re noticing these elements of great online decisions:
    • Be inclusive: Actively include people to join and provide clear guidelines  
    • Frame the Issue: Focus the problem statement clearly with ‘just enough’ information
    • Distribute Facilitation: Encourage all participants to play a facilitative role
    • Be transparent: Written archives increase the transparency
    • Shift from Discussion to Agreement: Many dialogues never turn into actionable agreements.  Loomio connects dialogue to decision - agreement often happens more quickly and easily than anticipated.

    We’re testing our hypotheses about quality decision making online.  We invite you to try Loomio and let us know about your experience and what you’re learning about better collaborative decision making.  We have a lot to gain by making better, faster decisions together.

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