Make Decisions the Right Way

All too often, decision making is a difficult and painful process. A group comes together, faced with a problem. However, there’s no structure to how we work out what to do — so we follow instinct, and the decision making processes that we’re most familiar with. The end result? A meeting that’s longer than it needs to be, ending in an action that half of the group don’t feel committed too.

The good news is that it doesn’t need to be like this. Each decision is different, and each decision making process suits a different type of problem. The trick is in being aware of the different ways that we can reach a group decision, and selecting the most appropriate process when faced with a problem. This guide will walk through the types that you can choose from, and where each might be suitable.

Majority / Popular Vote

Vote being placed in a ballot box
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

What It Is

This is the type of voting you see most commonly. It’s often used in reality TV shows, gameshows and government elections, meaning almost everyone has somewhat of an understanding of how it works. You have a list of options to vote for, a number of votes per person, and a time limit. The aim is to identify which option “wins” the most votes.

In a Majority vote, the winning option requires more than half of the votes to be selected. In situations where there are more than two options, if no option receives more than half of the votes it is common to eliminate the least popular option, and vote again — repeating until a single option has received more than 50% of the votes.

In a Popular vote, the requirements for over 50% of the votes is removed — the option simply needs to receive the highest number of votes to be selected.

How To Do It

List out the available options. Give everyone a set number of votes (often one, but it doesn’t have to be!). Have some way of sending the votes in (preferably anonymously). Count up the votes, and identify the winner!

Advantages

It’s easy to explain and process-light. Also allows everyone an equal voice. A further advantage is that it can be used to rank preferences, and isn’t limited to selecting a single winning option.

Disadvantages

Can create a scenario of “winners and losers”. See the UK’s Brexit referendum — a majority vote between two polar opposite options, with a result leading to a decision that 48% of the voting population were opposed to. While it’s democratic, it isn’t collaborative.

When I Would Use It

I often use this in a retrospective, in a technique commonly known as “dot voting”. Various topics of conversation are raised, with each participant then given a number of votes to place on the topic they feel would be most valuable. Whichever topic receives the most votes is the first to be discussed, and we move down the list as time permits.

Consensus

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What It Is

A consensus decision is made when everybody is in agreement about the way to proceed. If just one member of a group does not agree, then the proposed choice cannot go ahead.

How To Do It

There’s a variety of ways to structure this. One way is to run a majority/popular vote, but requiring that an option needs every vote in order to proceed.

Alternatively, you can have a structure where proposals are put forward for how to resolve the decision. If everyone agrees with the proposal, the decision is made. If one or more individuals are not in favour of the proposal, an alternative needs to be suggested (or the original proposal refined until everyone agrees).

Advantages

It’s a collaborative process, designed for teams who work together and want to use their collective knowledge to make good decisions. You are also guaranteeing buy-in with any decision made, as you know that the whole team agree with it.

Disadvantages

This is the slowest of the decision making processes, as you need to find agreement from the whole group. It can also lead to awkward stalemates, where two individuals favour different approaches and stubbornly refuse to budge.

When I Would Use It

I use a lightweight form of consensus decision making when collaboratively creating team policies. This sort of decision — where it’s impacting a team’s approach and way of working — really need buy-in from everybody. This makes the sometimes slow nature of consensus decision making worthwhile.

Consent

Photo by Nathan Rupert on flickr

What It Is

Consent decision making takes consensus decisions, but instead of requiring everyone to be in favour of a proposal it simply asks that nobody opposes it. This is a subtle difference, but a powerful one. You can end with a decision that isn’t actually anybody’s preference, but proceeds as nobody has a reasonable objection against it.

How To Do It

As with consensus decision making, there’s loads of ways to do this — mostly built around raising a proposal, then asking whether any of the team have a reason why they object to it. For a complicated decision, I like using Sociocracy’s decision making process. This gives a highly structured way of building a set of proposals, selecting a preferred option, gathering initial reactions, then asking each person in turn whether they have an objection. Objections must be phrased as “critical concerns” — something that harms one or more of the individual, the team, or the wider organisation. Having a focus on “critical concerns” steers people to consider the harm that a proposal could cause, rather than whether they prefer a different option.

Of course, it is possible to carry out consent decision making in a more lightweight fashion. The important thing is to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to speak, and to drive consideration of what prevents a proposal from being approved.

Advantages

Considers all views equally. Leads to a decision that is “just good enough”, without the need to make it perfect — so long as there’s no harm, we can do something and progress.

Disadvantages

Can be difficult to explain to a group. Also can need a thorough process, slowing down decisions. It can become easy to get dragged into over-discussing a problem, leading to analysis without action.

When I Would Use It

I use consent decision making with a team when they are asked for a story point estimate on a piece of work. This is probably the most common time that we see consent decisions in action. Here, we don’t take the view of the most experienced engineer — or have a vote and pick the most popular. Instead, we ask everyone to provide an estimate at the same time. The group then discusses the reasons for their estimates, and uncover why any differences in the estimates exist. This helps to uncover any hidden knowledge, before we arrive at a decision that nobody has any concerns with. This might not be the estimate that they chose, but it’s one that they don’t see as harmful.

Away from the clear example of story pointing, I try to use this form of decision making with my team as often as possible — sometimes very formally, using a structure like the Sociocracy example, and other times in a more lightweight manner. It’s my favoured way of balancing the views of everyone involved, without building the potential “me vs. you” stalemate that can arise with consensus decisions.

Expert

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What It Is

Allowing an individual to make the decision, based on their existing knowledge and experience.

How To Do It

As a group, select who you feel has the most knowledge to make this decision. Then ask them to decide!

Advantages

Speedy, and the team are all involved in the decision (as they identify the expert).

Disadvantages

Only takes one person’s view into account, making it undemocratic — often, the best decisions are an amalgamation of different views and perspectives. Also, what if the team choose the wrong individual as the expert?

When I Would Use It

Sometimes, a decision needs making where most of the team really do not have the knowledge or experience to know what to do — but where one of the team possesses a particular knowledge or skillset. As an example, you could be selecting an appropriate library to use for a new project, where only one of the team has any experience in the language being used.

Executive

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What It Is

Allowing the most important / most senior / highest paid individual (usually some kind of leader / manager) to make a decision. Sometimes they are in the room with the team during decision making — on other occasions, the decision is escalated to them to make.

Otherwise known as HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) decision making.

How To Do It

Identify the most important / most senior / highest paid person in the room. Listen to what they say we should do. Do what they say.

Advantages

Super quick!

Disadvantages

You’re only getting one person’s view — and it’s frequently the view of the least qualified person, as they’re often the furthest away from the actual problem and might not even be in a related job role (as opposed to Expert decision making, where at least the decision-making individual is selected based on their knowledge). Can also lead to morale issues, as everyone else on the team is expected to go along with the HiPPO’s view, whether they agree with it or not.

When I Would Use It

If a decision is fairly quick, and if the HiPPO is well versed in balancing the views of others before making their decision. Not all HiPPO decisions are bad, but it’s a very undemocratic method of selection.

Another time to use HiPPO selection might be where there’s a risk of bikeshedding — i.e. the decision is a fairly insignificant one, but one where it’s easy for everyone to put forward an opinion on. These situations lead to lengthy discussion on a topic that simply doesn’t warrant it, making it sensible to just have somebody with clout make the decision so we can all move on.

Alternatively, if the team do not have the political seniority to make a respected decision, this might be appropriate…though that suggests a problem in itself!

Default

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

What It Is

This is what happens when no other decision making process is used! It isn’t really a “decision” in itself — more that if nothing drives a decision, eventually something will happen when someone gets bored waiting and everyone else has forgotten about it. Usually it’s a sign that the “decision” isn’t actually needed.

How To Do It

Sit back, relax, and pretend there’s no decision to be made. Wait for a while and see what happens.

Advantages

Ummmmm…..exposes when a decision wasn’t really needed???

Disadvantages

Takes a long time, and no decision is ever explicitly made — so any action will have absolutely zero buy-in from anyone.

When I Would Use It

As it’s not a decision making process you can choose to use, I would say never!

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