Is Decision Making A Team Sport?
Teams can create magic but don’t count on it - the best decision makers find the balance between individual autonomy and collective action.
Successful founders are good at making quick decisions - and they need to be in order to succeed.
At the start up stage you get used to making most of the decisions on your own - automatic and autocratic style. You haven’t got time to get a consensus view and anyway you don’t really have a team to get a consensus from. You believe you are the best person to make the decisions.
As you scale not only the quantity of decisions accelerate but so does their impact. More people are relying on you, more customers, more team members and more investors. You have more to lose (and to win!).
You now have a team to help you grow the business, and you need them to do just that. No single leader can meet all the demands of running a business themselves.
As Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn co-founder, succinctly sums it up, “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.”
More minds together are better than one, right? Not necessarily. Larger pools of knowledge and expertise does not guarantee better outcomes.
Teams can make terrible decisions for many different reasons including if they let the wrong people say too much, and the right people say too little.
One of the key systems a team needs to get right is ‘how to make decisions’.
When I ask the teams I coach “How does your team make decisions?”, seldom do I get a set of answers which match up. Hint, not a good sign!
In this essay I am going to set out 3 foundational strategies on how to set up team decision making for success.
You need to decide if it should be a decision you make on your own or whether the team is involved.
Having decided whether it is a team decision or not you need to decide on the process and how to involve the team.
Ensuring one person who owns the decision is critical whether or not the team is involved in the decision.
Individual vs Collective Decision
Making decisions on your own allows you to make quick decisions.
Often the barrier to bringing a decision to a team is that we associate teams with building consensus. You bring people into a team to create collective intelligence. Yet building consensus takes time and energy - sometimes more than it’s worth.
The challenge for the leader is to find the balance between individual autonomy and collective action. Sometimes collaboration can be a hindrance, and it would be better if people work on their own.
Instead of defaulting to your preferred approach, consider which the best type of decision making process is for each decision. The best leaders are like jazz players, improvising the decision making processes as they go along.
Your team decision-making process doesn’t need to be a protracted and exhausting process - it’s about choosing the right approach for the current situation and an approach that fits well with your team culture.
Individual vs Collective Decision Checklist
So when do you make decisions on your own and when do you bring your team in?
To help decide which process to follow I have created the following checklist:
Problem - Is there real clarity on what the problem is? More clarity makes it easier for one person to answer, whereas more uncertainty about what the real problem is points to getting the team involved
Time - How much time do I have to make this decision? If time is short you might need to make the decision on your own
Expertise - Who has the real expertise on this topic? If someone else has greater insight into an area, then let them make the decision (i.e. delegate) or at least make a strong recommendation to the team
Consequential - What’s the impact of this decision? If it is consequential then it is going to be worth spending time on it and to get different perspectives. Inconsequential decisions can be eliminated.
Reversibility - Is this decision irreversible or reversible? If this decision is irreversible and impactful it’s probably best to slow down on this and include your team even if it’s just for their viewpoints
Impact - Who will be affected by this decision? If the decision is going to affect your team then bringing them into the decision-making process would seem to make sense
Commitment - How much buy-in do I need? The way to get around needing to get buy-in is to involve your team members in the decision - done well they will own the decision with you
Creativity - How much creativity will this decision require? When to generate ideas solo and when to collaborate is a hard question to answer. Latest research suggests the answer is we are most creative when we get time alone first and then time with another. And it also depends on what your mix of introverts and extroverts is
Information - How hard is it to get hold of the information and how much do you need? You want to gather the right kind of information before you decide. How hard it is to gather and how much you need will affect whether you do this on your own or with your team
Conflict - Is conflict likely over this decision? If you believe that the decision may cause controversy, it would better to include the detractors in the process than exclude them
Learning - How much is this a learning opportunity for team members? It could be an opportunity for new or less experienced team members to learn about decision making or about the matter discussed itself, or even to develop new key skills such as how to challenge someone’s point of view
Answering these questions helps you figure out how urgent, complex, consequential, and controversial this decision might be to guide you as to choose the right which decision making process to use.
Use The Team Decision Making Matrix To Determine The Process
Having worked through the checklist, you can then consider the various decision making methods. The Team Decision Making Matrix below will help you determine which process to use.
If you have little time you alone should make the decision.
You may delegate a decision to someone else in the team if they have more experience or knowledge of a topic area and/or you want to empower them - we all have a need for control and autonomy! As you scale you are going to need to become a skilled delegator.
When a decision will affect every member of the team - e.g. team values and rules of conduct - you will want to involve the team in the process. But not every decision should need unanimous approval - it will slow you down and/or drive you mad. Sometimes all you need is for team members to feel heard.
Majority voting should be used sparingly as it will create winners and losers, not helpful if you need the ‘losers’ to implement the decision. You could use it when you reach a deadlock and the deadline is fast approaching.
Consent can work well and is usually quicker than building consensus. You are still tapping into collective wisdom but rather than aiming for everyone to agree, make sure no one will say no or fight it. One of Amazon’s principles applies the consent method - they encourage people to challenge decisions but once it is made to commit wholly - ‘disagree and commit’. (NB more on Consent process below)
This means everyone must agree to the decision. This requires everyone’s permission to do something. This method is good in theory but in reality it slows down decision making and can lead to significant compromises. And when the team is large it is very hard to implement.
And lastly, as your to-do list grows it is worth eliminating some decisions to allow your team to focus on the ‘big rocks’, the really impactful work.
Teams should have multiple methods up their sleeves depending on the decision to be made.
Use this Team Decision Matrix to help you get clarity with yourself and your team as to what decision making process should be applied. And once you have made the decision make sure you have communicated to them the process you are going to use and why.
Assign The Team Decision To One Person
Whatever the process - individual or collective - one person needs to own the decision.
Eh Mark, wait a second. You’ve just told me that sometimes a decision should be made by the team. Yes the team is often involved in the process but in my experience when a team owns the decision, there is no one decision owner. This leads to lower quality decisions and delays.
The best leaders know that all major decisions need an individual owner. The one owner can drive and co-ordinate the process.
For example, if you decide to use the Consent route. Here might be the steps.
The team decides who owns the decision
The owner works with the team and individual team members to come to an initial position
The team then debates the proposed decision in order to bring out any disagreements
The owner of the decision goes back to the individuals and the team to discuss the issues raised, working closely with the detractors.
Once a new position has been arrived at (or if no changes were made) it is presented back to the team. The owner asks, “Do you see any reasons why adopting this proposal would move us backward or cause harm?” Objections must be unblocked. Only valid objections can be made i.e. based on present facts, not on personal preferences. Round 4 and 5 are repeated until the objections are cleared
The decision is ratified
This Consent method focuses on making progress over perfection and can lead to high quality decisions with full input from the team
Turning Your Team Decisions into a Competitive Advantage
In order to transition into a great scale up leader you need to learn how to embrace the power of collective intelligence.
As James Suorwiecki, in his book The Wisdom Of Crowds, concludes from numerous studies:
“If you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you are better off trusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart the people are.”
The starting point for helping you build wise team decision making is to fit the decision to the right decision making process.
I am not advocating you need to become a consensus driven leader on every decision. You need to learn when to make the decisions on your own and when to drive for consent or consensus.
Use the Individual vs Collective Decision Checklist to decide if it should be a decision you make on your own or whether the team is involved.
And then use the Team Decision Making Matrix to help you decide on the process.
And thirdly, make sure one person owns the decision whether or not the team is involved in the decision.
Do you need help improving how your team makes decisions? Reach out and let’s discuss how we can help you.
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