In hindsight, bad decisions are pretty easy to spot. New Coke. A "protest inspired" Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner. Turkey and Gravy soda. (Not kidding!) How do you think the people responsible made these decisions? Did they set evaluation criteria? Did they stop to clarify, “Hey guys, are we all agreed that the lack of meat-inspired beverages is the problem to be solved here?” Or did they mainly go with their gut? Alas, we may never know. Perhaps it’s best that way.
The same cannot be said, however, for decision-making meetings that take place a little closer to home. For those leading change and strategy implementation efforts, facilitating good decision-making is a core responsibility. However, it’s also one that we may not perform as well as we could, due to a lack of knowledge, time constraints or straight-out pushback from the decision-makers involved. I know this from experience, having spent the better part of a decade facilitating decision-making discussions with executive teams. I often left those meetings thinking, “There must be a better way.”
As it turns out, there is!
Research on decision-making is wide-ranging. However, if we narrow our focus to small group/team decision-making processes, there are some clear themes about the methods that can make the most difference.
What makes for a good decision-making process?
There are a number of theories about what good decision-making entails, but in this article, I focus on Randy Hirokawa’s functional theory. According to functional theory, groups are more likely to make better decisions when they do the following:
- Problem analysis: Understand the nature, severity, causes and consequences of the issue, as much as possible.
- Establishment of evaluation criteria: Set clear standards for an acceptable solution.
- Develop a range of alternatives to consider: Identify a number of options that are realistic, acceptable and feasible.
- Assess the positive consequences of each alternative: Develop an awareness of the merits of each option.
- Assess the negative consequences of each alternative: Develop an awareness of the potential disadvantages of each option.
Are some things more important than others?
When designing and facilitating decision-making meetings, time constraints, group dynamics, and participant preferences can all come into play. It can feel daunting to ensure all steps in an “ideal” approach are sufficiently covered. If you can’t do it all, you may wonder, are some things more important than others? Research indicates the answer to that question may be “Yes!”
Hirokawa and Orlitzky performed a meta-analysis of studies that investigated the link between the actions outlined in the functional theory and decision effectiveness. Based on this analysis, the action most strongly linked to effective decision-making is identifying the potential negative consequences of the options being considered. Looking at the potential downsides of various alternatives seems to be even more important for complex decisions, where there is no “right” or “wrong” answer (Orlitzky & Hirokawa, 2001).
Additionally, this review indicates that problem analysis and development of evaluation criteria are likely important factors in quality decision-making.
However, the review casts some doubt on the relative value of brainstorming a range of alternatives. The authors hypothesize that this may be because groups focus more on the quantity than the quality of alternatives generated. Assessing the positive consequences of alternatives was also not highly correlated with decision outcomes in this study.
Keep in mind, beyond process there are many contextual factors that can impact decision quality. Things such as the type of decision being made, the interest or commitment of team members in making a decision, access to information, and the capability of the team to effectively evaluate information, just to name a few.
Sometimes, the devil is your friend.
In addition to the meta-analysis discussed above, there is other research that supports the positive link between methods that force a debate and good decision outcomes (e.g., Schwenk, 1990; Schweiger, 1989). Such methods may support better decisions because they encourage the group to critically investigate “key assumptions, data, and recommendations...to prevent uncritical acceptance of the seemingly obvious and to tap the knowledge and perspectives of group members” (Schweiger, 1989).
It’s worth noting, that some studies have found that, compared to consensus methods that maintain group harmony, those that force debate may be more time-consuming and negatively associated with group experience. However, others have found that once group members become familiar with these "debate processes", they can conduct them with greater efficiency and with limited impact on group member satisfaction (Schweiger, 1989).
Put the evidence into practice.
Given this evidence, it seems wise to encourage productive debate during decision-making meetings. However, doing so may require a pro-active approach because most of us tend to search for evidence that supports our views and assumptions, not that which contradicts them. Additionally, team members may resist debate. Playing the role of dissenter and critiquing a colleague's (or leader's!) recommendations may feel “unsafe” unless group norms encourage it.
For this reason, some groups formalize the role of a Devil’s advocate, assigning it to different group members on a rotating basis. This person is tasked with critiquing options or recommendations presented to ensure adequate discussion of assumptions and downsides.
Additionally, team members can be coached to participate in decision-making discussions in ways that encourage critical investigation and avoid 'group think,' including:
- Critique ideas and assumptions, not people. Be respectful and assertive, not rude.
- Raise alternative views in a clear, but “low-key” way, perhaps using phrasing such as: “Have we perhaps overlooked….?” or “Shouldn’t we also consider….”
- Be less concerned with convincing others and more concerned with airing alternate views.
- Reframe questions or ask alternate questions to generate a new angle of discussion.
- Flag it when the group jumps straight to solutions without clarifying the problem to be solved or investigating assumptions and downsides of the suggested plan of action.
(The tips above were sourced from McDougall, 1997 and Herbert, 1997.)
The decisions we make as part of change and strategy implementations can have a big impact on the experience of those working in our organizations. A thoughtful decision-making process won't guarantee we avoid a "Turkey Gravy soda" situation, but should make it much less likely.
Herbert, Theodore T., and Ralph W. Estes. "Improving Executive Decisions by Formalizing Dissent: The Corporate Devil's Advocate." The Academy of Management Review 2.4 (1977): 662. Web. Apr. 2017. Find the abstract here.
Janis, Irving Lester, and Leon Mann. Decision making: a psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment. New York: The Free Press/Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1979. Print.
Macdougall, C., and F. Baum. "The Devil's Advocate: A Strategy to Avoid Groupthink and Stimulate Discussion in Focus Groups." Qualitative Health Research 7.4 (1997): 532-41. Web. 2017. Find the article here.
Orlitzky, M., and R. Y. Hirokawa. "To Err is Human, to Correct for it Divine: A Meta-Analysis of Research Testing the Functional Theory of Group Decision-Making Effectiveness." Small Group Research 32.3 (2001): 313-41. Web. Find the article here.
Schweiger, David M., William R. Sandberg, and Paula L. Rechner. "Experiential Effects of Dialectical Inquiry, Devil's Advocacy and Consensus Approaches to Strategic Decision Making." Academy of Management Journal 32.4 (1989): 745-72. Web. Apr. 2017. Find the abstract here.
Schwenk, Charles. "Effects of Devil’s Advocacy and Dialectical Inquiry on Decision Making: A Meta-analysis." Organization and Human Decision Processes 47 (1990): 161-76. Web. Apr. 2017. Find the abstract here.