Collective decision making

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—Agreeing on actions


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Are your decisions better than tossing a coin?

Collective decision making refers to a process that draws upon the knowledge, experience, and insights of a group of people to arrive at the best possible solution to a problem.

Decisions range in importance and complexity from deciding what to eat for dinner to deciding how to vote to deciding to start a war or launch a nuclear strike. What they all have in common is that action waits for decisions.

Thinking, talking, ruminating, procrastinating, gossiping, dreaming, and just plain stalling are pleasant ways to pass time. However, decisions must be made before any action can be taken. This is true even if the decision is as simple as when to get out of bed and what to wear for the day. When an action is more consequential, or it will impact others (as most important decisions do), it is wise to consult with others or include them in the decision-making process. There are many examples of decisions that required collective action.

In short, decisions are hard, and the larger the groups, the more difficult they often become.

In making collective decisions, there are many options for including or excluding others, engaging the ideas of others, sharing the responsibility for deciding, styles of leading or moderating discussions, and considering timeliness, and degrees of consensus. Considerations of urgency, level of risk, scope of impact, available expertise, degrees of uncertainty, availability of relevant information, well defined or undefined options, and sharing the decision with others vary widely and will shape decision style choice.

These alternatives are explored in this course.


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The objectives of this course are to:

  1. Identify a wide variety of options for collective decision making.
  2. Assist in choosing the best structure for collective decision making.
  3. Help you and your group make better decisions.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom curriculum.

If you wish to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the discussion page.

What needs to be decided?

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We typically make decisions to explore options, choose among alternatives, agree on goals, seize opportunities, or solve problems. In loosely structed groups, we may even have to decide on how we decide or if we decide. Allowing a decision to be avoided or delayed is itself a decision. It may be wise to bring this implicit decision making to the attention of the group for their explicit consideration.

When solving problems, it is important to begin by deciding what problem it is that needs to be solved before developing solutions. Research shows that problem finding is distinct from problem solving. Problem finding represents a family of related skills including problem identification, problem definition, problem expression, and problem construction.[1]

When we first state a problem, it is rarely the real problem. It is more likely to be a symptom, solution statement, subproblem, distraction, euphemism, or a premature conclusion based on misinformation. When we discover the real problem that real problem 1) addresses what is at stake, 2) is based on reality, 3)is often found deep in the causal chain, 4) has broad scope, and 5) is both important and actionable.

A problem is a gap between a person’s perception and desire.[2] Expressed more directly, when facing problems, we can ask:[3]

  • What do you want?
  • What is true? and
  • What are you going to do about it?

We often neglect to ask, or incorrectly answer these deceptively simple questions.

The first question, “what do you want?” exposes, challenges, and explores our goals. It is an open question inviting use to think expansively and explore options. The second question, “what is true?” examines our perceptions, beliefs, opinions, our grasp on reality, and our willingness to face facts and embrace reality. The third question “what are you going to do about it?” engages our creativity, tests our agency, expands our understanding of contributing causes, and examines our priorities.

When consequential outcomes are at stake it is useful to carefully reexamine and reassess our answers to each of these questions. Begin by deciding what the real problem is that needs to be solved.


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  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on Problem Finding.
  2. Decide what the real problem is that needs to be addressed.

When we face conflict, we often face decisions on how to overcome that conflict. Conflict is unavoidable; fortunately, we can learn to transcend conflict as we avoid false dichotomies. When we seek opportunities to transcend conflict, the nature of the decisions we need to make often change dramatically or can be avoided altogether.


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  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on transcending conflict.
  2. Seek to transcend conflict before making other decisions


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The purpose of civility is to create the conditions that allow civilization to advance and prosper. Collective decision making requires civil behavior of all the participants.

This specifically includes developing the skills of:

  1. Intellectual honesty—accurately communicating true beliefs.
  2. Earning trust—relying on others,
  3. Knowing how you know—being clear about how you choose your beliefs, and
  4. Practicing dialogue—skillfully thinking together.


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  1. Study the module on civility.
    1. Act civilly. Insist on civility.
  2. Study the Wikiversity course on Intellectual honesty.
    1. Be intellectually honest. Insist on intellectually honesty.
  3. Study the Wikiversity course on Earning trust.
    1. Earn trust. Expect trust.
  4. Study the Wikiversity course on knowing how you know.
    1. Know how you know. It is inconsistent to hold firmly to a belief unless you can describe how you came to choose that belief.
  5. Study the Wikiversity course on practicing dialogue.
    1. Practice dialogue skillfully.

Agree on matters of fact

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Making wise decisions is often very difficult. Gaining commitment to a collective decision may be impossible of the participants are uninformed, misinformed, or disinformed regarding relevant matters of fact. Begin by agreeing on relevant matters of fact. Don’t dispute matters of fact, research them.


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  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on finding common ground.
  2. Find common ground among the group members.
  3. Read the essay Collective wisdom and common ground.
  4. Find common ground among the group members.
  5. Consider stipulating to various matters of fact as these arise during the deliberations.

Who Decides?

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When George Patton said “We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way” he was being very clear about who would be making the decisions.

When making a decision is confounded with disagreement over who is authorized to make the decision, who has the power to make the decision, or who has the influence to carry out the decision, the conversation can devolve quickly into chaos. Make these choices serially by deciding who will decide the issue before deciding on what the decision is.


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  1. Study the section on “whose problem is this” in the Wikiversity course on Problem Finding.
  2. Agree on who will be making decisions, and the role of each participant in contributing to that decision and committing to support the outcome. This decision may have to wait until a decision-making strategy is chosen, which is the topic of the next section.

How do you decide?

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Regardless of deciding alone or as a member of a group, we are likely to use one or a few of several available decision-making strategies.


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  1. Complete the course Unleashing creativity.
    1. Welcome new and useful ideas.
  2. Study this survey of decision-making strategies.
    1. Decide what strategies will provide the best decision in this case.
    2. Use that decision making strategy.
  3. Study this survey of Risk management strategies.
    1. Decide what risk management strategy is most suitable for this situation.
    2. Use that risk management strategy.
  4. Know how you know.

Wise crowds and foolish mobs

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In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki uses several case studies and anecdotes to demonstrate examples of collective wisdom success stories, as well as examples of tragedies of collective folly.

In analyzing these case studies, he identifies five elements required to form a wise crowd and several examples of failures of crowd intelligence.  

The five elements of a wise crowd he identifies are:

Criteria Description
Diversity of opinion Each person should have private information even if it is just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts. (Chapter 2)
Independence People's opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them. (Chapter 3)
Decentralization People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge. (Chapter 4)
Aggregation Some mechanism exists for turning private judgements into a collective decision. (Chapter 5)
Trust Each person trusts the collective group to be fair. (Chapter 6)

Factors contributing to failures of crowd intelligence include:

Extreme Description
Homogeneity Surowiecki stresses the need for diversity within a crowd to ensure enough variance in approach, thought process, and private information.
Centralization The 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which he blames on a hierarchical NASA management bureaucracy that was totally closed to the wisdom of low-level engineers.
Division The United States Intelligence Community, the 9/11 Commission Report claims, failed to prevent the 11 September 2001 attacks partly because information held by one subdivision was not accessible by another. Surowiecki's argument is that crowds (of intelligence analysts in this case) work best when they choose for themselves what to work on and what information they need. (He cites the SARS-virus isolation as an example in which the free flow of data enabled laboratories around the world to coordinate research without a central point of control.)

As a remedy, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA have created a Wikipedia-style information sharing network called Intellipedia that will help the free flow of information to prevent such failures again.

Imitation Where choices are visible and made in sequence, an "information cascade" can form in which only the first few decision makers gain anything by contemplating the choices available: once past decisions have become sufficiently informative, it pays for later decision makers to simply copy those around them. This can lead to fragile social outcomes.
Emotionality Emotional factors, such as a feeling of belonging, can lead to peer pressure, herd instinct, and in extreme cases collective hysteria.

Collective decision-making forums

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Collective decision making can take place in a variety of forums.


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  1. Study this survey of various decision-making forums.
  2. Encourage the group to adopt the most suitable forum for the current situation.
  3. Use the most effective decision-making forum to make the decisions.

Collective decision-making tools

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Many tools and techniques are available to assist in collective decision making.


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  1. Study this survey of collective decision-making tools.
  2. Encourage the group to adopt the most suitable decision-making tools.
    1. Train users in effective use of the chosen tools.
  3. Use those tools effectively to assist in making your decisions.


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A schism is a division between people, usually belonging to an organization, movement, or religious denomination.

Schisms, mutinies, strike actions, splinter groups, revolutions and rebellions, and coups can occur if enough of the aggrieved people are motivated to leave the group rather than comply with the decision.

Less dramatic, but often quite damaging are passive-aggressive behaviors by the discontented minorities. This may include work slowdowns, poor attendance, poor quality work, slow-walking, other types of counterproductive work behaviors, goldbricking, sabotage, and other forms of resistance or withdrawal.

Asking the minority if they are comfortable abiding by the collective decision can help to determine if the collective decision can be supported by the entire group. If dissent is strong, then the decision may need to be revisited.

Summary and conclusions

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Making decisions is often difficult, and making wise collective decisions can be especially difficult. Follow these steps to improve your collective decision making.

  1. Be clear about what needs to be decided. Find the real problem.
  2. It is often wise to transcend conflict rather than foment conflict.
  3. Expect civility.
  4. Agree on matters of fact.
  5. Decide who has each role in the decision making.
  6. Decide on the strategies used to make the decision.
  7. Decide on the forum structure that will be used.
  8. Use appropriate decision-making tools.
  9. Assess the degree to which the minority dissents with the collective decision.
  10. Know that if a group of judges can decide on the best ice dance, your group can make a wise decision.
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Students who are interested in learning more about collective decision making may wish to read these books:


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  1. Mark A. Runco & Jill Nemiro (1994) Problem finding, creativity, and giftedness, Roeper Review, 16:4, 235-241, DOI: 10.1080/02783199409553588
  2. Gause, Donald C.; Weinberg, Gerald M. (March 1, 1990). Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is. Dorset House Publishing Company. pp. 176. ISBN 978-0932633163.
  3. Dalio, Ray (September 19, 2017). Principles: Life and Work. Simon & Schuster. pp. 592. ISBN 978-1501124020.