This is a survey of various decision-making forums, styles, and strategies. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Become familiar with these alternatives and carefully choose the approach that is best suited to your situation.
How many decide?[edit | edit source]
Various decision strategies can be organized by the number of people who participate in making the decision. In general decisions are made faster when fewer people are involved in making the decision. However, when fewer people make the decision, it may take longer to engage the entire group in following through with the decision. It is often pay me now or pay me later.
|How Many Decide
|I alone decide.
|You decide, with limitations.
|I decide, with input.
|Everyone must agree
|No one objects
|The majority of participants.
Each of these strategies is described further below.
Autocratic[edit | edit source]
Autocratic means deciding by yourself. I alone decide. Sometimes the fastest and easiest thing is just to tell the group what to do and how to do it. In absolute contrast to consensus, no members of the group are asked for their input or invited to shape the decision.
Autocratic decision-making works well when there's time pressure, when you have all the information you need to make a decision, and when your group is crystal-clear on what the execution would look like.
The 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” demonstrates the advantages of autocratic decision making.
After losing power from a bird strike, captain and pilot in command Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, quickly, and calmy announced “my plane”, assumed full responsibility for aircraft control and passenger safety, and succeeded in successfully landing US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River. No lives were lost as a result of his decisive decision making.
The process steps are: 1) Review the situation 2) Decide what you want to do about it 3) Communicate that decision and you’re reasoning to the people who will carry it out.
Common issues are that people don’t carry out your orders. You can decide for others, but you can't force them to follow your orders. To address this issue, first, make sure they understand why you made the decision. Share your thought process and constraints. Second, make sure they have the skills, resources, time, and capacity to carry out your orders by removing non-essential tasks or de-prioritizing other projects.
Another issue is that people won’t think for themselves how to implement the decision. When you tell people what to do, they often stop thinking for themselves and become accustomed to waiting for instructions. If you need to make an autocratic decision, be sure to tell people what parts of the process they can feel free to own and control.
Advantages are that it is fast, the next steps are unambiguous, and it conveys strength.
Disadvantages are that it may miss crucial information or perspectives, and overuse lowers group engagement and morale.
Before making an autocratic decision, consider these alternatives. If you realize you don't have all the information you need to make the decision, and that information is spread across multiple group members, fall back to the consultative model.
If one person in the group has the best insight into the decision and time is urgent, hand off the decision through delegation.
Avoidant[edit | edit source]
An avoidant decision-making strategy is the “Let's wait and see” approach. Ironically, deciding not to decide is often highly strategic. Avoidant decision making is worth considering when: 1) The situation is ambiguous and there is little reward for getting it right but major penalties for getting it wrong 2) You suspect the underlying situation may go away on its own 3) You sense that the person requesting action isn’t committed to implementing it.
Avoidant decision-making works well when conditions are highly uncertain and the benefits of taking action are unclear.
Government policies of deliberate ambiguity may provide good examples of this strategy.
The process steps are to 1) Assess the situation, 2) Do nothing, 3) If others request action, assess whether any element of the situation has changed, 4) If nothing has in fact changed, repeat Step One.
Common issues include 1) Failing to keep tabs on the situation. When the situation first appears, do your research. Decide under what circumstances a decision is absolutely necessary and set regular check-ins to evaluate those circumstances. 2) Gaining a reputation for being unresponsive is another common issue. You can avoid making a decision, but you can't avoid telling people about it. From the outside, avoiding a decision can appear cowardly or aloof. Let the people closest to the decision in on your game plan. Maybe they’ll see you’re right to put it off, or maybe there’s more to the story that’s worth hearing.
Advantages of an avoidant strategy include: 1) Saving time and energy, 2) Keepings your options open, and 3) Retaining focus on current priorities.
Disadvantages include: 1) The situation may change suddenly, leaving you in a vulnerable position, 2) Overuse harms relationships and conveys weak leadership, and 3) indecision can weaken the whole organization if it becomes a normal practice.
Consider these alternatives before deciding to wait and see. Gathering more input is smart in ambiguous circumstances. When the time comes, consider a consultative process of gathering input from others. If conditions remain uncertain but the stakes of the decision drop, you can always try a stochastic decision-making process.
Consensus[edit | edit source]
Consensus decision making asks everyone in the group to shape the decision until a compromise is reached that reasonably satisfies everyone. Unlike some other decision-making models, consensus strives to incorporate everyone's perspectives, needs, and ultimately their permission. In short, everyone must agree with the final decision.
Consensus has a long history of use in tight-knit communities like faith groups, neighborhoods, and unions. Consensus also tends to be how recently formed organizations first approach decision making.
The Quakers use a form of consensus decision making during their business meetings.
The process steps are to: 1) Define the problem or opportunity and capture it where people can see it. 2) Brainstorm all possible options: write them down, cluster similar ideas. 3) Take an initial non-binding vote to gauge the feelings of the group. 4) Have people make a case for options they feel strongly about. 5) Take another non-binding vote. 6) Negotiate with holdouts by asking: “What would it take to get you on board?". 7) Repeat steps 4-7 until everyone agrees with the decision.
Common issues include 1) Failing to fully define the proposal. When everyone has a different idea of what they're solving for, consensus gathering can turn into lots of talking past one another. Don't skip writing down the problem and ask participants to write down their proposals as they're formed and shared with the group. 2) Not leaving enough time, and 3) Failing to come to a consensus. Despite everyone’s best intentions, you still may fail to agree as a group. It's best to specify both a deadline and a fallback plan. Knowing that the decision may be taken away from the group can help people overcome minor disagreements.
Gathering consensus takes time, but it works well when a decision will impact lots of people and those people have both valuable insight and the capacity for candid negotiation.
Advantages of a consensus approach include: 1) all constituents are satisfied, 2) it fosters strong, united groups, 3) it equalizes the distribution of power in a group, and 4) Constituents leave fully prepared to implement the decision.
Disadvantages include: 1) it can take forever, 2) it is nearly impossible for groups with low trust or competing interests to come to consensus, 3) it becomes more difficult group grows larger, and 4) the resulting compromises may not serve the group well.
If consensus can’t be reached, fall back to a consultative model, as you will have heard a diversity of opinions that you can draw upon to reach a decision. If after trying to reach consensus, the matter becomes suddenly urgent, consider a democratic model of open voting. For small teams that are growing quickly, consent can be a great transition away from consensus.
Consent[edit | edit source]
Consent means the absence of objections. Similar to consensus, consent invites group participation in the decision-making process. But instead of granting each member the power to mold the proposal in pursuit of a compromise, consent urges the group to accept a “good enough” solution. After a formal decision-making process, a decision is ratified when there are no meaningful or “paramount” objections. Consent has become increasingly popular among engineering and technology firms over the last decade because it attempts to combine both speed and inclusiveness.
Drafting, consent, and signing of the United States declaration of independence generally followed a consent decision making model.
Consent originated from the consensus tradition of Quakers, was adopted by the Sociocratic movement of the mid-20th century, and then formalized by Gerard Endenburg in the 1970s. The formal process formulated by Endenburg and iterated by others follows these steps.
- Gather your group for a formal consent-based decision-making meeting and identify who in the group is bringing forth a proposal.
- Elections. Elect both a Facilitator and Recorder, someone to keep the conversation moving and someone to capture what is proposed and objected.
- Review the rules. No interruptions – only one conversation at a time, and only one speaker at a time. Aim for ‘Safe to Try’ rather than rejecting a proposal in favor of finding an ideal or long-term solution, embrace “good enough” short-term solutions. Follow the process – the prime benefit of consent, speed, is lost if the process devolves into consensus-seeking discussion.
- State the proposal. The person with a proposal starts by describing a challenge/opportunity that falls within the group's authority and offers a proposal to address it. A proposal can add/edit a role on the team, a rule for the team, a project on the team’s plate, or an overarching strategy the team follows.
- Question round. The group takes turns asking clarifying questions and for each, the proposer has an opportunity to respond (or not respond). Example: “Who do you think this will most impact?”
- Reaction round. The group takes turns offering reactions to the proposal. The proposer listens but is not expected to respond to each reaction. Example: “I think the problem you’ve identified is real, but the solution you’ve offered doesn’t seem to address the root cause.”
- Restate the proposal. The proposer may revise or clarify the proposal based on the previous questions and reactions. The group listens but does not respond.
- Objection round. First, the group takes 2-3 minutes to silently generate objections (this is called “Harvesting Objections”). The group then takes turns raising their most severe objections to the proposal. Objections are only considered valid if the proposal will cause harm to the group or obstruct it from reaching its goals. These are so-called “paramount objections.” Objections are captured without discussion or debate.
- Objection round (continued). The proposer addresses each paramount objection one at a time and works with the objector to revise the proposal to resolve the objection and find a safe-to-try or “good enough” middle ground. The proposal cannot move forward until all objections are resolved.
- Ratification. Once all objections have been addressed and no objections remain, the proposal becomes accepted and should be captured by the Recorder and shared wherever the team keeps their rules/roles/projects.
Common issues include: 1) Discomfort with the formal process. The consent decision making process can feel overly rigid, dogmatic, and foreign to cultures that have only practiced consensus or autocracy. Practice the process until everyone understands why each step matters and then allow your group to try new formats. 2) Confusion around what is and what isn't a valid objection. Consent requires a “paramount objection” to reject a proposal, yet the definition of a “paramount objection” is often subjective. Instead of debating the definition, ask questions like, “Will this cause harm?”, “Can you live with this proposal for now?” or “Is this safe to try?” to help frame objections.
Consent works well when speed is needed, when the proposal is clearly defined, and when the impact of the decision is limited and reversible.
Advantages include: 1) it is fast and consultative, 2) it encourages iterative, "good enough" solutions, 3) it does not require agreement, and it 4) it promotes objective debate.
Disadvantages include: 1) the decision-making process can rush teams toward a suboptimal solution, 2) the formal process can feel unfamiliar and initially uncomfortable, 3) it can ignore team cohesion in the decision-making process, and 4) it can be harmful if used on wide-impact, long-lasting decisions.
If the decision will impact a large number of people, is likely irreversible, and/or your choices are unclear, try a consultative approach instead. If teams can’t agree on what is or isn’t a “paramount objection” and the decision is non-urgent, consider shifting to consensus and focus on reaching a compromise. However, if the decision is urgent you may need to shift to an autocratic model to settle a protracted debate. If the team gets hung up on the process and the work required to enact the decision is minimal (i.e. it’s a simple rule change), you can try a democratic approach with a majority rules vote.
Consultative[edit | edit source]
Consultative decision-making means asking for input from a few select individuals, but ultimately reserving the decision for yourself. The consultative model is used when you need additional expertise or when you need to curry political favor. The consultative process is often done one-on-one, but it can also happen in a small group setting.
A form of consultative decision making is used in aircraft cockpits. Before each US Air Force flight takes off, one of the pilots is assigned the role of “Aircraft Commander”. When critical decisions need to be made quickly to ensure the safety of the crew and completion of the mission, the Aircraft Commander asks for advice from each crew member and other informative professionals as time permits, relies on her own training and experience, and then makes the decision. The process is inclusive because each crew member has an opportunity to contribute ideas, opinions, and suggestions, however because the final decision is made by the Aircraft Commander, the commander acts autonomously.
The consultative decision-making process steps are: 1) Assess the situation and evaluate the obvious choices 2) Decide on 2-3 people who have information or perspectives that can help you decide. 3) Ask their opinions (leaving time for them to mull/gather facts if needed). 4) Make the decision and communicate it.
Common issues include: 1) Throwing others under the bus. When a leader is questioned by the group for a bad or controversial decision, it's easy to lay the blame on the people who gave you input. This not only kills their morale, but it ultimately makes you look like a weak leader. If you reserved ultimate authority for the decision, take ultimate responsibility for its outcome. 2) Making your choice seem personal instead of rational. If you continually consult the same people in the group, it can appear that you choose feelings and relationships over facts. Be sure to change up whose opinions you ask for.
Consultative decision-making works well when you need to gather expertise from a limited group or when you need the support of key members of the group.
Advantages include: 1) the process yields additional perspectives beyond your own, 2) it helps you gauge how the decision will play out politically, 3) it gives you access to technical knowledge you may not yourself possess, and 4) it provides an opportunity to influence key stakeholders.
Disadvantages include: 1) People may feel excluded and unimportant, and 2) it creates the perception of politicking.
If a consultative approach is not working because you can’t get useful input from others, you may have to make an autocratic decision. If you do gather input, but there's absolutely no consensus and the decision is relatively low risk, try a stochastic decision.
Delegation[edit | edit source]
Delegation means giving someone in the group explicit authority over making a decision, often with some guardrails. One of the greatest leadership traits you can develop is removing yourself from the decision-making process. Giving members of the group the authority to make a call independently will help your group act faster and give you more time to focus on the high-priority decisions that do require your attention.
This is consistent with the often-cited management advice to delegate decisions to the lowest level in the organization.
The process steps are: 1) Develop a list of delegates. Who is likely to understand the situation and be motivated to help? 2) Choose the delegate. Who has the best information and is best positioned to marshal others? 3) Delegate the task, clearly communicating the parameters, e.g. “Your choice needs to satisfy this stakeholder and stay under this amount of time/money.”
Common issues include: 1) Your delegate shirks their responsibility. Decision making carries a heavy burden and not everyone relishes the responsibility. Be sure to tell your delegate what qualities of theirs made you choose them. Do what you can to answer their concerns, and 2) Your delegate makes a decision you disagree with. Group members have diverse mental models, experiences, and approaches to decision making. If your delegate makes a decision that surprises you, determine how important the differences in their approach really are. If those differences are substantial, help your delegate see your perspective and appreciate your concerns.
Delegation works well when time is critical, when a single member of the group has the best information (and it isn't you), and when the group is crystal-clear on what the execution would look like.
Advantages include: 1) Delegation frees up your time and energy, 2) Delegation to experts can draw on the relevant domain knowledge of others, 3) Delegating tasks to team members can encourage collaboration and build a sense of ownership and accountability among the team. For example, delegating tasks to cross-functional teams can encourage team members to work together and share knowledge and expertise.
Disadvantages include: 1) May require more handholding than anticipated, 2) They definitely won't do exactly what you would do.
If you can’t delegate the decision, you may have to make it yourself, autocratically. If one person other than you still has the best information but the whole group feels like they need to give input, try consent.
Democratic[edit | edit source]
Majority rules democratic decision making is when a leader gives up authority over a decision and presents a series of options to the full group to vote on. The option accepted by the majority of the group is then enacted.
There are many types of democracy, and democracy is well studied, especially as a form of government. Freedom house and other organizations often claim that democracy is the best form of state government, but it may not always be the best decision model for smaller organizations or groups.
The process steps are: 1) Assess the situation and develop options. 2) Call a meeting for voting. 3) Designate an advocate for each option. 4) Hold a timed debate between the advocates. 5) Determine if this vote is by secret ballot or public ballot. 6) Cast the votes (yes, no, abstain). 7) Count the votes and continue voting if a stalemate exists.
Common issues include: 1) Fear of Dissent. Because voting visibly pits one group against another, participants who tend to avoid conflict may remain silent even if they have valuable insights to contribute. 2) The tyranny of the majority. If you use voting repeatedly, there's a good chance that low-powered constituents or diverse viewpoints will be repeatedly overruled. First, be sure to restrict voting rights to the people who will be directly affected by the decision. Second, consider giving more airtime to less prominent voices during the debate.
Democratic decision-making works well when choices are clear cut, when your team is well informed, and when you can embrace majority rule.
Advantages include: 1) The process is transparent. 2) it is often perceived as fair, and 3) people easily grasp where process begins and ends (unlike Consent and Consensus).
Disadvantages include: 1) the process is vulnerable to groupthink or political campaigning, 2) the majority has little need to compromise with minority interests, and 3) Those in the minority can feel a lack of ownership on implementing decisions, declaring "I didn't vote for that!"
If there's time pressure and the group is very split, fall back to consultative decision making. Or, if the group is very split and unity is important, fallback to consent decision making. If you see either as a possibility, it’s best to warn the group up front that you might switch to an alternative model.
It may be useful to choose a particular variation on voting discipline or voting method to avoid anticipated problems. Cumulative voting, instant runoff voting, caucus, and liquid democracy are important variations to consider.
Stochastic[edit | edit source]
Flip a coin, roll the dice, draw straws, or play rock, paper scissors. Taken from game theory, a stochastic solution is one where you choose randomly from a variety of comparable options. The process can be as private as a coin-flip or as public as a roulette wheel; the point is not to waste time doing deep dives when any of the options appear to work equally well.
A coin toss is often used to determine the starting configuration of sports games. Lotteries are often used to award prizes by chance.
The process steps are: 1) Gather your options. 2) Vet them to make sure they are well-defined and comparable. 3) Add them to a randomization method (e.g. coin flip or wheel). 4) Play! (uhm, or decide)
Common issues include: 1) Falling prey to a false dilemma. The false dilemma fallacy is a cognitive bias whereby we think in only absolutes and frame every decision as only two possibilities. When making a random choice, don't skip brainstorming options with your group. 2) Rejecting the process after not getting what you want. It's especially easy to question making a random choice when you don't like the outcome. Be sure to agree as a group, before deciding, that you'll commit to the final decision whatever it may be.
Stochastic decision making, or random chance, works well for low-stakes decisions when options are well-defined, and all possible outcomes appear equal.
The advantages are that is fast, potentially, fun, and arguably fair.
The disadvantages are that it can be dangerous unless the options are assured to be equivalent.
If you absolutely can't live with the way your stochastic decision turned out, you can take it back and decide autocratically. Or if a single group member is especially troubled by the result and has unique expertise or insight, consider delegating the decision.
Blended Forms[edit | edit source]
Because governance practices emerge whenever a group of people need to cooperate, any number of governance systems have arisen. Many of these are variations of the pure systems described above, or some blend of those systems. Here are some important examples.
Mild Hierarchy[edit | edit source]
In his book Blueprint, author Nicholas Christakis identifies mild hierarchy as one of 8 elements of the social suite he describes as the core of all societies. A mild hierarchy is a fluid form of governance, drawing on the skills and guidance of a strong leader when necessary but often more egalitarian. Delegation, consensus, consultation, meritocracy, democratic processes, and other governance forms emerge as each situation develops. Decision making is typically decentralized, flexible, informal, with limited bureaucracy and a flat organization structure.
Sociocracy[edit | edit source]
Sociocracy is a theory of governance that seeks to create psychologically safe environments and productive organizations. It draws on the use of consent, rather than majority voting, in discussion and decision-making by people who have a shared goal or work process.
The governance model is based on four essential principles:
- Consent governs policy decision making. Decisions are made when there are no remaining "paramount objections", that is, when there is informed consent from all participants.
- Organizing in circles. The sociocratic organization is composed of a hierarchy of semi-autonomous circles. This hierarchy, however, does not constitute a power structure as autocratic hierarchies do, instead resembling a horizontal association, since the domain of each circle is strictly bounded by a group decision. Each circle has the responsibility to execute, measure, and control its own processes in achieving its goals.
- Double-linking. Individuals acting as links function as full members in the decision-making of both their own circles and the next higher circle. A circle's operational leader is by definition a member of the next higher circle and represents the larger organization in the decision-making of the circle they lead.
- Elections by consent. This fourth principle extends principle 1. Individuals are elected to roles and responsibilities in open discussion using the same consent criteria used for other policy decisions. Members of the circle nominate themselves or other members of the circle and present reasons for their choice.
Haudenosaunee Confederacy[edit | edit source]
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, is a historically significant example of a traditional indigenous governance system. This confederacy, resulting from the Great Law of Peace, allowed six indigenous nations to live in harmony for hundreds of years, and may have influenced the design of the United States constitution. The confederacy relied on 1) Confederacy, 2) Consensus-based decision making, 3) A longhouse system, serving as community centers, 4) separation of powers, and 5) responsibility to future generations.
Summary and Conclusions[edit | edit source]
Become familiar with a wide variety of decision-making forums. Choose the style that is most suited to your current situation.
References[edit | edit source]
- Much of this material is adapted from the website: https://miro.com/app/board/uXjVPI_kOX8=/ which seems to be largely derived from the site at: https://thedecider.app/democratic-decision-making.
- See, for example Delegate to The Lowest Level, October 24, 2018, Medium.
- The document A Practical Guide for Evolving Agile and Resilient Organizations with Sociocracy 3.0 provides an in-depth guide to the approach.
- Sometimes represented as three principles, recognizing the similarity of #4 and #1.
- About the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.