Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 46;   November 17, 2004:

Decisions, Decisions: I

by

Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right process for the job?

As I write this, it's Election Day 2004 in the US. I don't yet know what the result will be, but it occurred to me that we're engaged in one kind of group decision-making process. And that got me wondering about how many different variations there are for smaller groups. Here's Part I of a little catalog of commonly used group decision-making procedures. For Part II, see "Decisions, Decisions: II," Point Lookout for December 1, 2004.

Consensus ensures
that any accepted proposal
has everyone's support
Unanimity
Everyone has to agree whole-heartedly.
Unanimity means "the state of being of one mind" and that's about the size of group this works best for: one. For larger groups, if there's even a little controversy, this process is very difficult.
Consensus
Everyone votes either "I agree completely, I will support it;" or "I can live with it, and I will support it;" or "No, I can't live with it and I will not support it." Sometimes this is done by a show of thumbs, respectively, Up, Sideways, or Down. If there's a single down thumb, the proposal is defeated; otherwise it's accepted.
Consensus ensures that any accepted proposal has everyone's support. Some disadvantages: a small number can block any decision; there's a risk of groupthink; and achieving consensus can be slow. It's probably unworkable in a highly polarized environment.
Consensus Minus N
Thumb upLike Consensus, except that the proposal is accepted with any number of No votes up to N.
This is an attempt to deal with the problem of blocking by a tiny minority, and it can speed the decision. It's more workable than Consensus in a polarized environment if one faction is very small. The big risk: a dissenting minority can feel alienated or "check out."
Multi-voting
When the proposal before the group involves either rank ordering a set of options, or selecting one option from many, simple voting or consensus don't work very well, because they're oriented toward either accepting or rejecting a single proposition. In Multi-Voting, each participant has a set number of votes, which he or she can distribute among the options in any way at all.
One weakness: there's no way to vote No. You might be able to address this by giving people a set of No votes to distribute freely among the options.
Authority
The Authority (or chair or executive or manager or leader) decides, possibly after open discussion.
This method is best for time-critical decisions, or for decisions for which open discussion is inappropriate, impossible, unethical or illegal.
There is a risk of overlooking some issues, and alternative proposals; a risk of ethical conflicts; a risk of bias; and a risk of alienating some stakeholders, who might feel excluded from the process. And if the Authority controls compensation decisions, either directly or indirectly, participants in the discussion might not surface all issues.

Now the only problem is deciding how to decide — and this is just Part I. See "Decisions, Decisions: II," Point Lookout for December 1, 2004, for more.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Are You Micromanaging Yourself?  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

For a great resource on consensus, see "A Short Guide to Consensus Building, from the Public Disputes Program of Harvard Law School, the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the not-for-profit Consensus Building Institute.

Reader Comments

Brad Appleton
Great article! This is an issue that I deal with a lot in my work. I wonder if you have seen any of the work of Ellen Gottesdiener. She has a book called "Requirements by Collaboration: Workshops for Defining Needs" and a good article/excerpt called "Decide how to Decide".

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The Johari WindowAssumptions and the Johari Window: II
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool called the Johari window.
Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., (right) bids farewell to Gen. Bernard Montgomery (left) at the Palermo airportTactics for Asking for Volunteers: II
When we seek volunteers for specific, time-limited tasks, a common approach is just to ask the entire team at a meeting or teleconference. It's simple, but it carries risks. There are alternatives.
A pyramidal silk teabag of spiced black teaPatching Up the Cracks
When things repeatedly "fall through the cracks," we're not doing the best we can. How can we deal with the problem of repeatedly failing to do what we need to do? How can we patch up the cracks?
An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011Down in the Weeds: I
When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can we do about it?
Navy vs. Marine Corps tug of war in Vera Cruz, Mexico ca. 1910-1915Holding Back: I
When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

stacks of gold coinsComing January 27: Cost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.
A vial of COVID-19 vaccineAnd on February 3: Cost Concerns: Bias
When we consider the costs of problem solutions too early in the problem-solving process, the results of comparing alternatives might be unreliable. Deferring cost concerns until we fully understand the problem can yield more options and better decisions. Available here and by RSS on February 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!