A step-by-step guide to team decision-making

Picture your classic team meeting. You all need to reach a decision, but no one can quite agree. Eventually, the cookies run out, along with the patience. You all turn to the boss, who, after a moment’s thought, makes the final call. Usually, more than a few people feel less than pleased with the situation. How can you use team decision-making to improve the process? 

Quick thinking has long been prized in the workplace. And, while it might be helpful in an emergency, it doesn’t yield the best results. On the flip side, delayed decisions come with big costs too — not only in lost profits, but also wasted time and resources. So how do you find a happy medium? And how does that work when you’re making decisions as a group?

Luckily for us, psychologists and workplace experts have been looking into this for years — and they’ve come up with some tried-and-tested methods designed to help fine-tune team decision-making. Let’s start.

The advantages of team decision-making

There’s a lot that can go wrong with team decision-making. Done badly, it can be a slow process, fraught with arguments, resentment, and poor choices. But there’s a lot to like about it too — from collective wisdom to a range and breadth of perspectives. Here are some of the plus points:

  • Diverse perspectives and opinions
  • Shared specialist knowledge
  • Team bonding through collaboration
  • More commitment to the outcome due to input sharing
  • A feeling of inclusivity and transparency among employees

Team decision-making: a step-by-step guide

Bringing a group of people with different backgrounds, priorities, and personalities together will always be a challenge. But by working through the process logically with team decision-making, you’ll almost certainly reach a better decision than if one person had worked on it alone. Here’s how to avoid conflict and stagnation when making decisions as a group.

1. Get to grips with the problem

First thing’s first: Know what it is you’re working with. If you don’t all fully understand what the problem is, you’ll waste lots of time either endlessly defining it — or arguing because you’re all pulling in different directions.

Start by defining the problem before the meeting begins. Then, reiterate it at the meeting kick-off so everyone is on the same page. Start with a summary, then break it down into its component parts to help people grapple with complex issues.

TOP TIP: Often, we inadvertently shoehorn people towards a specific solution by combining the solution with the question. Instead, be as open-ended as possible when defining the problem. For example, don’t ask, “How can we get more customers to leave reviews?” Ask, “How can we better understand what our customers think?”

2. Define roles

If team members aren’t sure who does what, you’re headed toward stormy waters. Before you assemble, make sure everyone knows what their teammates do day-to-day. Then, assign decision roles to those present using the RAPID framework:

  • Put some people in charge of Recommending alternatives or a course of action, which should be backed up by data.
  • Make other people responsible for Agreeing on a decision. They have sign-off duties, and if they veto the proposal, they need to come up with reasons why.
  • Put someone (or some people) in charge of Performing the actions post-meeting. It’s their job to make sure the team implements the decision properly.
  • People with Input responsibilities provide facts and assess the practicality of the decision.
  • Assign one person who will be responsible for Deciding.

TOP TIP: When it comes to team members, roles and responsibilities, things can get a bit tricky. Organizing data visually is one way to make things easier. Draw a grid on your whiteboard, open up a spreadsheet, or create a table via your diagramming software. List individual names along the top and tasks along the left-hand side. Then, fill in cells as individuals are assigned roles. This makes it easy to see who’s doing what, and how evenly the work is being distributed.

3. Deliberate over an appropriate timeframe

All too often, big decisions are crammed into short meeting slots. Rushing through toward the finish line is a recipe for tension, arguments, and rushed decisions — which is the exact opposite of what we’re going for here.

Make sure team members have time to study and assess options and their counterarguments. Ideally, this is over the course of several meetings spaced apart, with a big enough gap between for people to consider their preferences and prepare for change.

4. Present the data

Solid data forms the foundation of any good decision — so spend a little time setting it all out. You (or whoever’s leading the meeting) should lead the team through the facts and invite everyone to interpret them in relation to the overarching problem. This helps the team focus on evidence, rather than emotion-driven opinions.

5. Brainstorm solutions

Brainstorming games are a great way to generate lots of possible solutions for the problem in a short space of time. But keep one thing in mind: Not everyone thrives in a noisy group environment. That means you won’t get everyone’s best if this is the only format you choose. Coming up with solutions as a group could lead to groupthink, which somewhat negates the point of reaching a decision as a team.

Instead, consider asking everyone to think about the problem on their own first, before reconvening for brainstorming games a little later on. Here are two helpful questions to ask before sending everyone off:

  • What are our most important goals?
  • What’s the best, most realistic route towards achieving these goals?

Getting everyone to write down their ideas means those who aren’t big on brainstorming or speaking out in a group can have their say. It also gives everyone a chance to organize their thoughts free from external influences. Then, once everyone’s been brought back together, ask the team what stands out, and what appears to be missing.

6. Challenge solutions and knock down walls

Some people may be less willing to offer a dissenting opinion if it might mean more work or the process leading up to this point has been complex. But, it would be a mistake to sweep these ideas under the rug. Instead, encourage everyone to consider difficult options as well as the obvious or easy ones.

On top of this, there may be perceived walls — e.g. corporate policies, real or imagined — standing in the way of employees sharing more creative thoughts. It’s important to be aware of real or presumed boundaries, and address them early on so people don’t shy away from what could be a good solution.

7. Share ideas

It’s up to the team leader to steer the conversation and make sure everyone gets an equal chance to share their ideas. This means making sure everyone has a platform to speak — and that the louder members of the group don’t dominate.

Going around the room one by one helps make sure everyone gets a chance to share their thoughts. Meanwhile, asking probing questions like, “Could you tell me why you think that?” and “Can you share evidence to support the reason behind your choice?” encourages individuals to share the reasoning behind their decision — which in turn helps the rest of the team analyze its suitability.

TOP TIP: Foster equal participation by asking each team member to write down an idea, then present the idea to a group and rank them with votes. This helps level the playing field when it comes to power dynamics.

8. Narrow down your options

Now you have a selection of solutions, it’s time to narrow those choices down. Keep your main goal in mind. Then, talk through the different routes to see if you can work out which best leads toward that goal.

If there’s a lot resting on the decision, people might feel uncomfortable pressure. Consider running this narrowing down process over a couple of meetings. The first should be casual, where team members are encouraged to share their ideas without a feeling of finality hanging over them. This means people can vote with more ease while still eliminating ideas. You can drop those that get no votes while the others move forward into a more binding decision-making round.

9. Analyze the pros and cons

Once you create a shortlist of ideas (or settle on one), it’s time to make sure it’s watertight. The best way to do that is through playing devil’s advocate. Or, in other words, taking the opposite side of an argument as a way of ensuring every option has consideration.

In the workplace, ideas are often the world of one person who’s completely sold on the idea. Usually, stakeholders then either accept it or reject it (usually without proposing alternatives because this is the first time they’ll see the work). This often leaves the person presenting feeling either validated or rejected.

Working through ideas by assigning a devil’s advocate to critique each option helps to depersonalize the discussion and lead the team away from binary thinking toward a more strategic, suitable approach.

TOP TIP: Biases are beliefs we hold unconsciously that flaw our decision-making and reasoning. The ladder of inference is a good tool for helping teams question their reasoning and consider different solutions to a problem.

10. Set realistic deadlines

A big part of decision-making is making sure your choice is practical — and deadlines and resources play a big part in this. It’s easy to be idealistic when you’re riding the wave of excitement that comes with beginning a new project — but it’s important to be practical. Create rough timelines and goals, basing them on prior projects, and consider the risks and opportunities with each (hint: a SWOT diagram might come in handy here).

Nothing drains motivation like feeling things drag. Having a realistic projection of how your project might run — including delays — means that when you do hit an obstacle, people are less likely to feel discouraged.

11. Get buy-in

Sometimes we get so into the decision-making process that we miss vital things — which is why getting buy-in from stakeholders and others is so important. Once they’ve given your project the green light, you can confidently steam ahead. On the other hand, if they’re not convinced, pay attention to their concerns. They may see something you and the team have overlooked in all the excitement.

Final thoughts

Team decision-making can be a brilliant way to reach a nuanced decision that’s far more suitable than anything one single person could come up with. On the other hand, it can be a disaster, fraught with squabbles, reluctant compromises, and rushed solutions. The difference between the first scenario and the latter comes down to planning, a good understanding of group dynamics, and a structure in place to help guide you to the finish line. Pair that with a healthy team culture and collaboration tools to keep lines of communication open, and you’ll be well on your way toward the finish line.

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