Monday, November 16, 2009

5 Decision Making Options for Meeting Leaders

Leaders often need to make hard decisions.

Our current president recently said “by the time something reaches my desk, that means it’s really hard. Because if it were easy, somebody else would have made the decision and somebody else would have solved it. So typically, if something’s in my folder, it means that you’ve got some very big, difficult, sticky, contradictory issues to be wrestled with.”

Yes, it can be lonely at the top. But it doesn’t always have to be. There are times when a leader may want to involve others in the decision making process.

There are five ways a leader can do this. None of them are “right” or “wrong” – it all depends on the degree of involvement required and how quick the decision needs to be made.

5 Decision Making Options:

1. Tell
“I want to inform you of a decision I’ve made and give you an opportunity to ask any questions.”

2. Test
“I’m thinking of choosing option A to solve the problem – what do you think?”

3. Sell
“I’m thinking of choosing option A to solve our problem – let me convince you why I think it’s a good option.”

4. Consult
“I need to select an option, and would like your input on which to choose.”

5. Consensus
“We need to make a decision, and I’d like us to make the decision together.”

The chart below can help a leader choose the best decision making option. If a decision needs to be made right away – and little involvement is needed, then the “Tell” method is perfectly appropriate. Examples of when this method might be used include emergencies (“the building is on fire – exit the front door now!”) – or trivial matters, where the leader does not want to waste everyone’s time.

As you can see from the chart, the more buy-in needed, the more time it usually takes to make a decision.

There are pros and cons for each option. Obviously, the ones requiring less involvement are faster. However, with little involvement, there is little buy-in and commitment, and a missed opportunity to incorporate multiple perspectives.

Again, each of these options has it’s time and place. The important thing is for a leader to be clear with the group which option is being used. This helps set the right expectations and informs people how they need to prepare. When a leader bounces back and forth between options and doesn’t tell the group, it confuses and frustrates the team – as well as the leader.

Consensus will provide the highest degree of involvement, collaboration, and commitment. However, if mismanaged, attempting to reach a consensus decision can turn into the meeting from hell.

In my next post, I’ll show you how to reach a consensus decision in an efficient way – usually in less than an hour.


Brittany Moore said...

I like the consensus method because if done correctly it allows for a variety of opinons and perspectives on the topic. But sometimes "lower level" employees get nervous to state their true opinon around executives so how do you suggest a leader makes sure groupthink doesn't take over the meeting?

Elaine Chen said...

I have the same question as Britanny - how do you ensure a great decision is made with the consensus style?
And how does one handle the opposite problem (analysis paralysis due to lack of convergence)?

Maria Galca said...

I like the 5 ways - but I think even more simplified would be a 2 way approach:
1. meeting to inform and
2. meeting to align
Alignment meetings can include all the other ones.

And then it's the discussion about whom to invite to the meeting - many of us say "Oh I should invite John cause he's the manager of Jane who's presenting, and he shouldn't feel left out."
If you're thinking "Maybe he'll have a point to add", you're probably NOT doing the person a favor inviting them to the meeting.
Only invite those who MUST be in that meeting.

The above are learned the hard way and still work in progress :)

Dan McCarthy said...

Brittany -
Good question. You’re right; the key is “if done correctly”.
In an upcoming post, I’ll describe a process that a leader can use to ensure participation from all. Of course, the leader still has to have the right mindset – one that values collaboration. And employees, at any level, need to develop the confidence to speak up when invited to these kinds of meetings.

Elaine -
Again, good questions. Even the best process (which I'll cover in an upcoming post) won't make up for a lack of expertise. Great people + great process = great decisions.

Maria -
Good points, participant selection is so important.

Rodney Johnson said...

Dan, I have to disagree with part of your opening statement "“by the time something reaches my desk, that means it’s really hard. Because if it were easy, somebody else would have made the decision and somebody else would have solved it."

There are many reasons why problems aren't solved in organizations, and in effect turn into Without Warning events. I have come up with 7 warning signs in my book Without Warning which provide an early warning sign. For instance #1, "When the risk of making a decision for employees inside the organization is considered to be greater than the benefit of making one."

In fact, every leader needs to question why the problem wasn't solved earlier, why its important now, and what is interfering with the problem solving capacity of the organization. This is critically important because the problems the organization decides to solve and those that are avoided provide critical insight into the health and vitality of the organization.

Cecelia Ghezzi said...

These are all good approaches for a leader when seeking input from others. Which one to choose is obviously on a case-by-case basis, and I think maybe the leader's mood/workload at that particular point could be a factor. Hopefully, when a leader does employ one of these approaches, especially the 'test' option, the person he or she is seeking advice from does not see their leader as weak, unprepared, or uneducated. Two minds are better than one, as long as the leader is approaching people for advice that actually have quality input to offer.

Patrick D. Kelley said...

Dan: I'm really looking forwward to your post on how to manage the the consensus process. For me, I find that to be both the most rewarding and the most difficult way to reach a decision. Its rewarding because--as you've noted--those participating in the process are taking ownership in that idea and feel included in the process. But, the reason I say it is the most difficult is because (in my experience) it can be the most time consuming and, sometimes, the meeting winds up going away from where you want and need it to go. I find that how well the meeting goes depends on (1) who is running it and what that person's mood and approach is and (2) who is participating and how open/receptive they are to the idea. To me, the biggest nightmare is trying to build consensus on an idea that others enter the room predisposed to reject, regardless of how beneficial it may be for the organization.

Elijah Edwards said...


I really liked this post, its a concept that I have never really thought much about and yet it has to be a very important process to consider as leader. My opinion is the more involvement you can get out of a decision making process the better off you will be, but that of course depends on the time restraints like you mentioned above. Often times as a leader you have to make decisions on your own that you think are right even if they go against the norms, how do you balance that opposing pressure?

Dan McCarthy said...

Rodney -
Actually, it's not my statement...
but you got to plug your new book. (-:

Cecelia -
All good points. Although I hate to see a leader change their decision making approach based on mood... but I suppose some do.

Patrick -
All good points. Everyone can have strong opinions - that's OK - but they need to be willing to consider other options and be open to outcomes.

Elijah -
Leaders often need to "stand alone", and make the tough calls by themselves. However, the great ones know when to get input in order to make the best decisions.

Elaine Hirt said...

I find that when a strategic or tactical approach to a marketing issue, let's say, the consensus works really well IF the ego is taken off the table.

I've seen this technique done and have done it myself to great success.

The moderator sets the stage: no negativity, no idea is a bad one, encourage all ideas as one idea will spawn another and so forth. Put all ideas up on the board. After all ideas have been shared, depending upon the need, give each person a set number of dots. Then each person gets to go "shopping" by placing their dots next to the ideas that make the most business sense for the objective.

This works amazingly well and avoids group think and the overbearing egos from taking over.

Anyway, I thought I'd toss in my three cents worth. Consensus works well when ego is not invited.


Dan McCarthy said...

Elaine -
Good 2 cents - thanks. The technique you summerized is what I'm going to cover in my next post.

Jonathan Bradley said...

Good points. Dispensing with leadership style judgments, sometimes the circumstances may necessitate the style. Ideally, of course, the time investment results in more independence so those items may not reach your inbox. So rare is the "consensus" decision!

Dave said...

To improve on getting concensus, allow taking and voting on ideas in private. Ask for the group to put ideas on a piece of paper, then collect the paper. Same idea works to get opposing opinions..

Appoint a Devil's advocate. Someone who's role it is to disagree and take the opposing view. Not only is it fun, it's guaranteed to get alternative viewpoints on the table.

Watch the movie "12 Angry Men". All sorts of techniques are used by Henry Fonda in this classic film to gain concensus in a room full of men with very different points of view.

Dan McCarthy said...

Dave -
Thanks, good tips!