Monday, February 22, 2010

Making Better Decisions

On important issues the right decision process guarantees the best decisions. This four-step decision process works well in groups or one-on-one.

You don't gather your team for every little decision. But for tough problems, when you want to tap into everyone's experience, or when you need their commitment to make the decision work, it's worth the extra time. This process guarantees the best decision and ensures follow through. It also strengthens the culture by building trust, openness, teamwork, and cooperation.

The Four Steps

1. Describe the situation clearly from everyone's perspective.
2. List possible alternative actions.
3. Agree on what is important to keep in mind when selecting between possibilities, (the selection criteria).
4. Agree on actions—who will do what.

What to Do

Let's assume that you are the team’s leader. You have brought together the key players, agreed on ground rules, and agreed to use the 4-step decision process (which you taped on the wall as a reminder). You have agreed on the topic. As facilitator, you will lead the group through the decision making process, helping them supply the substance. Here is what to do.


At the top of the flip-chart page, write the topic. Under that, write “1. Situation—issues, problem.” Say that ‘situation’ means, the context, the whole thing, how people experience it, what it's like for them. This is different from describing the ‘problem’ analytically. You are not asking for abstract analysis. Your asking for people's actual experience of the situation or problem.

Go around the group, in order. Ask each person for just one thing they see or experience about the situation, that concerns them personally, or they feel is important. Write each concern on the sheet, numbering them. Keep going around and around the group, until no one has anything to add. Each time around allow only one statement per person. Do not allow discussion or evaluation. Never comment yourself on what people say. Don't even say, "Good point." Stay neutral.

If someone wants to challenge a point, for example, “I don’t think that’s true.” or, “That's not a problem.” you say, “I understand you may not necessarily agree with how each person sees the situation, but right now we only want a complete listing of how we each see it. We will discuss and evaluate items later. O.K.?” Tear off the pages, numbering each one, and tape them to the wall.

If there is something they did not mention but you think is significantly different and important, add it to the list now. This holds for each of the first three steps of the process—you wait until everybody else has spoken, adding your point only if it is noticeably different from what others have said.

When the list seems complete, get buy-in. If you do not, some people will be unable to move to the next step. Agreement at each step is fundamental to building consensus. “Do we all agree that this is the full situation as we see it? Anything more?” Take your time with the silence.


On step 2., use the same procedure you used for step 1. Write 2. What could we do? or Possibilities? at the top of the new sheet. Then say, “Let’s go around the group again. Feel free to say anything that comes to your mind as a possible action, what you might like to see happen. Use your imagination. We want as long a list as we can get. Be creative—anything goes!” Again, allow no discussion or evaluation.

When you have gone around the group several times and there are no more ideas, get buy-in. “Are you sure there is nothing else you would like to see done?” Silence. . . . “Do we agree that we now have a complete description of the problem, and a list of all the possibilities as far as we see it? . . . Good! We are now half way through the decision.”


Label this new sheet “3. How should we choose—Criteria?”. Then say, “What is important to keep in mind when we look over the ‘Possibilities’ and ‘Problem’ pages? How should we select from all the possibilities? What are the criteria?” If someone speaks in favor of an item on the ‘Possibilities’ list, you might say, “What we need to know is why you think that’s important, what are your criteria?”

With a little patience you will get items such as cost, timing, regulations, technical feasibility, and office politics. This step may be difficult for some people. Allow plenty of silence while they think.

At this point someone will probably suggest voting on, or grouping, items from the Issues list or the Possibilities lists. If no one does, then you suggest it—“Now that we know what is important in choosing, let’s look back at the ‘Possibilities’ list. Take a piece of paper and write down the numbers of the four items that are most important to you personally. We are not going to make a decision yet, this vote is to help us understand what the group feels is important.” Tally the votes, and mark the top items.


After steps 1, 2, and 3, you are ready for the final step. “Now we all understand the issues, the possibilities, and the criteria. You have voted, and know what is important to the group. We are 3/4 finished with the decision.”Point to the 4-step chart on the wall.

There may now be a consensus. Test for this. “Is there a solution, or mix of solutions here that seems to fit?” If nothing comes, try, “Has anyone a suggestion on what we should do now?” Be silent, wait. If still nothing, you might ask, “Are any of the actions in anyone’s area? Does anyone want to take some items from the list?” As they volunteer, write their initials against the items on the ‘Solutions’ list, or start a new ‘Actions’ list. Often two or more people will take the same item. Allow plenty of time for this step.

(Mature groups take responsibility for their own problems and solutions. The group should not come up with a ‘solution’ for someone else, or for a group that is not in the room. If another group or person’s input is obviously needed, your group may decide to meet with them later, or invite them to the next meeting.)

When they have put their names against enough items, say, “To make sure we keep the ball rolling on this, when should we meet again? How about after you have contacted anyone else who should be involved, and had a chance to plan your next steps. When would that be?” Usually several days or a week is enough. You are not asking them to execute the complete action. You are only asking them to meet in small groups and think through their plan.

Once they agree, say, “Then we will meet on (date and time)--can you all be here then? . . . Please talk this over with others who were not here today, and sort out any items that involve several of you. Any questions?” Do a “Plus-Delta” on the meeting, so you can improve it next time.
“We did a lot today. Good job. Thank you all.”

Before you leave the meeting, decide on who will type up and distribute the meeting notes.

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