Recently we worked with 23 project managers responsible for leading globally distributed teams. It’s already challenging enough to make robust decisions in a face-to-face team situation, but the complexity facing this group in their everyday work is magnified by distance, cultural differences, language barriers, and multiple matrixed reporting structures. In order to hone in on the complexity of decision making, we sent the team into an experiential exercise.
The 23 members of the organization divided into 6 sub-teams, all faced with different tasks of varying complexity, and were given just 70 minutes to complete the tasks. For every completed task the organization received the same income. What does it all add up to? A performance pressure-cooker!
Before entering the workroom, sub-teams had read descriptions of what they were to complete — they know their own task. In addition, each team member has a mix of components in their possession, some that are needed to complete their own task and some that are needed by other sub-teams to complete their tasks.
They would be allowed to offer these components to other teams, but only on the condition that they carried all of their components with them when working with other sub-teams. This meant they couldn’t help their sub-team when they were away helping a different team. This setup forced members of the organization to learn how to prioritize when time, resources, and money are on the table.
This group of global team leaders entered the main workroom and predictably jumped into sub-team tasks. After 10 minutes of furious work, one voice called from the mayhem for a quick meeting about what they were trying to do. A suggestion was made: “We should identify the requirements of each task because it looks like all of us have components of different tasks.”
That sounded like a good suggestion, but…
The energy for listening to all the tasks — perhaps because of the patience required when everyone is feeling the pressure of the 70-minute timeframe — quickly dissipated and people went back to working in the sub-task teams closest to them in the room. The group didn’t take up the suggestion and no discussion happened that might help to optimize the work of the overall group. So sub-groups continued working, trying to do their best with several missing components.
Most groups are ineffective when it comes to decision-making. Many “decisions” are made when an idea is put forward, but before it’s fully considered, another idea is proposed, and the group just moves on, ignoring the proposal.
Edgar Schein, a professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, was the first to describe this kind of decision: “The most common and perhaps least visible group decision-making method occurs when someone suggests an idea, and before anyone else has said anything about it, someone else suggests another idea until the group finds one it will act on.” He goes on to say that this is a “decision by lack of response.” So, a suggestion lands, “plop,” and people just go with the loudest — or only — “plop.”
After 35 minutes, an official 5-minute break was called, during which the group was encouraged to stop working, take a pause and discuss: “What’s working? What’s not working? What could we do differently?”
During that conversation, the idea of identifying the requirements of the different tasks came up again, and someone mentioned the idea of sequencing the tasks. As soon as the break ended, they began a large group discussion to describe the tasks, yet after only 2 of the most complex tasks have been described, 70% of the group had returned to working on their own tasks.
This is the “plop” scenario in plain sight. Were they consciously trying to sub-optimize their performance? Probably not. But it’s clear that they’ve never had the opportunity to develop their group decision-making skills.
What can we do to help team leaders and team members improve their decision-making skills? The first step is to gain an understanding of the different kinds of decisions that groups make. Schein does an excellent job describing this in his seminal work, Process Consultation, where he describes 6 typical ways that groups make decisions:
- Decision by lack of response (what he and others have labeled the “plop”). This is when someone suggests an idea and there is no explicit reaction from the group. Schein says that by not responding, the group has made a decision — and it usually means non-support.
- Decision by formal authority or self-authorization. This is commonly seen when managers make the decision after gathering information from group members.
- Decision by minority. Have you ever felt forced into someone else’s decision? Most of us have been in meetings where someone says, “Are there any objections? No? Okay, let’s go ahead.” This style can be fast, but can lead to low levels of commitment.
- Decision by majority rule: voting and/or polling. Most legislative groups around the world tend to make decisions this way. It is replicated in many types of organizations. One of the challenges with this decision-making approach is it often divides the group. The minority usually feels low commitment to the decision and possibly resentment for not being heard.
- Decision by consensus. Although this is a time consuming approach to decision making, it is one of the most effective ways to make decisions because everyone involved feels they can go “live with” the decision, even if the choice is not the one they favored. This is achieved by making sure that all views have been heard and that collective wisdom has informed the final choice.
- Decision by unanimous consent. In this case, everyone agrees on the course of action to be taken.1
After teams gain awareness about how to make decisions, they can structure their work processes and consciously choose how they’ll make decisions.
Here is a quick step-by-step action map to get started:
- Define the task
- Choose the best fit for decision making
- Set decision making criteria
- Brainstorm alternatives (at least 3)
- Select best alternative (using agreed-upon method)
- Develop action plans
- Take action
- Evaluate decision effectiveness
- Repeat until complete
What we saw with the group described above, and what we see with many groups: A quick jump to the “take action” step, which limits the group’s ability to take in complex circumstances and to adapt effectively in the face of a challenge. For the same reason airline pilots train take off and landing repeatedly, we need to train how we take on tasks in a group so that we don’t skip the important first steps of this action map. Sometimes in order to speed up, we have to slow down.
In this scenario, the group only ended up completing 2 of the 6 tasks, and they chose the 2 hardest ones. The decision to tackle these was made by the “plop” or lack of response to get the full picture of the other tasks.
If the group were to have paused, used the step-by-step action map, and pulled back to see the bigger picture of all the tasks, they might have achieved a different outcome. They could’ve assessed the difficulty of their tasks and realized that by taking on the easier ones — which were worth the same amount of money — and they could’ve come out better than they did.
Natallia Fodemski is a Program Coordinator at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Colorado Springs campus. She was born and raised in Belarus, and moved to Colorado in 1998. She has a B.S. in Hydrological Engineering from Hydrometeorological State University in St. Petersburg, Russia.
JaRae Birkeland is Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership and trains both open-enrollment programs and customized solutions focusing on developing self-awareness, coaching for effectiveness, resiliency, action learning, influence, conflict management, and organizational change. She holds a Masters in Leadership Studies with a certification in Executive Leadership Coaching at the University of San Diego.
(1) Schein, Edgar H., Process Consultation, Vol. I (Reading, MA, Addison Wesley,1988), pp. 69-74.