Let’s face it; decisions made during project management are a critical factor in determining the success or failure of a project. Yet, many organizations do not invest time or effort into understanding the different types of decision making methods. Most of the time, organizations simply vote or rely on the highest level manager’s opinion to garner a decision – even if that person is not a subject matter expert (SME). This sometimes does not bode well for the project’s well-being.
Organizations need to educate their leaders, managers, teams, and employees on decision making methods. They need to analyze the decision making methods they currently employ and create a plan on how they can routinely achieve consensus – the Holy Grail of decision making.
I am so passionate about the decision making process, that when working with new clients, I take time to educate leaders, project managers, groups and teams on its significance. In my opinion, this discussion is equal or more important than outlining specific project management processes and technology. Decision making is the foundation of where all solutions for your project come are created. Without top-notch decision making, governance, processes, and even technology are jeopardized. As project managers, we need to insure that we are properly facilitating meetings to acquire the very best decisions on a consistent basis. Better decisions made up front mean less risk to budget, schedule, scope, and quality.
When coaching or mentoring project managers and organizational leaders, I always try to incorporate decision making methods and how to properly facilitate meetings that promote group consensus. This might sound simple, but it takes quite a bit of knowledge and experience. Decision making is a skill one acquires over time.
While earning my Doctorate Degree, I was fortunate to participate in course OC833 – Organizational Teamwork and Conflict Management. Decision making was a substantial and integral portion of the curriculum. One of the text books we used was Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, 11th Edition by David W. Johnson and Frank P. Johnson. I found this book invaluable and have integrated much of their teachings into my own project management and leadership repertoire. In fact, most of what I am writing in this article based on chapter 7 (pages 241 – 296) of this great book. For those looking on how to effectively lead teams and make great organizational decisions, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
According to Johnson and Johnson, there are seven primary decision making methods. These include decision by: (1) authority without discussion; (2) expert member; (3) average of members opinions; (4) authority after discussion; (5) minority control; (6) majority control; and (7) consensus (p. 261-262). I will take the time to briefly outline each one and provide their advantages and disadvantages.
Decision Authority without Discussion
While this is an efficient method for making routine and administrative decisions, it is not advised for important or complex decisions because there is no group participation. I subscribe to the adage that two (or more) heads are always better than one. When using this method, it is crucial for the leader to communicate to the group why the decision was made. Without the ‘why’, each group member will formulate their own reasoning for the decision rendered. This leads to misunderstanding, misalignment, lack of group commitment, and even sabotage (p. 261-262).
I have witnessed this method used most frequently with authoritative and/or other antiquated twentieth-century leadership styles on a regular basis. These leaders often feel threatened when challenged by others’ opinions and feel most comfortable making decisions in the proverbial bubble. Moreover, these are the decisions that cost organizations (budget, schedule, scope, or quality) the most because the decisions often have to be rectified later in the project when change is far more expensive.
Decision by Expert Member
This is particularly useful when the SME has far superior knowledge to others in the group. The group provides the SME with the details, the SME analyzes the issues, and then the SME provides the decision or solution (p. 261-262).
However, there is one caveat with this method … what what happens when you are working with multiple SMEs? Who decides which SME should make the final decision? Unfortunately, research indicates, and I have witnessed, that personal bias and/or popularity usually determines which SME is chosen. This can lead to resentment and the deterioration of group effectiveness (p. 261-262).
Decision by Average of Members Opinion
This method is great for generating differing options, but there is little to no discussion on them. Once communicated, the option with most votes wins. Like Decision by Authority without Discussion, this method works well for simple routine decisions or when the group lacks experience, knowledge or skills (p. 262).
Regrettably, this method does not promote healthy discussion and debate about the different options presented. This can allow unhealthy conflict to fester and linger, create unnecessary controversy, and damage group dynamics (p. 262).
Decision by Authority after Discussion
When utilized correctly, this decision making method produces more solid results than the prior three methods. Most businesses and government agencies use this method regularly. Of course, the success of this style is dependent on a safe environment facilitated by the authority figure making the decision. When using this method, the leader will ask open ended questions and then actively listen to the different opinions of individuals in the group while encouraging healthy debate. There is heavy involvement from each member of the group consisting of opinions, constructive arguments, and counterpoints. However, it is the leader, and not the group, who makes the decision after the discussion concludes (p262-264).
There are drawbacks to this method and I have witnessed them numerous times. Individuals within the group will often compete with each other to impress the leader. If not careful, the leader can inadvertently let his/her preferences for a decision known which undermines this method completely (p. 262-264). Once a leader’s initial preference is revealed, individuals will often tell the leader ‘what they think he/she wants to hear’ instead of their honest opinions. This is known as ‘groupthink’. Another thing to consider is due to the group’s lack of input on the final decision, side effects can include limited buy in, increased unhealthy group conflict, and controversy.
Decision by Minority Control
This is a decision making method where less than 50% of the group dictate a decision. This method is often used legitimately through committee(s) for special issues and/or emergency decisions where larger group debate slows or hinders progress (p 262-264).
However, there are also circumstances when this method is used illegitimately. Railroading occurs when two or more individuals come to a quick agreement on a decision and pressure others into adopting it without discussion (p. 264). This type of decision making is common in teams and groups if they are not educated about the dangers inherent in railroading. Great facilitation and establishing group norms helps prevent railroading from occurring.
As a change management leader or project manager, you should recognize that this method, both legitimate and illegitimate, can cause unresolved conflict and lack of commitment while damaging group effectiveness.
Decision by Majority Control
This decision making method is used frequently in the United States. I have witnessed this with my clients who use a participatory leadership style. It is far more effective than method number three, Decision of Average Members Opinions, because it utilizes constructive conflict and healthy debate to improve upon opinions and options. In the end, 51% or more of the vote is required to make a final decision (p. 262-264).
When using this method, it is crucial for the facilitator to insure that each group member’s opinion has been given adequate time and consideration (p. 264). Research indicates that group members are far more likely to support decisions other than their own when their ideas have been given ample consideration. Moreover, it is the facilitator’s responsibility to emphasize that ‘finding the right solution’ is more important than an individual ‘being right’.
There is some danger when using this method. The facilitator must ensure that participants remain respectful of each other and act professionally. As with politics or religion, people are passionate about their opinions, and debate can quickly spiral out of control. The facilitator must pay careful attention to how the conflict and debate are affecting group members. Unchecked, arguments can get heated and cause an ‘unsafe’ environment that leads to frustration and unease. This often prohibits the full participation of less assertive group members.
Decision by Consensus – THE HOLY GRAIL
This is by far the most effective group decision making method (p. 265). I have witnessed this decision making method used most frequently in organizations with a healthy and safe culture built on honesty, integrity, respect, creativity, and transparent communication. Additionally, this decision making method is the foundation of high-performing teams.
Consensus means that each member of the group or team is completely devoted to the final decision. The decision derives from open and honest healthy conflict and debate during the decision making process. Each person, regardless of their rank, has an equal opportunity to influence the decision. Their opinions are listened to, given consideration, and understood. When individuals do not fully agree with the decision, they are honest and upfront about their reservations, but are willing to give the option an honest effort (p. 262-265).
When using this method, individuals are open to altering their decision based on the opinions and arguments of others. Once again, there is value placed on doing the right thing and not necessarily being right. They view differing opinions as additional information used to clarify issues that will ultimately promote the best course of action.
According to Johnson and Johnson, there are seven guidelines for consensual decision making. These include: (1) seeking out differences in opinion; (2) presenting your position as clearly and logically as possible; (3) critically analyzing the other positions; (4) encouraging all group members to present the best case possible for what they believe; (6) avoiding unhealthy conflict-reducing procedures such as majority voting, tossing a coin, averaging, and bargaining/compromising; and (7) keeping the goal of reaching the best decision possible most important (p. 265).
I hope that this article provides some helpful information for leaders and organizational change managers. Let me know your thoughts on the decision making processes you witness most frequently and how you can use this information as a project manager to facilitate more effective meetings with better decisions.
Thank you for reading and all the very best to each of you.
Johnson, D., & Johnson, F. (2013). Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, 11th ed. United States: Pearson