Meetings serve purpose of sharing information and/or enabling groups to make decisions. Team effectiveness can be judged based on quality of their decisions, and more importantly on cohesiveness of team membership after these decisions were made. Because in teams, decisions are not made on singular basis of expert judgement. Often a a sub-optimal decision that all team members support is more valuable than an optimal expert decision that divides a team into camps. For long term team health, it is important to decide how you are going to decide.
The consequences of not deciding how you are going to decide, can lead to misunderstandings. In dysfunctional team meetings most common kind of confusion is from simplest of misunderstandings – “Did we make a decision?”
Without a clear and explicit indicator that a decision was in fact made, people can remain under impression that further discussion remains to be had. Therefore people acting towards implementation can be perceived by others to be “impulsive”, “having their own agenda”. While on the other hand people who think more discussions are needed can be perceived to be “insubordinate”, “passive-aggressive”.
For teams that want to avoid these misunderstandings, it helps to setup decision making norms. Agreeing on these norms prior to a decision making moment is important so participants know beforehand, that when a decision needs to be made – HOW a decision will be made. It can be quiet frustrating to contribute but have no influence over final decision making. While people do not expect to have a say in every single decision, not knowing how their input will get used is common root cause for frustrations.
Here are three main modes of decision making:
For high stakes decisions that affect everybody, it is preferable that everybody is involved in making and agreeing on the final decision.
• Consensus: Unanimous agreements ensure everybody’s buy-in and have long term ‘stickiness’. Building consensus takes longer and cannot be rushed. Useful in high-stakes situations when impact of decision will impact everyone on the team.
For Example – Fist of five to check for team agreement on Sprint commitment at end of sprint planning.
• Majority vote: Creates win/lose situations. It could be simple majority or 2/3rd majority. It is important to remember that when majority wins, the minority looses. Popularity based voting can be effective in filtering from many ideas ideas (example: dot voting) or generating debate on competing options. Useful in high-stakes situations, when time is not on your side.
The person-in-charge delegates decision making to the group, and agrees to live with and support the decision made by the group. Delegating authority to make decision at team level where expertise and information resides is better than making decision by fiat.
• No reservations delegation: The person-in-charge gives complete unfiltered autonomy to the group to make a decision. The group can use consensus or majority vote techniques to arrive at their final decision.
For example: While deciding on place for lunch, a team member may express that they are “fine with anything” to express their willingness to go along with decision of rest of group.
Caution!: Carte blanche over decisions can be empowering to teams and yield unexpected results. So when managers have reservations for decision outcomes, they must express their reservations explicitly as constraints, or guiding principles before hand. Otherwise they risk being perceived as “unsupportive” or “insincere”.
• Delegation with constrains: The person-in-charge provides simple set of rules, or constraints, or guiding principles to the group so the group can make informed decisions. These boundaries can be helpful in clarifying operating environment. Careful though, over prescription can feel farcical.
For example: In organization that promote self selecting teams, organization Sr. Management sets constraints that each team must be cross-functional, can meet product definition of done, and has 4-9 people each – and leaves specific team membership up to individual preferences.
When the person-in-charge makes unanimous decisions they assume full responsibility for the decision and its consequences. For personal matters, this is appropriate level of decision making. But when decisions impact other members of team, and for high-stakes decisions, group decision making is preferable. However in rare moments of true crisis there are advantages to making a decision in order to stabilize the situation first.
• You give me options, I decide: The group provides clear decision options with trade-offs for consideration.The person-in-charge retains final decision making authority.
For example: Team members provide multiple options to implement a feature and Product Owners makes final decision.
• Consult, then I decide: The group provides input to person-in-charge in order for them to make a decision. This approach is not recommended for group decisions, as it is difficult for the group to know what inputs were relevant in final decision made by person-in-charge.
For example: Manager conducts one-on-one meetings with subordinates on important organizational decision and finally makes a decision on their own.
• Autocratic, I decide: The manager makes a decision for the group. In rare moments of true crisis this can be useful.
For example: In case of fire in the building, resident fire warden direction is not questioned or debated to generally better outcomes.
Unfortunately many organizations are stuck in some versions of “I decide” decision making mode. These are least effective and unnecessary most of the times. Taking time to decide how your team is going to decide can avoid many misunderstandings and lead to better long term outcomes.