Decision-making is like Play-Doh: it can be a muddle of squishy, unresolved brown or a crisply executed thing of beauty.

If you’ve ever experienced a decision-making muddle, you know what I mean. People are confused about what’s being decided, or who’s deciding, or what each party’s role should be in making the decision. When you’re moving fast, these are easy traps to fall into.

Every leader has at least one pitfall story to tell. As a young leader earning my stripes, I needed to make an important decision and asked for my team’s advice. When my final decision went counter to their input, team members were confused and unhappy, because they thought they were making the decision in equal partnership with me. I had neglected to make this clear for them. That’s when I learned the golden rule of decision-making: “First, DECIDE how to DECIDE.” Here’s what the golden rule means:

  1. Define What Decision Needs to be Made. Be clear about what decision needs to be made, and why. Give background information, and be clear about any deadlines that apply. If the decision involves a choice among alternatives, describe the choices including pros and cons and other relevant background. With this step, everyone will understand when to move beyond discussion and into decision-making. Working with a client recently, I was reminded how well this step works for setting expectations and avoiding misunderstandings, even in a typical hour-long meeting.
  2. State What Decision Process Will be Used. In my early-career example, my team and I had different notions about the decision process we were using. To avoid bad feelings from such miscommunication, state up front the process you will use to make the decision. Decision processes range along a spectrum, from unilateral decisions by one person to group consensus, and from simple (voting) to complex (multi-attribute decision analysis). Which mixture of  decision methods do you need? That depends on the type and number of people involved, the complexity of the decision, and the degree of resolution needed between conflicting points of view. A skilled facilitator can give you the options and the most effective combination for your situation.
  3. Clarify Decision-Making Roles. Finally, say what role each party will play in the decision process you select. For example: If four business partners of a small company debate whether to borrow money to grow their company, the stakes are high and a high degree of agreement is needed among the partners. In this situation, the partners would choose a consensus-based approach in which each partner has an equal decision-making position. By contrast, public processes for transportation projects tend to take an advisement approach. Because these situations involve high technical complexity and many community members, the community’s appropriate role is to articulate their concerns, while the project managers’ role is to decide how community input is integrated into the project design.

The golden rule of decision-making applies equally to short meetings and lengthy, multi-stakeholder processes. Try it in your next decision process and enjoy the results.

Do you have an upcoming decision to make in a challenging multi-stakeholder environment? Get in touch to learn how I can facilitate your group through the process.


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