There are multiple ways that organizations, social institutions, and even families reach decisions affecting a group of people. The continuum of methods ranges from one person making the call to a broad, diverse group collaborating to reach consensus.
Let’s look at some of the basic decision making models that are used in organizations and groups:
- One single person can make the decision. An extreme example of this decision- making model is a dictator in a country. Within a family, a child might ask her mother for permission to play outside. When Mom answers, “First, you need to clean your room,” her child’s choices are to comply with those instructions or stay inside. Team members have little input (if any) to the decision-making process when one person calls the shots. Additionally, decisions can be made a quickly as the leader or decision maker is decisive.
- We can also select a small group of representatives to be make decisions on behalf of the larger group. In the public sector, legislative bodies like Congress in the United States make decisions for millions of people across the nation. With an organization, a design team or a project team comprises a representative group of leaders or subject matter experts who have been given the opportunity to make or recommend decisions. Companies create teams to address issues and make decisions or recommendations that the rest of the organization will be expected to adopt and/or implement. This model is pretty effective because the input of multiple voices is encouraged, but it is still relatively fast.
- The third concept, majority rule, is used to facilitate decision making. This method is most often seen in the public sector. Citizens go to the polls and vote for candidates; whoever gets the most votes wins. Sometimes we use that approach inside companies as groups work towards a decision. We ask, “How many people like this idea?” Then everyone votes and the majority’s sentiment rules. This method works when the decision can be boiled down into a few options and when efforts to solicit everyone’s opinion would be too time-consuming or costly.
- A final method is the consensus approach. In this method, team members try to work things out within the group, seeking a point where everyone is involved in making and in agreeing on the decision. A perfect consensus implies that there is no dissent and there is complete unity.
Practically speaking, we don’t see a lot of consensus decision-making because it can be a time-consuming and costly process for organizations. When you embrace a consensus decision-making model, you spend more time and energy trying to get everyone to understand, accept and buy into the proposed outcome. To shorten the timeframe, leaders may end up using majority rule where it is known and accepted that certain team members won’t agree with the final decision, but they at least get to provide input (a vote). In that way, individuals can feel their voice was one of many contributing to the outcome.
Looking across this continuum, the more we can involve people in making decisions and reaching consensus, the better. Making that happen requires a place where everyone can come together. During Colonial times, every village had a town square where people would assemble to debate ideas and attempt to persuade others to join them or align with their cause. Social media is our current-day, digital version of the old public square. There is no mechanism to reach agreement, however, – just a platform to share and debate viewpoints. You may find there are many others on your side, or you may stand alone while opponents attack you. Rarely is a definitive conclusion drawn or decision made, but at least you are part of the dialogue when you put in your two cents’ worth.
Different from social media platforms, organizations can use digital collaboration tools to create a space where teams of people can come together to debate ideas, co-create solutions, and make decisions. Discussions in these settings and using these digital collaboration tools will hopefully bring team members together in a spirit of unity and teamwork. Team members may not reach full consensus, so members might still need to vote on issues or decisions. However, unlike social media, team members are not just coming together to shout out or express our position. Instead, team members can say, “Let’s work together to solve this.”
A digital collaboration tool equates to pointing to a whiteboard or chalkboard and saying, “Let’s talk about this. Let’s write our ideas down and see what we can make of them.” These types of tools allow us to work through differences collectively while helping build more buy-in and support for the solutions we develop and reach together.
When people are more involved in the outcome, we tend to get more acceptance and unity within the team. We often get better traction while facilitating change when having the right tools available allows us to engage and include participants. Allowing everyone to contribute their opinions, their ideas, and (when necessary) their votes in a real-time or in an asynchronous way produces tremendously powerful results.