How to Keep Teamwork From Becoming Group Think – and Make Smart Decisions, Too

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Sep 29, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

“Most of us are going through life without interrogating whether our decision-making processes are fit for purpose. And that’s something we need to change – especially when the stakes are high and the decisions are of real import.” – Noreena Hertz, English economist.

One of the hobgoblins of teamwork is group think. This occurs when a team rubber stamps the decisions of the team leader or a particularly strong personality without debate.

Group think destroys creativity and innovation, and it often occurs because people have learned that fighting for something isn’t worth the effort. If they get punished for even trying, or no one listens to them anyway, they will stop giving input.

This results in a declining, hidebound team that just goes through the motions and falls apart when the guiding force leaves. If the team resides high enough in the organizational hierarchy, it can take organizational productivity down with it when it crumbles.

Decision by consensus, on the other hand, shakes things up and ensures everyone gets a say. However, OVER-collaboration can take too much time.

Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean leadership puts off decisions until everyone agrees (although it can), but contributions from everyone receive due consideration.

How to make group decision making work

In large groups, this can take a long time; but it doesn’t have to take long in smaller groups. Quick group decision-making may serve your team best, and it’s simple, provided you meet these conditions.

  1. Work from a template. You can base a new decision on similar decisions, or decisions you’ve made before. If you already have a policy in place on how to handle a decision of this particular type, use it; if not, modify a similar policy or decision-making process. Pre-preparation is most important with emergencies; you don’t want to waste time when the building’s on fire or an earthquake strikes. Tie this in with preventative training, and you’ll have an easier time making the decision all the way around.
  2. Gather all the necessary information. You need to do some meditation. Before your team makes the decision, make sure you understand all aspects of the decision, gather all the expert knowledge required, and take the time to digest it. Once you’ve given the choice the amount of thought it deserves, spring into action.
  3. Limit the number of possible choices. Brainstorm with your team to narrow the field. You can set the final list of possibilities during a good, old-fashioned strategy session: an intense meeting where all stakeholders offer solutions and resolve conflicts.
  4. Limit your debate time. When you have your final slate of candidates, discuss them in a short meeting. With most decisions, an hour will suffice, once you’ve gone through the previous steps.
  5. Ensure universal acceptance of the decision. Whether or not you or others argued against the decision, once it’s made, everyone on the groupthe final word. We all walk out of the meeting on the same side of leadership; don’t talk badly about other people or say you think it’s a bad idea.
  6. Implement it immediately. Move forward with the decision right away, ready to handle and face down any challenges as they appear.
  7. Include error-checking and exit strategies. One of the factors that slows decision-making most is fear of making the wrong decision, which may manifest itself as procrastination or perfectionism. This level of care may be justified if the decision is life-changing, irrevocable, or fraught with danger — like a surgeon amputating a leg, or a business sinking millions into an unstable third-world economy — but most decisions don’t have such irreversible consequences. Flexibility and agility have become necessities in the business world. You can change directions once you’ve made most decisions. If you leave your battle plan inflexible, it will shatter if things don’t go perfectly.

Course correction

You and your team make decisions every day. They don’t have to be difficult, but they can’t be rubber-stamped every time. Otherwise, things will eventually fall apart.

Debate, even lively debate, has an important place even with quick group-decision making, at least as much as the willingness to get out there and execute once you’ve made the decision.

Remember: no matter how much you prepare, you’ll sometimes make the wrong decision. If you leave yourself some wriggle room, you’ll be able to change course in midflight to deal with unforeseen factors or sudden changes in your business climate.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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