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Apr 10, 2014

Can your team make a decision?

I was recently thinking about a moment in my career that taught me several things about team decision making.

It was many years ago in my staff meeting. I had opened a topic for discussion that I knew the members of my staff disagreed strongly about.

Lesson #1: You want your team to argue

False harmony and shallow agreement are not useful. They deter progress.

If you’ve got an important decision to make, unless you get everyone arguing passionately for their opinion you will never get the best, truest information on the table.

The best insights come out when people disagree in earnest, because when people argue a case they genuinely believe in, they present their strongest facts and their most informed points — they use their strongest material.

If your team never argues important stuff, you are missing the most valuable insights you can get about the issue.

So, in this particular case, I encouraged my team to debate for about 20 minutes.

When another decision maker decides

Then I looked at one of the people on my team and, said: “OK Scott — you own this decision. You’ve heard all of our opinions … what is your decision?” (See Debate or GO.)

There was a moment of shock and awe in the room. This team had been one that, prior to this, lived in a state of unending consensus seeking.

Everyone except Scott looked at me with an incredulous look – as if to say, “Can she DO that?” And Scott looked at me in surprise and a little delight and said, “Really, I get to decide?”

I replied, “Scott owns this decision, and he owns leading the work to follow through on this decision. He’s heard all of our opinions now. I support his decision, and you need to as well.”

I could see some members of the team trying to conceive of a retort which would render Scott’s decision unofficial, and throw us back into the false comfort of no decision — but they couldn’t.

Lesson #2: Identify/support a decision maker for each decision

One of the biggest issues I see in decision-making is that the team can’t agree on (or never thinks about) who owns the decision. This causes lots and lots of talking that never concludes.

As the leader, you need to make sure to identify a decision maker up front for each key decision that needs to be made.

If you always make yourself the decision maker, you are not building bench strength and scalability into your organization, and you are probably not always getting the best decisions.

One of the most important things you can delegate if you truly want to develop your organization is decisions. (Also see Succession Planning: Take my job, Please.)

Lesson #3: Don’t hide behind a desire for more data

As I work with management teams, it is very often that we get to the cusp of an important decision and it feels like it is 95 percent made, but then the group will, instead of making the decision, say, “We need more data.

You can question the need for more data this way. When I want to push a team into finalizing a decision, I ask them these questions.

  1. What specifically will more study reveal that you don’t know right now?
  2. What would you need to find in the study to form a different conclusion?
  3. Are these answers actually get-able from more study?

What I have found is that when I ask these questions, most of the time the team cannot come up with a specific reason for study that will reveal more useful insights than they already have right now.

Lesson #4: Decisions & commitments are scary; study is not

People generally inject the task of getting more data not to improve the decision, but to avoid it.

If there is more get-able data that could cause a materially different outcome, by all means go get it, but if you’ve exhausted the knowable data, stop studying!

You are much better off making a decision, trying it, learning as you go, and then regrouping if it doesn’t work, than you are getting more data that does not make a material difference in the quality of your decision.

But, it takes guts.

This is one of the important roles of a leader — to have the guts to go forward decisively instead of hiding behind more study.

Lesson #5: Timely decisions are a competitive advantage

Drawn out beginnings are not a great use of time and resources. If you need to get something done in six months, I’d rather have five months to do work, than spend three months deciding and have three months to do the work.

But lets face it — another bad habit I see in many organization is that they take three months to make a one month decision and then still take six months to do the work.

The ability to make organizational decisions in a timely manner can be a genuine competitive advantage.

  • The people who will do the work can start the work sooner.
  • The people who would do the additional study can free up time spent seeking, processing, and communicating even more data — and start working on the important thing instead.
  • The decision makers don’t need to wait for more information. They too can do better, new work, right now.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.