Decision Making Patterns for Teams


Decision making on teams

Change can happen within the borders of a team, as well as at the scale of an organization. In both cases, it helps to have a clear process for how decisions will be made along the way.

There are many patterns for effective decision making within teams and at a team’s boundaries. None of them perfect, there are strengths and weaknesses to each.

  • Consensus – Generally considered a collaborative approach. Consensus typically requires that a majority approve a given course of action, but that the minority agree to go along with it. In other words, if the minority opposes the course of action, consensus requires that the course of action be modified to remove objectionable features. (See: Fist to Five). Useful, and appealing (everyone gets an equal voice) consensus is also potentially dangerous: it can easily reduce variability, by eliminating opposing ideas or suppressing dissent, which is not what we want when thinking through complex issues. Consensus can also degenerate into a water-downed compromise as well as a “collective tyranny of the ego” (Leaders compelling others to fall in line).
  • Advice – A simple form of decision making. Any person in the organization or on the team can make any decision. But before doing so, that person must seek advice from all affected parties and people with expertise on the matter. The person, however, is under no obligation to integrate every piece of advice. (Variations in the advice approach depending on the mindsets involved: authoritative, negotiation, compromise, co-creation)
  • Benevolent Dictatorship Overlord – One individual gets to make the call – not the group. BD can choose to seek input or not (Via Discuss/Consult/Sell). Also known as autocratic or unilateral.
  • Random – The group leaves the choice to chance. Put the options in a hat and pull out the winner, roll the dice, or flip a coin.
  • Unanimity (“12 angry men”) – The group discusses the issue until it reaches an agreement by all those part of the situation.
  • Consent – Defined as “no objections.” Objections must be reasoned and paramount. Consent does not mean you fully agree, only that you will be able to work toward the aims of the decision, that you can “live with it.” It does not imply unanimity or full agreement.
  • Solidarity – unwavering commitment, individual will is suppressed for “the good of the group.”
  • Rock Paper Scissors – Not quite the same as a coin flip, but close.

Different types of decisions call for different decision making patterns. Some types of organizations may not be ready for all types. In any event, be mindful of sticking with only one kind. (We often do this either out of a misplaced need for consistency or a fear of stretching out of our comfort zone.)  To avoid confusion, agree on what you call each, and which one is in use for the decision at hand.

Can We Move the Fence?

The above patterns work pretty well within a team’s own yard. What happens at the boundary? When there’s an external individual or group? Take a look at an approach that provides a clear delegation matrix with four types levels: Participative Leadership and Effective Decision Making

Taking Things Further

For fun – mix things up. If the team has gotten very comfortable with one method of decision making, ask them to choose another. Amplify the differences. Dance within the system. See what happens.

Want to crank it up a notch further? See Reinventing Organizations: Decision Making. or grab the book:

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