Collaborative decision making

Decision making is something a lot of organisations struggle with. Particularly when they decide to adopt a more agile way of doing things. Traditionally, organisations were geared around top down decision making - people asked their boss to make a decision, they would ask their boss and so on until it reached a level in the hierarchy where someone had the right level of authority and a decision was made. Or the request got lost somewhere on the way and nothing happened. Or it got misinterpreted and the wrong thing happened. And if a decision was made, it was generally made in the absence of any real, on the ground information.

This isn't new knowledge. People have known the problems with a top down decision making model for a long time now. Organisations have been trying to move to a more decentralised model but unfortunately, what had replaced top down decisions is consensus decision making. This sounds lovely - we bring everyone together, we discuss the issue and we all agree on what to do. Consensus decision making works really well in small groups - families, villages, small organisations. It doesn't scale well though. Have you ever tried to get a group of more than two or three people to agree on where to go for dinner? Then starved to death for the next few hours while the argument goes round and round in circles? Now imagine that in an organisation of thousands of people. That's how badly consensus decision making doesn't scale.

Consensus decision making means that everyone has to agree to the decision and at scale that's really hard to achieve. What tends to happen is an endless round of committees and discussions that go round in circles. People try to protect their area and push any impacts onto others. Those other areas push back. People lobby behind the scenes for their preferred outcome. People play political games. Finally, if a decision ends up being made (usually a watered down non decision type of decision), a few days later another group no one has ever heard of pops up and says "no one consulted us" and we have to start the whole process again. It's enough to make you throw up your hands and wish for the days of top down authoritarianism. Even if decisions were made slowly and poorly, at least they were made.

So top down is bad. And consensus doesn't work beyond a few tens of people. So where does this leave our organisation? Is there any strategy they can use to make decisions effectively? Yes there is. There are a whole set of poorly understood and not often used decision making techniques that I will group together under the heading of collaborative non-consensus models. They rely on collaboration so they aren't top down, but at the same time, they don't rely on everyone agreeing 100% so they don't get stuck in endless discussions trying to get everyone to agree.

There are a bunch of these methods and they all work in different ways. The simplest just adds a third state to the set people can chose from - instead of just “I agree”, or “I disagree”, we add "I don't like it but I can live with it". This third state prevents the discussion becoming binary. People can register an objection without blocking the decision. It allows a bit of flexibility. It shows willingness to compromise on the part of the objector, rather than saying no (which is often seen as confrontational) and prompts discussions about how to work with that person to get a better decision.

From there, we can start to put limits on what counts as a no vote. Rather than just being able to say no for any reason - because I just don't like it, because I'm having a bad day, because it might impact my group in a minor way and I want to avoid inconvenience, or because you think your idea is better and will keep saying no to everything else until people say yes to yours - we limit the use of no to major or principled objections. Minor objections become "don't like but can live with it". A major objection would be something like a major change to schedule, large financial impact or large and unmanageable scope change. A major objection has to be justified and can be challenged by others if they feel that it’s not as major as is being made out.

Having a different solution that you think is somehow better is not a major objection. This stops people from fighting for "Their" solution - my way or no way. The focus is on coming up with a solution that moves us forwards. A major objection would be "This proposal moves us away from our goal". "This other solution will move us forwards faster" is a suggestion not a major objection. If the group agrees, that solution is adopted, if they don't, then it's not a major objection.

On the other hand, a principled objection is something that invokes the organisation's guiding principles. Someone is objecting to the proposal because it fundamentally violates those principles. It may be a bad outcome for customers. It may be unethical. Whatever your organisation's principles are (your organisation does have principles doesn't it? If not, maybe that could be a good exercise to run through), the proposal is violating one of those. A principled objection scuttles the proposal. It must be addressed right now, before we do anything else and the proposal modified to overcome it.

Of course, the temptation will be for every objector to yell "principled objection" as soon as they see something they don't like. This is where the rest of the group needs to hold principled objectors to account. Of course it's also really easy to automatically dismiss any principled objections to your pet proposal, so this works both ways. This sort of system works best in an organisation that really knows what its principles are and actually uses them to guide day to day decision making, rather than just bunging them on some posters to stick up in the kitchen. Organisations that actively use their principles are less prone to this sort of principled objection gaming because to them a principled objection is a very serious thing, not something to be pulled out to play a political game.

These systems are essentially modified consensus systems. We are adding a few tweaks to make a consensus decision easier to reach - not everyone has to 100% agree, we can handle some dissent or slightly upset folks. This does rely on a high level of trust and a deep connection with your organisation's principles. For those of you working in an organisation like that, awesome, off you go. For the rest of us, there are more more structured, non consensus systems that will work where these things are in shorter supply. The most developed of these is the advice process and we'll take a look at that next time.

Dave MartinComment