Nobody said it’s easy being a leader. For one thing, you have only so much time and so much money—and way too many project possibilities. How can you lead your group toward a friendly consensus when there are so many different ideas and priorities?

Believe it or not, one key can be found in a seemingly contradictory old saying: Make haste slowly. It takes time to make sure that group members participate as fully as they can in the decisionmaking process and are heard clearly. Investing that time can pay off big, however. You’ll see the benefits when it comes to taking the action steps to implement whatever decisions are made. That’s when your life will become a lot easier.

The general process for making decisions when there are many viewpoints to consider includes six “steps.” But these steps don’t necessarily fall in line as neatly as those in a staircase. The process may be more circular than linear. For ease, however, the steps outlined here follow a progression that many groups must go through to reach a friendly consensus.

1. Define and Analyze the Issue

Attempting to resolve an issue is useless unless you have agreement that there is indeed a problem. This part of the process is often skipped in favor of moving directly to solutions. However, those who omit a clear definition of the issue do so at their peril. People may have many ideas about the issue. It is better to hear from everyone and build a shared definition rather than to define a problem only from one person’s or committee’s point of view. In the discussion, don’t accept vague statements, such as “We are inefficient in the way we use our time.” Ask for examples of ways the group could be more efficient. Ask how people would define efficiency for your parent group.

There are several tools you can use at this stage of your decision-making. Brainstorming can generate ideas for almost any step, but it is especially useful for getting ideas out about exactly what an issue consists of and what the causes of the problem might be.

Be sure to review the rules for brainstorming (above) and choose the variation that suits your purpose. A SWOT analysis, in which brainstorming is divided into lists of “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” for your group, is often useful to help people see a problem clearly. Another simple idea is to use two sheets of flip-chart paper or opposite sides of a large whiteboard labeled “The Problem is …” and “The Problem Isn’t …”

Once the group agrees on what the problem is, you are ready to move on to solving it.

2. Align With or Create a Vision

Sometimes solving a problem becomes easier when people have a clear vision of what they want the future to look like. Visioning, the process that includes creating a mission statement and setting overall objectives for the group, is a broad topic. But a couple of key points bear mentioning here.

Whatever solution your group chooses to address such issues as a lack of volunteers or resources to accomplish your planned projects, your actions need to reflect the mission and vision for your group that you all have agreed upon. That vision can serve as an important focal point when it comes to narrowing down the solutions that may work for you. If lack of money is your problem and your mission is to make life easier for teachers, then you may choose a fundraising idea that involves less of their time and make sure they know exactly how the funds raised will help them in their classrooms.

3. Gather Needed Information

Your group may need additional information to help define a problem or generate solutions. Sometimes finding the information is as simple as looking at past records to see how much has been spent on particular projects. Other times you might want to ask a broader group for input.

A survey or phone interviews might work best, depending on what you need to know. For example, it might be helpful in planning how you can make life easier for teachers to find out what their perceptions are of what they need to make that happen. Or if your problem is narrowing the number of projects you accomplish because your members have identified that rather than feeling energized, they are exhausted from doing too much, you may want to meet with small groups of parents or teachers at each grade level to see what they think are the most important projects.

Other strategies for information gathering include holding public meetings or finding out how others have solved similar problems.

4. Generate Options

At some point you will be ready to talk about solutions. Think of as many ways to solve the problem as you can. Again, brainstorming and its many variations are always useful. Here are a couple of ways to help get people involved who may be reluctant to speak up in the large group.

  • Try dividing the group into pairs or groups of up to four people. Ask the smaller groups to generate solutions, then collect the ideas one at a time from each group. Finally, open up discussion for further ideas from the whole group.
  • Pass out Post-It notes to the group. Have people write down their ideas, one per Post-It. Ask them to write boldly. When everyone is done, post the notes on the wall. Group similar ideas together, to help people see what direction group members are thinking about the most. Then ask everybody to circulate and read the ideas.

5. Clarify, Evaluate, and Narrow Options

Now comes the hard part. So far you have avoided analysis of ideas. This is the time to think critically about the options. First, make sure that everyone is clear about exactly what is meant by each option. Discussion quickly becomes fruitless if people are not talking about the same things. Your group must now agree on what you want to accomplish as you evaluate and weed through the options. Do you need to prioritize? Do you need to compare each option to some sort of criteria? Do you want to have a “yes” or “no” to particular ideas? Your goal will determine which methods will be most appropriate.

Two favorite techniques that accomplish narrowing the list of options and prioritizing are the “Option Comparison Grid” and “Nominal Group Technique.” These methods have been described in many references on group process and meeting management. Great Meetings! How to Facilitate Like a Pro by Dee Kelsey and Pam Plumb is one highly recommended book that contains these and many other techniques and tips.

With an Options Comparison Grid the group decides which criteria they will use to judge all of the options. Those criteria can be divided into “must haves” and “important.” Kelsey and Plumb call the “important” but not absolutely necessary attributes “added value” criteria.

Let’s go back to the example of finding the fundraising idea that makes life easier for teachers. You may decide that a project “must have” is that it takes no more than one hour of any teacher’s time. Therefore, any project that would take more than that amount of time can be weeded out immediately. One “important” criterion might be that the project have the potential to raise more than $500. Another could be that the project requires no more than a $100 investment. All of the fundraising ideas would be arranged across the top of the page, and the criteria would be listed down the left side, grouped as explained. Leave a section for comments at the bottom.

Once each option is compared graphically in this way to a set of criteria, choosing an option the group can agree upon becomes more possible. Everyone can see and agree upon the criteria used for judging.

Nominal Group Technique involves each member of the group rating her choices. Let’s say there are 10 ideas for the fundraiser. Each person rates her top three (or five or all 10) ideas using one as their first choice, etc. The scores are then added, and the option with the lowest score is the top choice. Of course, the group then has to make sure that the choice really makes sense.

6. Make the Final Decision

Once the options have been narrowed and the group is clear about what each option means, it is time to come to a final decision. You may want to ask for any further discussion before the group votes or you check for consensus, or you may simply want to summarize what the process has been thus far.

Voting is the most common way for groups to formalize a decision. Many groups have rules or bylaws about how much of a majority is required for a decision to pass. Of course the larger the majority, the closer you are to a consensus, which is what you are aiming for! Another way to check how close you are to a consensus is to ask people to indicate whether they accept, cannot accept, or accept with reservations by holding out thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways. This is a good visual check-in so that everyone can see how much agreement or disagreement still exists in the group.

As you can imagine, the process can be time-consuming. In fact many people become frustrated with the amount of time involved, complaining that “all we do is talk a project to death.” But if there is a real potential for dissension or controversy in the ranks, going through the process can help your group become more cohesive. It can also make members more willing to take the actions needed to get things done rather than delay or sabotage your efforts. When people feel that ideas have been rammed through with no consideration for the thoughts of others, they often resist either overtly or subtly. That’s why “make haste slowly,” including the membership as fully as you can in key decisions, makes so much sense.

7 Rules for Brainstorming

  1. All ideas are fine; the more the better. Don’t hold back. Nothing is too far out.
  2. Hold any critique of an idea. This is all about generating ideas, not judging them.
  3. Repetition of ideas is OK; write everything down.
  4. Only clarifying questions may be asked. No ideas will be discussed yet.
  5. It’s OK to build from or piggyback on the ideas of others.
  6. Laughter and creativity are terrific.
  7. Set a time limit for the brainstorming and stick to it.