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How you lead the decisionmaking process can mean the difference between a harmonious outcome or an acrimonious fight.

by Darylen Cote


Nobody said it’s easy being a leader. For one thing, you have only so much time and 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, but investing that time can pay off big. 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.

There are six steps for making decisions when there are many viewpoints to consider. These steps don’t necessarily happen in this order, and the process can get messy. But generally, the steps outlined here follow a progression that many groups must go through to reach a friendly consensus.

1. Define and analyze the issue

To resolve an issue, the group first needs to agree on what the problem is. Too often, groups skip this and move directly to finding solutions, but that’s problematic because people might have many different ideas about the same issue.

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It’s better to hear from everyone and build a shared definition rather than 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 and how people would define efficiency for the group.

Several tools can help you at this stage of your decisionmaking. Brainstorming can generate ideas for almost any step, but it’s especially useful for getting ideas out about exactly what the issue is and what the causes might be.

Review the rules for brainstorming (see “7 Rules for Brainstorming” below) and choose the variation that suits your purpose. A SWOT analysis, where you divide strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats into lists for your group, often helps 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’re 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 there are a couple of key points.

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

3. Gather needed information

Your group might 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 interviews might work best, depending on what you need to know. For example, if your group is planning a fundraiser that makes life easier for teachers, ask what they want and need to make that happen. If your problem is narrowing the number of projects you accomplish because your members say they’re exhausted from doing too much, try meeting 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 and talking to others to learn how they’ve solved similar problems.

4. Generate options

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

  • Divide 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 sticky notes to the group. Have people write down their ideas, one per sticky note. 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’ve avoided analyzing ideas, but it’s time to think critically about the options.

First, make sure everyone is clear about exactly what each option means and that you’re all 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 vote yes or no to particular ideas? Your goal will determine which methods you use.

Two techniques that have been used successfully for decades and can help you narrow the list of options and prioritize are the “option comparison grid” and “nominal group technique.” A quick Internet search of each term or "types of brainstorming techniques" will pull up these and other tools you can use with your group. Let’s go back to the example of finding the fundraising idea that makes life easier for teachers.

With an option comparison grid, the group decides which criteria they’ll use to judge all of the options. Those criteria can be divided into “must have” and “important.” Important but not absolutely necessary options go in the “added value” bucket.

You might decide that your project’s “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 must have the potential to raise more than $500. Another could be that the project requires no more than a $100 investment.

To build the grid, arrange all of the fundraising ideas across the top of the page and list the criteria down the left side. Leave a section for comments at the bottom. Once everyone agrees on what criteria to use for judging, it’s easier to compare the options graphically and make a choice.

The nominal group technique involves each group member rating their choices. Let’s say there are 10 ideas for the fundraiser. Each person rates their top three (or five, or all 10) ideas using one as the first choice and the largest number as the last choice. Everyone’s scores for each option are then added together, and the option with the lowest total score is the top choice. Of course, the group then has to make sure the choice really makes sense.

6. Make the final decision

Once you’ve narrowed the options and the group is clear about what each option means, it’s time to come to a decision. You might want to ask for any further comments before the group votes or checks for consensus, or you might simply want to summarize what the process has been so 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’re aiming for!

Another way to check how close you are to a consensus is to ask people to indicate whether they accept, accept with reservations, or cannot accept by holding out thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down. 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. Many people become frustrated with the amount of time involved. But if there’s potential for dissent or controversy, going through this six-step 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 pushed through with no consideration for the thoughts of others, they often resist either overtly or subtly. That’s why “make haste slowly” and including the members 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. Don’t critique any 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 encouraged but stay on topic.

  7. Set a time limit for the brainstorming and stick to it.

Originally posted in 2005 and updated regularly.

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