Category: Decision making

How to make decisions when your team can’t agree?

It is not uncommon that teams disagree. In this article I’m not going to talk about how to avoid these situations, instead, I’ll focus on how to proceed once a discussion has reached a deadlock.

Focus on decisions, not on discussions

Discussions can go on and on until a person gives up. This is not what you generally want to happen. You should rather turn the never-ending discussion into a decision to be made, with a number of options to choose from.

Understand where they stand

Ask your team members to add arguments for the different options. But also ask them how important the arguments are. Collective decision making is about gathering opinions and views.

Suggest a decision

It needs to boil down to a decision. So go ahead and suggest one. Then go back to your team and tell them what you suggest, and the rationale for it. You will be amazed how easily your team will accept your decision. And for a single and simple reason. You have listened to them! Their opinions are taken into account, even though the outcome is not exactly what they hoped for.

What if it backfires?

Of course, there is a chance for failure. Someone really doesn’t like your decision. Then ask that person, is it something I have missed or do we value a certain argument differently? Once you have identified the difference in reasoning, make it explicit. e.g. “I think I value smaller and faster releases very high, while you see a value in major releases for PR purposes.” And then go ahead with your decision.

Remember, collective decision making is about gathering opinions and views and not about unanimous decisions. The final say can still be up to a single child. A consensus is not needed!

Opinions are a wasted company resource!

We all have opinions. And when our opinions are not taken into account we felt not only personally ignored, but also that the company is missing out. But from the employers perspective, what is really an opinion. And when does it make sense to take it into account?

Taking an opinion into account has two potential benefits, insight and involvement. The benefit of the insight varies from basically zero to potentially very large, depending on what decision is being made, and how relevant the insight is. The involvement benefit of taking the opinion into account varies a bit less and depends mostly on how strong the opinion is, and to be frank, also on who holds the opinion. Not taking an opinion strongly held by a key team member into account can have quite a negative impact, and then the benefit of taking it into account is significant.

But taking an opinion into account also has a cost, mainly in the form of time and focus. To take an opinion into account, three things have to happen: it has to be captured, incorporated, and replayed. Capturing of opinions happen either from noting what someone states without being prompted, but often times it requires asking. Incorporating the opinion means thinking through, in a structured way, how it affects the decision being made. Once an opinion is incorporated, it can be replayed to the person who gave it. Replaying an opinion isn’t strictly necessary to take it into account, but without some kind of replay, most of the benefit from involvement goes to waste.

As you can see from this reasoning, taking opinions into account can really be seen as a cost/benefit calculation. So, if it is cumbersome enough to capture and incorporate opinions, it actually makes sense for a company to disregard many opinions. And that pretty much explains why most companies do.

But that then begs the question:

What if it was possible to reduce the cost of taking opinions into account?

That is precisely what we have been working on at Delibr. Our tool allows you to capture opinions in a structured format. It shows what people think, and based on what rationale, and makes it easy to get an overview of the discussion. Our mission is to reduce the friction that comes as more people are involved in making a decision.

As we have seen, if the cost of taking opinions into account were much lower, many more opinions would be taken into account, and that would give companies both better insights and more involvement.

Everybody is a hat-person, but few tools are

The six thinking hats is an excellent framework by Edward de Bono for having discussions that are more structured and balanced.

The idea is that all thoughts and statements can be put in one of six categories. As a pedagogical device, the categories are represented by six hats.

Blue hat – The Big Picture – Thinking about thinking, where are we on the agenda, what questions should we discuss?

White hat – Facts & Information – Identifying and presenting information that is needed, what do we need to know to have an informed discussion?

Green hat – Alternatives and creativity – Coming up with ideas for answers to the questions posed, what if we do it like this?

Black hat – Critical Judgement – Highlighting problems and risks, coming up with cons for different options

Yellow hat – Positive Judgement – Emphasizing upsides and benefits, the good things, coming up with pros for different options

Red hat – Feelings & Intuition – Gut instinct on what to do, either in the early phase of the discussion or later on taking pros and cons into account, what option do you think is the best?

Most discussions benefit from having a facilitator that adds direction regarding what hat the participants should put on.

  • If one option seems too good to be true, the facilitator can say “let’s put on the black hat, what are the problems or risks with this option?”
  • If it seems the team is stuck with two bad options, the facilitator can say “let’s put on the green hat, are there any other options here?”
  • If it is not clear what it is the team are discussing, the facilitator can say “let’s put on the blue hat, what is the question we are trying to answer here?”
  • And so on…

Adding structure, balance, and direction to a discussion can be incredibly powerful, and allow the team to make better decisions, in less time, while still having a high degree of involvement.

But this is a hard thing to do, especially as soon as the group grows beyond 2-3 people. Even for an experienced facilitator, it can be hard, e.g., to tune into whether someone in the group is sitting on a killer pro/con argument or an alternative solution that for some reason is not coming into light.

The mission of Delibr is

to reduce the friction that comes as more people are involved in making a decision

We have explicitly designed the entire tool with the six thinking hats in mind to support this kind of facilitation and make it easier and more effective. All the concepts of the app map directly to the six thinking hats, as per below

  • Questions – Blue hat
  • Comments – White hat
  • Options – Green hat
  • Pros – Yellow hat
  • Cons – Black hat
  • Ratings – Red hat

Because of this, participants are naturally encouraged to engage with all hats, which makes the facilitator role easier. Especially for a team that has used Delibr a couple of times, this can be incredibly effective.