Heads or Tails?

Heads or Tails?

Team decisions made easy

By Dina D'Avirro Varacalli

You’re hanging out with a group of buddies and facing one of the most important decisions of the day: where to go grab dinner? The 5 of you all have different cravings, so how do you decide, making sure everyone is happy and not hungry? If you were alone you’d already be chowing down on that slice of pizza, but you’re not alone and your low-carb buddy would end up being hungry. Luckily the 5 of you have been down this road before, you each make suggestions, keeping in mind dietary restrictions, then you all discuss where to go. Before you know it, you’re at your favorite Italian place, the table laden with pizza, chicken cacciatore even spaghetti with meatballs. Making this decision collaboratively did take extra time, but you all shared your unique ideas, so the final decision was a good and satisfying one for all.

Good teams know how to make good decisions together. Decisions made as a team can be better decisions and can make difficult decisions easier. Diverse teams make better decisions since unique perspectives are brought to the table and information is analyzed more comprehensively. The burden of making difficult decisions can be spread amongst a team, so that in the end deciding is easier. Making decisions in a team can be more time-consuming, especially if you don’t have a system in place. Responsibility and accountability for team decisions can be diluted, especially if a fully collaborative process is used. Getting to that good decision that is the tricky part.

Decisions can come about in many ways. With any group, there are as many ways of deciding something, as there are people in the group. Decision making processes can range from purely top-down to completely collaborative. In general, there are a few schemes for decision-making, each with a myriad of variations.

A top-down scheme allows for one person, usually the team lead, to decide on behalf of the entire group. The team lead could decide with or without consulting other team members. This scheme might save time, but it runs the risk of ignoring some members which can eventually impact the team negatively. This scheme is best reserved for the less consequential decisions. Once you’re on your way to Italian, let the driver (or GPS) decide whether to go north then east or east then north – 4 back seat drivers don’t help.

An averaging scheme allows everyone to make independent decisions then those are averaged to come to a group decision. This scheme will eliminate extreme opinions, but runs the risk of no one getting what they want. This scheme is best used when decisions are quantifiable, like how much to spend on dinner.

A plurality scheme has team members making their own decision which they then vote for. The team goes with the majority/supermajority or other method. This is the most consistent scheme and is the easiest to implement, but it can be more easily biased with internal team politics or pressure. When 4 out of 5 want Italian, that’s probably a good choice for the group.

Unanimity is a consensus scheme whereby the situation is discussed and a decision is taken only when there is unanimous agreement among team members. This scheme ensures the involvement of all team members and consequently commitment to the final decision, but, it can result in a hung jury.

The random scheme is just that, random. There’s a reason why some people have their dice bag with them all the time. Dinner becomes just a 1d8 roll away.

How to decide, how to decide? Not all teams or decisions are the same. Good decision-making balances many factors and uses different schemes. After all, choosing which picture to use on a slide in a presentation can be done by a die roll or by the person whose hand is on the mouse. Arranging a good meeting time can be done by consensus in a Doodle. Team staffing choices may be left to the team lead (with or without consulting other team members).

Victor Vroom, a business school professor and author, developed the Normative Model for team decision-making where he advocates using different processes for different decisions. Specifically, Vroom says to consider several situational factors to determine which scheme will be most effective. He explains the situational factors to consider as: the significance of the decision, the importance of commitment to the final decision, and the knowledge base of the decision makers.

Consider the situation. By considering situational factors, as Vroom advocates, an appropriate decision-making scheme can be found. Being thoughtful of which decision-making scheme to use helps to get the team onboard, and can alleviate frustration during the process. By choosing the right scheme, you can optimize the for the pros of certain schemes and avoid cons of inappropriate schemes to any given situation. Involve the whole team when deciding how to make decisions, which gets everyone on the same page.

Consider the team. Decision making can be an important part of your team’s culture. Everyone probably has an opinion as to “the right way” to make decisions. Discussing decision-making schemes to be used in the future with the group can expose innate biases and challenge preconceived notions. “The right way” may be right at one time or for one person but not at another time or for the whole team. Explicitly discussing your team’s process will foster collaboration and grow your team’s culture.

Consider the knowledge base. A specialized knowledge base can impact opinions significantly and an appropriate scheme should be chosen to benefit from this diversity. We know that collaborative, diverse teams make better decisions and that’s because they can use their specialized knowledge to analyze decisions more carefully. In other words, if you are deciding on new accessibility features, listen carefully to your UX designer, don’t assume the team lead’s suggestions should be followed blindly just because they are the team lead. Sometimes choosing a decision-making scheme where the decision lies with the person or people with the knowledge, is the best way to go.

After a long day of team meetings, planning and decisions you deserve a satisfying dinner with your buddies. So be prepared to vote on which restaurant to go to, have the driver decide the best route there, roll a die to choose which pizza you’re ordering, then average out how much the group should leave as a tip. Now remember all that, and do it all again tomorrow at work.