Does Group Decision-Making Have to Be So Hard?

Jul 11, 2022 4 Min Read
group decision-making

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How “Exit Strategies” Get Better Results for Everyone When Decision-Making

When armed forces enter a tricky situation, they always have an exit strategy. That is, they have a plan to get in, and a plan to get out. They also have a plan for who will do what, and who is empowered to make in-the-moment decisions on the ground.

This wise protocol has been tested in the heart of battle, and it has much to teach those of us civilians who enter complex decision-making processes together. Too often teams get stuck in the trenches without a clear plan to figure out how to get out (i.e., to make the best decision possible and move on).

The Reality of Competing Motives

Why are decisions so hard to make in groups? While each situation has its unique challenges, constraints, and complexities, those are not the cause of the difficulty. In my experience with hundreds of team members and leaders, group decisions are difficult because competing motives collide.
A cohesive work team typically has motivations that include getting great work done, optimising the team’s time, and being efficient and decisive.

But additional goals might include making everyone feel included, being open-minded, fostering camaraderie, elevating less bold team members, giving every idea a chance and, finally, being nice to each other.

This second set of thoughtful intentions are well-meaning and desirable, but they can lead to hyper-collaboration, a type of quicksand that can pull people into hours and hours of wasted time—not to mention hard feelings—regardless of how a matter is finally resolved.

The Exit Strategy Model for Decision-Making

There is certainly some deep work to do to make decisions flow more easily in meetings, but one technique—the use of exit strategies—gives you a quick start toward moving faster and smarter. In this helpful and simple model, you have three choices—and only three—when you need to make a group decision. You choose just one of the following three to help you and your troops make every operation more effective:

Option #1: Leader Calls It

After a prescribed amount of discussion time, the most senior person in the room will make the choice.

Option #2: Assign a Chooser

A member of the group is preselected based on the member’s knowledge base or unique experience with the topic, or because the member is the closest to the work and its impact. Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks and author of It’s Not About the Coffee, calls one version of this concept, “Letting the person who sweeps the floor choose the broom.” After a prescribed amount of discussion time, that person will make the choice.

Option #3: Guaranteed Vote

After a prescribed amount of discussion time, a vote is taken that all agree to abide by. A tie can be broken by fifteen minutes of dialogue and then a single revote.

Guidelines for Practicing Exit Strategies

Although choosing an exit strategy sets up a clear plan for “getting in and getting out” with a decision, it doesn’t mean the process is rushed, top-down, or superficial. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

Get Buy-In Early: Do not utter the first sentence of a rich decision-making process before deciding which of the three exit strategies you will be using and making sure everyone is aware of the choice. It’s also helpful to explain your rationale to ease participants into the plan.

Allocate Enough Time: With a prescribed period of time, you are going to be spared the endless whirlpool of hyper-collaboration, but choose that amount of time carefully. Make sure you have allotted enough for a thorough discussion.

Pause the Devices: Digital multitasking can lower your team’s ability to execute by 17 percent. During the section of the meeting when the decision is being made, tighten the limits on digital play.

Tune Up Your Antennae: You will know if this is working only by sensing the unspoken communication of your team. Pay attention to body language and eye contact with cameras on if you are on a video call. Look and listen for dissatisfaction.

Be Tough with Tangents: If people go off track, reel them back in firmly. Do this as many times as necessary to protect the goal of the discussion.

Circle Back to the Quiet Ones: In the last moments of debate before making a decision, create space for less verbal members of the team to chime in. Give them a loving push into the spotlight for the good of all.

More on Speak-up Culture: How to Encourage More (and Better) Ideas

Table with a Deadline: After your prescribed amount of discussion time, if a decision feels truly premature, you can pull out this option. Have the group convene again—no sooner than one week later—and attempt to make a choice using one of the three exit strategies.

Take this framework and go into your next decision armed and ready. Your team will thank you for the clarity, and your calendar will appreciate the time you regain. Let me know how it goes. Good luck!

This article was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn.

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.

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