Improving Team Decision Making

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Improving Team Decision Making

Some problems have no easy or clear solutions. Addressing inequities or disparities in communities, entrenched poverty, and other wicked problems requires a different approach to making decisions.
How can groups improve team decision making to move beyond the obvious and familiar?
Before we get started, let’s set some expectations – we don’t have the answer to your tough question(s). But there are many resources to support your journey to find them. We will introduce a guide to improving team decision making that supports group moving from business-as-usual to creative and sustainable agreements.
Conversations all have a common set of “zones” ~ each one has a unique emotional feeling and a turning point that influences how decisions are made (and how successful they will be). We will walk through the four key turning points necessary to support effective decisions: suspending judgment, sticking out the discomfort, consolidating diverse approaches, and aligning the group to move forward.

Let’s start by describing the zones experienced in an ideal process for considering ideas:

The idea, issue, or challenge comes up. The team gathers. The scope of the question is defined and decisions about who and how people will be engaged.

Business as usual
Atmosphere is cordial, discussions are had, the ideas feel … familiar. Occasionally, divergent ideas may be posed, but discomfort arises, and the group hastens to make a decision.
For some decisions, this is not a problem. But for real challenging conversations, it leaves a lot on the table.
In an ideal world, lots of divergent ideas would be posed, the group would identify the best approach, and then dive into the details for making it happen. Simple as that. Has this been your experience in group decisions? Neither have we.
It is difficult to manage the discomfort that comes with considering conflicting ideas. As diverse ideas are introduced, it is easy to feel overloaded, lost, annoyed, impatient (or all at once!). It is at this point that quick decisions are made to move forward, stay on track, and avoid the discomfort.

Divergent zone
Facing tough conversations, it is easy to …

  • Diverge into tangents and lose focus on where you wanted to go
  • Hit dead ends, with no obvious solutions
  • Feel like the team is wasting time, or stuck, or both

What makes this zone challenging is whether the team is feeling chaos right before a creative breakthrough or just plain chaos.

The key for making fulfilling decisions here is to suspend judgment to explore similarities and differences. In our experiences, we have seen three common personalities ~ visionaries, historians, and road builders. Some team members get very engaged in envisioning future opportunities, others may hold to the history of the organization and what brought it to today, and others get engaged in finding the pathway from the current to the future.
A strong team will have a mix of all three. However, the differences in approach can lead to major conflict. To make the conflict positive, strong team alliances need to be set.

Emergent zone (also known as the “groan zone”)
The most challenging zone is when creative solutions emerge. This is the conflict point with the greatest amount of uncertainty. Lots of negative emotions can arise here. You may be asking, “why would I want this???” Transformational decisions require this groan zone to explore the differences and identify where mutual understanding resides. This takes patience, perseverance, and tolerance.
Just calling out and identifying the “groan zone” can help relieve tension in the team. So can highlighting that it is a zone that will end as the team moves into converging ideas.

Convergent zone
Once a sense of agreement and shared understanding is developed, the pace of discussion picks up, things start moving quickly, and progress feels like it is getting made. The keys to success in this zone are to focus on consolidating diverse ideas from the previous phases into an inclusive set of actions to carry things forward.

Closure zone
This is the decision point. Often times, the convergent zone is mixed into the closure. How will the decision be made? By whom? How will the team align around the decisions? If there isn’t a clear understand for how decisions will be made (e.g., by consensus, by vote, by an individual?), the progress of the group can easily be unmade.
Now that you can identify the zones, how can you use them? Here are five tips for integrating this understanding into your team decision-making.
1. Assemble a team that includes a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and mix of talents.
2. Develop strong team alliances to overcome uncertainty and conflict.
3. Set clear guidelines for the process, especially around decision making, scope, and timeline.
4. For every conversation or meeting, clearly identify which zone you are in and the desired outcomes.
This is especially important for team members that may feel uncomfortable or disengaged with that zone (e.g., historians may struggle in the divergent zone and while visionaries may struggle with the convergent zone)
5. Acknowledge and celebrate differences of opinion.
Without conflicting ideas, group think and standard responses will be all that develops.

Interested in learning more? Sam Kaner developed this model, and goes into depth with each phase, how to encourage positive decisions in the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.