Leadership Limerick: The Danger of "What do you think?"

Every Monday, I offer a leadership limerick, highlighting an idea or strategy about effective leadership in limerick form. Searching for leadership limerick will identify previous posts.

While “What do you think? is often inquired
In conflict or debate it can leave people mired

Without shared criteria for each to apply
It's just others’ thoughts being shared on the fly

Unable to decide a group merely grows tired

"So what do you think?" seems like such an innocent question.  Someone makes a proposal.  A new idea emerges in conversation.  A description of a current situation is shared.  Naturally, we want to know what others think or feel.

Gathering people's perspectives is helpful as it lets us know the mix of opinions among a group.  But reaching a decision from a mix of opinions can be difficult without some shared criteria to be applied.  Absent that, individuals may merely advocate their opinion and their perspective which may or may not be based on the same set of criteria that others are using.

Debate ensues.  Conflict emerges.  Tempers flare.  An impasse is reached.  And quickly simply asking others What do you think? leaves you asking yourself What was I thinking?

If we're trying to decide whether or not to invest in a new idea and I'm basing my decision on the perceived risk, you're focusing on the potential return on investment, and others are most concerned about how doable the idea is, we're really not having the same conversation.

To get the best decision-making from a group of people with different perspectives, first determine the key criteria on which to base the decision and the relative weight of each individual factor.  Then let individuals share their thinking, making sure to tie their perspectives to the criteria just established.  This should produce more "parallel processing", wither everyone applying the same decision-making criteria.  You could even let people do individual numerical ratings and then compute the average rating for each factor. 

Do you need to step back before every single decision and create a list of rating factors to apply?  Probably not.  But the more significant the decision, the more helpful it will be to possess a simple set of shared criteria and a common understanding of what the right decision means.

A great book and one of my favorite facilitation resources is the Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making."  And if you're interested gaining hands-on practical experience facilitating group decision-making and other efforts, it's your last chance to register for the July 19 full-day Art of Facilitation program I am presenting for ASAE in Washington, DC.  This program's content can also be customized for half-day or full-day facilitation skills development sessions for your staff or volunteers. Contact me to learn more.


David M. Patt, CAE said...

What if people can't agree on the criteria?

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Well David that's probably the place to start the conversation then. If a group struggles with reaching some level of agreement about the criteria for a decision, they most definitely would not have much chance making the actual decision.

If I was facilitating a group in this situation, one option I would pursue would be to simply state what is happening. "It appears that the group is unable to reach a consensus on the criteria to use for making a decision. So what is it that you think we need to do next?"

Other possible questions: What can everyone agree to right now? What would be required for a clear direction about the right decision-making criteria to emerge? Are there lessons learned from past decisions you've made that might help us move froward with the situation at hand?