Facilitation Friday #29: Six Questions for Decision-Making

Participative decision-making forms like quality circles have become mainstays in many organizations.  The underlying belief of these forms is that having a broader range of viewpoints on a problem or issue increases the likelihood that a comprehensive and appropriate decision will be made.  Sometimes this belief relates most to the quality of the decision itself; sometimes it relates most to actual decision implementation and the old adage that people support what they help to create. Or as author Patrick Lencioni has said, "Weighing in is a prerequisite for buying in."

Managing participative decision-making, particularly with diverse individuals who may come from various departments or functional areas, requires strong group process and facilitation skills.  Tools like decision-making grids or Edward deBono's Six Thinking Hats can help ensure thorough consideration of alternatives an evaluation of the selected options using common criteria.  Regardless of the tools used or process selected, some of the core questions facilitators must help groups answer include:

1. Has the actual problem or issue been identified, or are we currently talking about its symptoms or a subset of the complete issue?

Groups often gather together and spend significant energies in debate without having first collectively clarified and commitment to what the real problem is that needs to be addressed.  Drawing on the discipline of system thinking, effective facilitation helps participants move beyond discussing things at the event level, digging deeper to explore the patterns, processes, structures, and mental models influencing what is occurring.

2. Has the decision been appropriately framed?

The language used to frame the potential decision is a critical factor.  Just as a frame effects how you view a picture of work of art, so does the “frame” we use affect the way we view our options or choices.  Think of how politicians frame the choices available to us to sway our position or support.  Facilitative leadership helps surface the underlying beliefs and the potential limits of the frames being used and help individuals explore alternative ways of framing the issue so that groupthink can be avoided.

3. What are the desired results and what are the relevant considerations linked to achieving those results?

Even when the problem has been adequately defined, groups often do not spend time reaching a shared understanding of what results need to be achieved.  Absent this collective definition of success and individuals (and individual department areas) participate in the discussions trying to affect a decision that supports what they believe success to look like.  When definitions of success compete, thoughtful deliberations of the issue at-hand often degenerate into protecting self-interests.

4. What knowledge or expertise could help us make the best decision, who has that knowledge (both inside and outside the group involved in the discussions and the organization itself), and how can we access their potential contributions?

Good leaders are good stewards of the resources available to a group, but they also recognize that no one group can always have the information or resources it needs to do its work.  Seeing the boundaries of a group’s composition as permeable helps look to other potential sources of knowledge and insight.  Facilitators should help groups explore the necessary and available resources for a good decision.

5. Have we thoughtfully considered the impact of this decision on other people (areas) and included appropriate parties in the decision-making process?

Many a “good” decision has not been realized because those most charged with the responsibility of implementing the decision or those most affected by the decision itself subtly work to undermine it once it is “announced” by any decision-making body.  This does not suggest that every person needs to be involved in every decision.  That obviously would be neither practical nor effective. The corollary, however, is equally true: failure to consult the appropriate parties places a decision’s long-term effectiveness is in jeopardy. 

This question prompts the due diligence evaluation of the group’s scope of decision-making.  It also forces consideration of the level of support that is needed for the decision’s implementation.  While consensus is often the default level of commitment sought for a decision, at its heart it reflects an “I can live with that” level of support.  That will not be adequate for major strategic decisions.  When a more active commitment will be needed, groups tend to expand who has input into the decision-making process and/or spend more time thinking about how the decision will be announced and the process and timetable for its implementation.

6. What is happening in terms of group process and how can the group’s members work together more effectively to make a better decision?

Facilitators and consultants often attend to the process aspects of a group more than its participants might.  They understand that the quality of the decision often is tied to the quality of the discussion.  As a result, they tend to step back and try to objectively examine what is actually happening as participants interact with each other, what’s being said and what’s not being said, who’s thinking or contributions are not being heard or leveraged, and what interventions might support the group’s efforts.

What other questions do you believe facilitation must help groups answer in order to make the best decisions?

Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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