Decision Making… Democracy Except When It Isn’t

Decision making in any team can be difficult.  There are a number of factors that can make it more arduous.  The size of the team has a direct influence.  The more voices, the longer it takes for harmony to emerge.  Geography also affects the speed of decision making.  Teams that cannot be in the same room on a regular basis are naturally isolated and coming to agreement is a challenge.  Personalities also play into it.  Too many (or too few) strong voices can can extend the decision making process.  I’m certain there are others to be mentioned but I’ll leave it at that because I want to discuss how we, as technology leaders, can facilitate this process.  The outcome I strive for is the highest quality decision possible in the shortest amount of time.  There is a cost/benefit that we must calculate as we watch the dialogue progress.  Have we taken the time to hear all sides of the discussion?  Have we heard a couple of the sides over and over and over again?  A balance must be struck.  There’s no formula to follow here – it is a gut sense that is developed over time.

I firmly believe in decision making by consensus.  The best decisions come when the entire team is given the opportunity to speak up on the topic.  This may not always lead to the quickest decision but will be the best for the team.  Granted, certain decisions, such as tactical actions in the course of a major system outage, don’t lend themselves to this approach but on whole, I find it works.

Group consensus is valuable for a number of reasons.  It gives each team member the right and the opportunity to be heard.  It also gives each member the right and the opportunity to listen to the discussion.  This is very empowering to the individual.  Those that have an opinion, can share it and be heard in a safe space by their peers.  Those that don’t have an opinion have the opportunity to listen and form one or perhaps ask questions to better understand a certain perspective.  It is important that, as leaders, we moderate this discussion.  Two individuals simply arguing is not a team discussion and should be avoided and stopped when it occurs.  People are passionate about what they believe and that is a good thing.  A team of passionate people will do great things!  But passion gets the best of us all at times and when you sense that occurring within the team, diffuse it.  It isn’t productive when two people dominate the conversation – that isn’t consensus decision making.  This is especially true in the technology space where I’ve found a certain religious-like devotion to certain opinions.  (Just try to convince me that there’s a Microsoft product that I won’t immediately loathe!)  A good indicator that this is happening is when each opinion is defined by what is disliked about the other rather than stating the benefits of the position.  I tend to use questions to focus the dialogue.  Ask, “Why do you believe xyz can help us?” or “What’s the main drawback to your suggestion?”  When you force people to critique their own ideas, the tone of a conversation quickly changes.

In addition to our convictions, technologists also tend to be very detail oriented.  As leaders, we have to avoid the proverbial rat hole.  Technology focused teams will dive down into minutiae so quickly because those details are important.  A switch on a command line or a certain check box can make a huge difference.  The key is that these things aren’t normally important to a decision that rises to a team discussion.  That may occur on occasion but for the most part team discussions will be focused on higher level items.  When you sense a rat hole, don’t immediately react.  In many cases, cutting off an individual once will make him or her reticent to speak up so it must be done with care.  Let the discussion go a bit and sense the “pulse” of the conversation.  Are only a couple people talking?  Has someone that was vocal suddenly shut down?  Do you catch folks multitasking?  These can be signs of disinterest and it’s important to pull the conversation out of the weeds.  Do it gently… “I know there is value in the discussion but I’d like to refocus on xyz, are you cool with that, Chris?”  Make sure the team knows that you’ve heard the dialogue, value it, but need to move on.  I’ve found that people generally wont belabor a point if they know the group isn’t engaged and by asking to move on, you give people permission to enter into a new line of thinking (or return to the original purpose).

Another important technique to combat rat holing is to introduce strategic goals that may influence the discussion at hand.  I recently participated in a discussion around a certain technology where the team was divided into two camps.  There wasn’t anyone willing to budge and while I could have simply dictated, I generally don’t like to do that (more on that in a bit).  Instead I raised a strategic point around a direction the team had agreed on.  I asked the team to consider the question only in that strategic light and consensus was quickly reached.  The point here is that it may not have been the correct technical solution for the particular situation at hand but it was the right decision in the long run.  Technologists tend to focus on details and particulars.  Bringing the wider context into the discussion is important.

As I alluded to earlier, unilateral decision making is an anathema to me.  I do it only when absolutely necessary and generally because of time constraints – there simply isn’t enough time to gather the thoughts of my team.  I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room.  I don’t know all the details and won’t consider all perspectives on a given topic.  To proceed an simply tee off with bold direction setting seems arrogant to me.  Ask your team to help.  That’s what they’re there for.  That said, there are times when as leaders we must make a call.  When this is necessary, it is important to explain to your team how you arrived at the decision and why they were not involved.  No one should be above explaining their decisions to the team.

To make consensus decision making work, it is important that you stress a couple rules to the team around this process.  The discussions should be kept respectful at all times.  Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you can belittle them.  This may seem like common sense but if you’re a third party in a heated conversation, pause to listen to the tone.  Are people debating ideas or being combative?  As I mentioned before, it’s important to end an unproductive conversation.  Finally, consensus is consensus and the team should agree to follow the direction decided.  Even if an individual disagreed with it, s/he should fall in line once the team agrees.  Continuing to raise the disagreement after the fact is counter-productive and can frustrate a team.  Reiterating these “rules” to your team on a frequent basis keeps them front of mind and the instances where people become overly passionate tend to decline.  Mutual respect and trust develops.  I respect that you will hear and honestly consider my opinion and you trust that I will hear any critique and honestly consider it.  That is a great place to be!

I believe that involving the team in decisions, large and small, is critical to a high performing team.  People who know they have a voice will participate in the process and feel empowered.  This is a great thing in my opinion.  You must learn to balance the time a discussion takes vs the quality of the decision reached.  Goldilocks applies here – aim for “just right”.  Experience is the best teacher.

-Chris

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