For Better Decisions, Use Decision-Making Rules
Approximate reading time: five minutes; 983 words.
Great discussions don’t always produce great decisions. Effective facilitation often helps groups use decision-making rules to avoid that from occurring.
What are decision-making rules?
Think of them as ground rules or shared agreements for how decisions get made. Decision-making rules help:
ensure policy and performance drive decision-making instead of organizational politics or some individuals’ personal or positional power;
provide structure to what could be a more chaotic process, increasing the efficiency of the decision-making process; and
guard against groupthink, implicit bias, or unconscious bias.
Four Common Decision-Making Rules
1. Limits or Constraints
“Set limits to force choices.” That’s the sound advice of author Leo Babauta of Zen Habits in his book, The Power of Less. Doing so eliminates many options that might otherwise compete for attention, either in the discussion or decision phase of a meeting.
Limits or constraints in decision-making often take the form of criteria that any option must possess to merit further consideration:
Any new program must have a value proposition or defining element that clearly distinguishes the offering from those of our most important competitors.
Candidates for job openings must meet minimum requirements for education or certification, years of experience, languages spoken, or proficiency with certain software or applications.
Any new program or service must generate a profit or be revenue neutral.
It is easy to imagine how discussions and decisions could go awry in any of these examples if the constraints were absent and individual influence, particularly from those with positional power or rhetorical savvy, instead drove decision-making.
Facilitation should help a group determine in advance the appropriate constraints or limits for whatever decisions they need to make.
Another option is the If (_____) Then (_____) approach: if (these specified conditions are met), then (these actions automatically occur).
Here’s a practical example:
If customer or member feedback (for a product, service, et al) falls below a pre-established threshold then an automatic review occurs. One can imagine how this might help avoid concerns from staff or volunteer leaders for whom a lagging initiative is a personal favorite or pet project.
Similar in spirit is ASAE’s go/no go (green light/red light) approach as described in Focus on What Matters by Mariah Burton Nelson, CAE). It uses pre-established criteria to answer a question that often is politically charged: Shall we launch (or continue) this product?
My variation expands a bit on the stoplight metaphor of ASAE’s approach:
Red light: a program is automatically sunset when it meets specified criteria.
Yellow light: a program (or proposed program) is labeled probationary until performance in key areas is improved
Green light: a new initiative is automatically greenlighted whenever specified criteria are met.
3. Management Matrix
A matrix can help groups efficiently manage the options under consideration using pre-established criteria for evaluation.
A commonly used matrix is the 2x2 matrix assessing desirability and doability. Individuals place each option under consideration in the quadrant that reflects their assessment of it:
low desirability/low doability (should probably skip)
low desirability/high doability (potential low hanging fruit)
high desirability/low doability (plan how to increase doability)
high desirability/high desirability (prioritize for near-term action)
Facilitated discussion follows to help groups explore individuals’ assessments and to develop consensus around a queue/plan of action.
A Value or Impact Matrix, another favorite, is a bit more complex. This approach uses a standard matrix to assess the (potential) value or impact of each (proposed) program for specific audiences or stakeholder groups.
Rows: List all key member segments or stakeholder groups.
Columns: List all (proposed) programs or services to evaluate.
Participants then use a simple scale (low, medium, high; 1-5 with 5 being high; et al) to assess how well each (proposed) program (potentially) delivers value or impact to each stakeholder group.
Anonymously collecting individual rankings in advance allows you to aggregate them and distribute a summary as part of pre-work for a decision-making meeting. Facilitated discussion can then explore the summary rankings and help group members determine their recommendations or decisions.
I initially focus on these two discussion areas:
The overall value each (proposed) program or service delivers to the mix of stakeholders.
The overall value each stakeholder group receives from the mix of (proposed) programs.
4. Enabling Questions
For a variety of reasons, a group may have difficulty making a decision. Effective facilitation can leverage the language of enabling questions to help interrupt potential inaction.
One of my favorites comes from Roger Martin, organizational development author and former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto: “What would have to be true for us to say yes with little or no reservation?”
Facilitating discussion around this well-phrased prompt almost always produces a short list of criteria which groups can then use to evaluate the various options under consideration.
Another variation of this approach comes from the “white hat” thinking of Edward de Bono is his Six Thinking Hats model: what information do we have or need that could help inform a decision? This question helps groups remain productive in moving toward a decision by identifying the info they need in order to do so.
As Valerie Galinskaya from Merrill Lynch notes, “Deciding how to decide is really important.”
Groups that don’t—particularly for complex or difficult decisions—can have high quality discussions but might still struggle to make an equitable and desirable choice.
By providing some structure to decision-making through use of decision-making rules or other tools, facilitators help make it easier for high quality decisions to be made more efficiently.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.
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