The Six Decision-Making Processes

“The roads we take are more important than the goals we announce. Decisions determine destiny.”
–Frederick Speakman

“Dots?” he asked. “What are these for?”

I replied, “These are the tools for the decision-making process for today, called ‘multi-voting.’ We are going to sift rapidly through a large list of names and rank our top 3 to forward to management.”

And thus the team was introduced to another form of decision making.

I’ve experienced a number of decision-making techniques during my career at NASA. Also, I have observed individual leaders selecting a decision-making process and using it for everything.  I even tried that at one point as a form of emulation of the leaders around me.  Once, after taking a NASA class called, “The Human Element” a few years ago, I embraced a decision-making process called concordance, which in its simplest form is consensus with the feelings of the participants taken into account.  When I returned from the class, I shared my experience with the team I was leading at the time and announced, “from now on, all of our decisions will be made by concordance.”

They looked at me and stared blankly.

This turned out to be a miserable failure, not just from a lousy introduction, but also from subsequent poor implementation. What I didn’t realize at the time but came to realize later is that I abdicated my role as leader – that is, to serve as a guide towards the best decisions possible. This guiding role requires that the leader chooses different decision-making processes tailored to the constraints and needs of the time. With further learning and experience, I feel much better equipped to select and apply the best decision-making process for any situation the team may face.  Here are the types of decision-making processes I use, along with strengths and weaknesses of each.

#1: Spontaneous Agreement

This form of decision making happens occasionally when there’s a solution that is favored by everyone and 100 percent agreement seems to happen automatically.  These types of decisions are usually made quickly and automatically by the team.  However, they are fairly rare, and occur in connection only with the more trivial or simple issues.  (And yes, this is a real decision-making process.)

  • Strength: it’s fast, easy, and everyone is happy; it unites the group
  • Weakness: may be too fast; perhaps the issue actually needs discussion

I use this decision-making process when lack of discussion isn’t vital (i.e., issues are trivial); or when issues are not complex, requiring no in-depth discussion.  For instance, we use it daily when we decide as a team where we want to go to lunch!

#2: One Person Decides

This is a decision that the team decides to refer to one person to make on behalf of the team.  A common misconception among teams is that every decision needs to be made by the whole team.  In fact, a one-person decision is often a faster and more efficient way to get resolution.  The quality of any one person’s decision can be raised considerably if the person making the decision gets advice and input from other team members before deciding.

  • Strength: it’s fast and accountability is clear; can result in commitment and buy-in if people feel their ideas are represented
  • Weakness: it can divide the team if the person deciding doesn’t consult, or makes a decision that others can’t live with; a one-person decision typically lacks in both the buy-in and synergy that come from a team decision-making process

I use this form when the issue is unimportant or small. I also use it when there’s a clear expert on the team, or when only one person has the information needed to make the decision and can’t share it.  Finally, I use it when one person is solely accountable for the outcome.

#3: Compromise (or Negotiation)

A negotiated approach is applicable when there are two or more distinct options and members are strongly polarized (neither side is willing to accept the solution or position put forth by the other side).  A middle position is then created that incorporates ideas from both sides.  Throughout the process of negotiation, everyone wins a few favorite points, but also loses a few items she or he liked.  The outcome is, therefore, something that no one is totally satisfied with.  In compromises, no one feels she or he got what she or he originally wanted, so the emotional reaction is often “It’s not really what I wanted, but I’m going to have to live with it.”

  • Strength: it generates lots of discussion and does create a solution
  • Weakness: negotiating when people are pushing a favored point of view tends to be adversarial, hence this approach divides the team; in the end, everyone wins, but everyone loses, too

This form is best used when two opposing solutions are proposed, neither of which are acceptable to everyone; or when the team is strongly polarized and compromise is the only alternative.

#4: Multi-Voting

This is a priority-setting tool that is useful for making decisions when he team has a lengthy set of options and rank-ordering the options, based on a set of criteria, will clarify the best course of action.

  • Strength: it’s systematic, objective, democratic, non-competitive and participative; everyone wins somewhat, and feelings of loss are minimal; it’s a fast way of sorting out a complex set of options; it often feels consensual
  • Weakness: it’s often associated with limited discussion, and hence limited understanding of the options; this may force choices on people that may not be satisfactory to them, because real priorities do not rise to the surface or people are swayed by each other if the voting is done out in the open, rather than electronically or by ballot

As I mentioned earlier, I use this form when there’s a long list of alternatives or items from which to choose to identify the best course of action, such as when we faced a huge list of names and wanted to rank our top 3 to forward to management for final decision.  In this case we don’t have the final say (management does), and therefore I felt that consensus around a single recommendation was overkill.  We did not need to invest the time, energy, and emotion into a consensus-based process, only to have our recommendation overruled by management.  Therefore, multi-vote was quite appropriate in this situation.

#5: Majority Voting

This involves asking people to choose the option they favor, once clear choices have been identified.  Usual methods are a show of hands or secret ballot.  The quality of voting is always enhanced if there’s good discussion to share ideas before the vote is taken.

  • Strength: it’s fast and decisions can be of higher quality if the vote is preceded by a thorough analysis
  • Weakness: it can be too fast and low in quality if people vote based on their personal feelings without the benefit of hearing each other’s thoughts or facts; it creates winners and losers, hence dividing the team; the show of hands method may put pressure on people to conform

The ideal situation is to use this form when there are two distinct options and one or the other must be chosen.  Alternatively, this form can be used when decisions must be made quickly, and a division in the team is acceptable. Finally, it is one of the options of last resort if consensus has been attempted and can’t be reached.

#6: Consensus Building

Consensus building involves everyone clearly understanding the situation or problem to be decided, analyzing all of the relevant facts together, and then jointly developing solutions that represent the whole team’s best thinking about the optimal decision.  It’s characterized by a lot of listening, healthy conversation and testing of options.  Consensus generates a decision about which everyone says, “I can live with it.”

  • Strength: it’s a collaborative effort that unites the team; it demands high involvement; it’s systematic, objective, and fact-driven; it builds buy-in and high commitment to the outcome
  • Weakness: it’s time-consuming and produces low-quality decisions if done without proper data collection or if members have poor interpersonal skills

I use this form when the decisions to be made will impact the entire team and when buy-in and ideas from all members are essential.  I also use it when the importance of the decision being made is worth the time it will take to complete the consensus process properly.

For the situations the team and I are encountering in our work, we are using consensus building quite frequently – but not exclusively.  I made this point when a member of the team said that he thinks NASA uses consensus too often, and by inference that we would too.  (He is a leader and tends to use One Person Decides a lot in his situations.)  Once I pointed out the types of decision-making processes I intend on using and when, he tentatively accepted my approach.  That’s fair.  As I said earlier, the key role of leadership is to guide the team towards the best decision making processes suited to the conditions, and that responsibility is mine.

What other decision-making processes do you use, and when?

The Six Decision-Making Processes

Team Strengths

“The strength of the team is each individual member…the strength of each member is the team.”
–Phil Jackson

As we sat around the table working a challenging topic today, one of the team members said, “We need to decide so that we can move forward and tackle the next item on our list.” Another said, “Hey, I can do this and this with what we have so far” and yet another said, “We need to know more to decide on this…I can get what we need from so-and-so”.

Each of these team members was speaking from a position of his/her strength relative to the generation or application of knowledge.

I showed a preference model of team strengths to the team members yesterday and asked each to pick his/her top 3 strengths from the list.  Here is the inventory of strengths we selected for ourselves, along with a definition of each. (The number in parentheses indicates the number of people who selected that strength – there are 18 selections total, 3 per person.)  These strengths comes in two forms – strengths that “stir up” the team in a good way, and those that “mobilize” the team.

“Stir Up” Strengths

  • Experimenters (1) – those who keep trying different things to see what works
  • Originators (0) – those who keep creating and innovating
  • Questioners (1) – those who keep asking probing questions
  • Transformers (3) – those who develop existing knowledge
  • Seekers (1) – those who keep hunting for and gathering new knowledge

“Mobilize” Strengths

  • Accelerators (0) – those who transfer knowledge rapidly
  • Amplifiers (2) – those who make sure everyone knows
  • Channelers (2) – those who keep the distribution channels in good shape
  • Implementers (3) – those who apply knowledge to produce tangible results
  • Integrators (2) – those who identify valuable linkages
  • Multipliers (0) – those who use knowledge to generate new possibilities
  • Prioritizers (2) – those who focus knowledge generation and application on critical areas
  • Sense Makers (1) – those who interpret and translate for shared understanding
  • Validators (0) – those who keep testing the robustness of new knowledge

Two of the strengths are covered solely by an individual who I invited to join the team shortly after it was formed.  From working with him previously, I knew that he had valuable talents.  This exercise affirmed my intuition and experience.  Although his interpersonal skills are somewhat lacking, I believe that through feedback and real-time facilitation I can take advantage of his strengths to the benefit of the team.  Of course, it sounds nice in theory – only time will tell if I can do it successfully.

Our team’s needs at a particular moment will increase the importance of particular strengths and lessen others.  In other words, the needs for particular strengths will vary with time.  For instance, at the current stage we need Originators, Questioners, Seekers, Implementers, Integrators, Multipliers, Prioritizers, and Validators.  Some of these we have covered and some are not.  Additionally, the strengths that individuals bring are not all equal – one person my be a better Integrator than another, and so on.

My plan is to utilize the strengths we identified for ourselves to the greatest extent I can.  For instance, The team has excellent coverage in Implementers and Integrators, strengths we definitely need now.  However, some key strengths are weakly or not covered at all.  I see several paths here.  One is to reinforce those gaps through focused attention by the team.  For instance, only one person identified Questioner as one of his three strengths.  If I encourage others to ask questions consciously, and ask some myself, we’ll do fine here.  Another option is to take advantage of non-key members to fill particular strengths on an as-needed basis.  An adjunct member of the team (who only supports when needed) is really good at asking questions and coming up with creative ideas.  Another adjunct member is excellent at validating our approach against the expectations of the decision makers who will review our work.

I’m fascinated by this particular model and am intrigued by the coverages and gaps applicable to the team.  With the work before us, both strengths and gaps will be exploited and revealed in the next few days.  If we are able to capitalize on the strengths and fill the gaps somehow, the coming days will be extremely rewarding and successful.  I’ll keep you posted.

What other knowledge-management strengths do you suggest?

Team Strengths

The Four Types of Team Conversations

“Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.”
–William Shakespeare

She looked at me from across the table, smiled warmly, and said, “Guess you lost control of those guys.” I winked, returned her smile, and said, “How can I lose what I never had in the first place?”

The team and I resumed our strategic planning efforts today after spending all last week in a training class.  We met this afternoon to converse about the training class and recent work events (the shuttle launch delay being one), to review where we left off the week before, and to set our plans for tomorrow.  Towards the end of the meeting is where the aforementioned dialogue occurred.  We were reviewing our proposed long-term schedule, a date of which happened to coincide with the planned retirement date of one of my team members.  I mistakenly asked him a question about why he picked that date to retire – “Don’t all Government employees retire on January 1, 2, or 3?”  He immediately took off with my question and gave us a full lecture on the virtues of the best time in the calendar to retire as a Government employee and why one should not take any vacation the last year of employment.  One of the other team members disagreed with him, and the debate ensured.  It was all in good fun.

The part that I didn’t mention, and is part of the topic for today, is what I said following the lead-in: “I view the conversation as building relationships.”

The Four Types of Team Conversations

Yes, because we are going to be together as a team for a long time, I view building relationships as a critical element to invest in now.  The relationships we establish and nurture now will become the currency to get us through the tougher conversations to come. This leads me to what I call the Four Types of Team Conversations.

Information-sharing. This is the sharing of information necessary to keep everyone in the loop.  Brainstoming also falls into this category.  This conversation flows naturally with little or no facilitation or guidance from me, except to roughly monitor the time and move the team forward when necessary.

Planning. Here, we establish our plans and priorities based upon the work to be accomplished and to re-prioritize given changes in current events.  We do make decisions as a part of planning conversations.  Therefore, this type of conversation requires some facilitation, mainly to keep it focused on the topic at hand and to seek agreement on the plans.

Problem Solving. This is the conversation where “the rubber meets the road.” We undertake activities that engage all of us together as a team in identifying and resolving issues.  Our activities  revolve around gathering data, identifying problems, analyzing the current situation, using criteria to sort potential solutions and assigning actions.  This is the most intense type of conversation and requires the greatest amount of attention to actively facilitate.

Building Relationships. What the team member jokingly referred to as a “loss of control” I called a measured step towards a critical type of conversation – building relationships.  We build cohesion and shared commitment as a team by engaging each other in a variety of topics and activities. I actively seek to maintain the team’s alignment with our larger purpose, so this type of conversation does require some facilitation, which I actually did in the case above (despite the initial appearances).  As I mentioned earlier, building relationships leads to currency that can be spent in the other three conversations.

When I build the agenda for the day, I look at the types of conversations that need to occur with each of the agenda items and identify the right level of facilitation for each.  It seems to be working so far.  We’re making excellent progress and are gelling as a team.  We will have some tough problem-solving conversations later this week, so we will see how it goes.  I’ll let you know.

The Four Types of Team Conversations

Stranded in Moscow

“When someone approaches you seeking help, feel free to ignore them for as long as possible.  Finish what you are doing first and quickly look for other items to make you appear busy.”
–from The Russian Customer Service Handbook



A recent Twitter conversation with Simone di Santi (@ARoadRetraveled on Twitter) concerning passport horror stories reminded me of one of my bad experiences with overseas travel.  Here’s my story.

I was on my first trip to Moscow in 2003, which is intimidating enough given that I barely spoke the language.  Add to that all of the Cold War conditioning I had growing up, and you have the stage for the ultimate in potential travel disasters.  Despite that, my two-week trip was a wonderful experience.  All of that came unraveled when it came time to depart.  I had no inkling of the coming adventure when I went through check-in, passport control, and boarding.  The plane backed away from the gate, and stopped.  And sat.  And sat some more.  Finally, after two hours of sitting on the tarmac, the captain announced that he had a light on in the cockpit and would be returning to the gate.  He explained the light was an indicator of a mechanical problem and would require an overnight repair.  Our flight was cancelled for that day.  Great.

We were de-planed and dumped into the terminal waiting area.  No one knew what to do with us.  We had checked out of the country and were basically in no-man’s land.  The airline, who shall remain nameless but rhymes with HELL-ta, was of very little help and offered no guidance.  Many people around me complained (and did so quite loudly, as if that would help), but of course their complaints were in English and the Russian-native airline staff who spoke little to no English would just stare.  I pulled out my cell phone and at $5/min spoke with the travel agency and our liaison office in Moscow, both of whom said to sit back and wait for the process to work itself out.  Very well, I was resigned to put my faith in the hands of people who wouldn’t know customer service if it hit them on the side of their head.  I found a spot on the tile floor in the duty-free shop area and took a nap.

Finally, after 12 hours of sitting in the terminal waiting area, we were suddenly whisked away through passport control to cancel our departure and re-enter the country, after which we were dumped into a nearby hotel for an overnight stay without our baggage.  The next day, we were returned to the terminal and were left on our own to figure out how to negotiate departure.  For me, the challenge concerned my visa and passport – would passport control recognize and acknowledge the cancelation mark from the previous day and let me depart?  Could I adequately communicate the situation I faced yesterday?  Or would I be hauled off to some Soviet-era jail for illegally entering the country?

I approached passport control and said in my broken Russian, “Yesterday. Fly. Canceled.” The passport control clerk, dressed in olive drab military-looking garb resembling the worst in Communist Cold War fashion, stared at me, stared at my passport and visa, stared at me again, then stamped my visa and passport.  Whew!  I boarded the plane, and the rest of my return trip home was without further incident.

Stranded in Moscow


“Learning is a weightless treasure you can always carry easily.”
— Chinese proverb






For this entry, I’m taking a break from recent leadership development topics to give a peek inside my world at NASA.

Yes, that’s me on the left.  I’m with one of my teammates who is suited up for a run at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  The NBL uses neutral buoyancy to simulate many of the effects of working in microgravity, and thus is critical for training astronauts for extravehicular activity (EVA, also known as a “spacewalk”).

The NBL is one of the facilities used by mission operations in Houston (another is Mission Control – you know, “Houston, we have a problem”) to support human spaceflight operations for NASA.  The NBL is one of several facilities in mission operations that is a part of the overall strategic planning work I am leading.

On the day this photo was taken, one of my teammates suited up for the run as part of a training exercise for the assisting divers who accompany the astronaut underwater.  The divers were practicing emergency exercises as part of their training and certification program.  It’s a rare treat for someone other than an astronaut to suit up, and it was an even nicer treat to see it happen in person.


Lessons Learned through Quotes from NASA HQ

“Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.”
–Thomas Carlyle

In the course of a recent conversation, a teammate said, “Joe, you were at NASA Headquarters – tell us something about what you learned while there.”  I was happy to oblige, but in my own way.

NASA Headquarters is in Washington, DC, just south of the National Mall.  Despite what some people may think, NASA Headquarters is not in Houston. In any case, I was honored to be selected for a leadership development program run from NASA Headquarters.  Part of the program entailed leaving home for an extended assignment at the place of our choosing, so why not DC?

I worked under a number of wonderful people during my year at NASA Headquarters.  Foremost of these was former NASA Associate Administrator Scott Pace, now the Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.  Through Scott I was exposed to a number of NASA leaders, including former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.  It was through these leaders that I gained my greatest insights into how NASA Headquarters works, which I captured through their quotes.  It’s amazing how much of an individual is revealed through the simple one-liners they say!  Here are the most notable:

“Actually, tell me why it has to be different based upon analysis, not because we can’t get along without it.” –Mike Griffin

This quote reveals much about how Mike Griffin thinks.  He is a big proponent of decision-making based upon objective evidence.  The consummate geek, he preferred data and analysis over posturing.  He is “one of us”, a true rocket scientist.

“I can explain it to them, I can’t understand it for them.”  –Mike Griffin

I heard this one in the context of testifying before one of the various subcommittees on the Hill.  Mike is a very direct and plain-speaking individual who tells it like it is.  Yet he realizes that he is not speaking to an audience of like-minded individuals who share his values, so I take this quote to mean that he will explain whatever in very direct terms and leave the interpretation to the audience.

“I only play golf on days that end with a Y.”  –Mike Griffin

Even the Administrator has a hobby!  Something for all of us to keep in mind, that there is more to life than work, even if you are the Administrator of NASA.

“Кто кого?” (“Kto kavo”, Russian phrase meaning, “Who reports to whom?”)  –Scott Pace

Besides NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, NASA consists of 10 field centers scattered across the country.  Perhaps the most well-known are the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral in Florida, from where the Shuttle launches; and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of the astronauts and Mission Control (and where I am).  NASA also consists of the Langley Research Center in Virginia, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Stennis Space Center outside New Orleans, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Dryden Flight Research Center near Edwards Air Force Base in California, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.  With 18,000 government employees and over 40,000 contractors working directly on various space programs scattered across the county, it can be confusing to the casual observer about who reports to whom.

“Так точно!” (“Tak tochna”, Russian phrase meaning, “Yes, sir!”)  –Scott Pace

This phrase is similar to the Roman gladiator salute: “For those of us about to die, we salute you.”  Scott put it to me this way: sometimes it is best to salute, rather than argue.  This appears to me to be a survival tactic inside the Beltway.  I much prefer finding the alignment of the issue at hand with the larger NASA mission.  Yet I gather that this can be a challenge when dealing with political realities, so one must choose one’s battles carefully.

“Accomplish the mission, then preserve the men.” –Scott Pace

Because of my strong people orientation, I don’t take this one literally!  Instead, I see this as a statement that, in the end, results matter.  When thinking about what NASA is here for, I always come to this question; what is it that NASA has done for the American people.  In the end, NASA will be measured by how it improved life for people.

“It is simple to fix; it is not easy to fix.”  –Scott Pace

This apparent contradiction in terms bears closer examination on the subtlety of the wording.  An alternative way of saying this is, “easier said than done” or “the devil is in the details.”  Each of these drive home the point that actions leading to results are much more important than just saying what is wrong.  One of my executive coaches in the leadership development program was always pressing me with this statement, “and so, what are you going to do about it?”

“Three hundred agents united by a common travel agency.”  –Scott Pace

This is Scott’s way of saying that there is a clear difference between a group and a team.

And the final quote:

“Some things are secrets, some things are mysteries.”  –Scott Pace

From the words, I took this to mean that one can get more information about certain things (the secrets), but that for others (the mysteries), this will be impossible.  Therefore, focus on the important things and ignore the trivial.

What did I learn from this experience?  That the quotes others use often reveals details behind the individual that are not readily apparent through their normal communications.  Listen, and learn!

Lessons Learned through Quotes from NASA HQ

The Value of Quick Victories

“When doing battle, seek a quick victory. A protracted battle will blunt weapons and dampen ardor.”





Today I briefed my immediate management, with my team in attendance, on our near-term strategy for work in mission operations in Houston.  I view today as one of those “quick victories” I’ve read about but haven’t really fully embraced as being important – until now.  My team and I received compliments about how much we’ve achieved in such a short time and about the quality of our work.  (One of our techniques is being shared with others as a model to emulate, but I digress.)  Really, it is a tribute to the dedication of the team to the task at hand.  My team members are the ones who have to live with the consequences of whatever strategy we put into place – I do not – and they have bought into the vision we established in the beginning, took ownership of the process and methods necessary to define a strategy, and put together a wonderful and compelling story about why our proposed approach offers the best potential value to the Government and the American taxpayer.  One of the managers pulled me aside afterwards out of earshot of the rest and had one simple phrase specifically for me: “excellent leadership.”

I was extremely flattered.  That sure felt good!

Today was a lesson in the value of a quick victory.  In earlier posts, I referenced a leadership model built upon alignment, action, and results.  What would happen if a team had initial alignment, took action, and yet worked and worked without achieving a measurable result?  I suspect the effort would fall apart.  Clearly, without a tangible result the team would wonder, “are we taking the right actions?”  If new actions were undertaken with no tangible result, eventually the team would wonder, “Why are we doing this?”, leading to a breakdown in alignment and a complete unraveling of the team.

One of the elements of leadership is identifying quick victories that reinforces the team’s alignment.  Achieving quick victories through an incremental approach becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop, leading to more actions that lead to more results, and so on and so on.  Eventually, the end result is achieved.

Before, for those efforts in which I truly believe, I would have searched for that optimal path straight to the end result.  Because I’m so doggone determined, I would have put my nose to the grindstone and worked and worked come hell or high water until the end result was achieved, even if I left a wake of destruction in my path.  Now, I realize that the process of leading teams is more organic, feeding upon small next steps and results achieved by a team, building momentum through continued actions and more results.  I got a nice taste of that today.

Did I say that it was a good feeling?

The Value of Quick Victories