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