“Fundamentals of Group Decision-Making” (Vol. IV) addressed structural attributes of decision-making groups. In this volume, we discuss some ways a group’s activities can be conducted. An organization may employ several different techniques, at different times, in order to optimize the decision-making process for a specific project or group.
The following selection of techniques is not comprehensive; organizations may discover others that are useful. Also, an organization may develop its own technique, often using a commonly-known technique as a foundation on which to create a unique process. The choice or development of a decision-making process must consider the positive and negative impacts – potential or realized – on decision quality, efficiency, and organizational performance factors.
It is possible to reach effective decisions with an unstructured approach in which the group informally discusses and debates options in an open forum. However, it is a very rare and special group that can routinely operate in this fashion without falling victim to one or more of the caveats discussed in Vol. IV. Given the importance of decision-making to organizational performance, it is advisable to define a process to be followed before the group convenes, or as the group’s first order of business. Some options are summarized below.
Nominal Group Technique
For the Nominal Group Technique, each member of the group independently compiles a list of ideas and proposals prior to meeting. When the group convenes, each member shares his/her ideas and proposals, usually one at a time in round-robin fashion, until all of the group’s ideas have been captured in a consolidated list. Clarifications can be requested to ensure an accurate record of each idea, but critiques and other discussion should not take place during this collection process. Assigning facilitator and recorder roles can help this process proceed smoothly and efficiently. See “Meetings: Now Available in Productive Format!” for additional guidance.
Once the consolidated list is complete, evaluation of proposals can begin. Each member can ask questions or voice concerns about any of the ideas recorded. This can be done by considering each item on the list sequentially, or randomly as thoughts occur to participants, so long as no member or proposal is given short shrift.
At the conclusion of the discussion, members vote on the most promising alternatives. If there is a large number of proposals under consideration, the group may narrow the field by voting for a small number to investigate further. When these alternatives have been further developed – that is, the costs, benefits, and risks are better understood – the group votes again. The final selection is made according to the decision rule defined at the outset.
Nominal Group Technique combines independent exploration of a problem with group development to maximize creativity and refinement of its chosen solution. Independent exploration in advance often results in more and better proposals by allowing each member to choose the best time to ponder the issue. It also reduces the time required for the group to collect ideas.
A key premise of the Delphi Method is the anonymity of group members. Anonymity is maintained in order to prevent some of the pitfalls of group decision-making; tangential discussions, groupthink, deference to authority figures, and domineering personalities are all but eliminated.
Another key premise is the use of a facilitator through which all communication among members is channeled. The process begins when the facilitator crafts a questionnaire to elicit input on a specific problem or decision to be made. The questionnaire is distributed to the group and the responses are aggregated and summarized. The information collected is then distributed to the group for feedback. This process is repeated until a consensus or a predefined limit has been reached.
In addition to the advantages mentioned above, the Delphi Method is also location- and schedule-neutral as no meetings are held. It may also allow external partners to be engaged in the process, such as suppliers, academics, regulators, or other “experts” whose participation in traditional meetings would not be feasible.
The Delphi Method is not without its drawbacks, however. Accommodating each member’s schedule can cause significant delay in reaching a final decision. Many lament the absence of spontaneous discussion that could lead to new or improved ideas. Also, the facilitator can influence the decision by inducing bias, inaccurately summarizing member input, or poorly-crafted questionnaires. Reaching a high-quality decision, in an efficient manner, requires an objective and skilled facilitator.
The Stepladder Technique begins with two “core” team members discussing alternatives before inviting others to join the conversation one at a time. Members develop ideas independently prior to joining the group discussion. Each additional member presents his/her ideas to the group and is informed of previous discussions and ideas presented. The new member adds to the evaluations, discussing the merits of proposals. The group grows as this process is repeated until all members have presented their ideas and participated in evaluations of all presented alternatives.
It is easy to see how this technique could become painfully repetitive and time-consuming for the original two members. Thus, it should only be employed with small groups. A small group will minimize the tendency of the original members to lose enthusiasm for the process and, thus, effectiveness, or to “anchor” on an early proposal as information overload sets in. This format is also particularly susceptible to a dominant personality seeking to suppress the ideas of less-assertive members of the group.
To be sure, the Stepladder Technique has its advantages when well-executed. Like the Nominal Group Technique, this technique combines individual exploration with group evaluation and development. As each new member joins, the group gets an infusion of energy and enthusiasm. New members are uninfluenced by prior discussions and undeterred by previous objections; their fresh perspectives encourage the group to thoroughly consider all of the alternatives.
Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making (CODM)
While the other group techniques discussed can be conducted under any decision rule, the goal of Hartnett’s CODM Model is explicitly predefined. The model defines a seven-step process that a group can follow to reach a consensus decision. The steps are summarized below.
(1) Frame the problem. Define the problem to be solved or decision to be made. Communicate all information pertaining to the decision to all members of the group. Include specific issues to be resolved and outcomes to be attained.
(2) Have an open discussion. All members are invited to share ideas, concerns, and insights on which future discussions will build. Record all relevant information for future reference.
(3) Identify underlying concerns. Identify all stakeholders affected by the decision and the concerns of each for the decision or outcomes.
(4) Develop proposals. Building on information gathered in previous steps, the group develops proposals that address stakeholders’ concerns while solving the initial problem.
(5) Choose a direction. From the pool of alternatives developed in Step 4, select the most promising proposal or preferred aspects of multiple proposals to be combined in the final solution.
(6) Develop a preferred solution. Build the components chosen in Step 5 into a fully-developed solution. Verify that the solution remains focused on the original problem stated and that stakeholders’ concerns have been addressed.
(7) Close. Confirm that the group remains in consensus, each member supporting the final decision. Execute and monitor implementation of the decision, making adjustments as needed.
The hallmark of Hartnett’s CODM Model is that it draws attention to stakeholders and their concerns. The other techniques discussed can provide for stakeholder consideration, but they do not give explicit treatment as this model, justifiably, does.
Brainstorming and its variations are often included in discussions of decision-making techniques. (The Charette Procedure, for example, defines how large groups can be divided into smaller brainstorming groups to be more effective.) However, no decisions are made during brainstorming sessions; commonly-accepted rules of brainstorming prohibit it! It is a very useful component of many decision-making processes, so long as it is recognized as an idea-generation tool that precedes decision-making.
As mentioned in the introduction, other decision-making techniques could be discovered or developed. Perhaps a hybrid of the techniques discussed would best suit your organization’s needs. You are free to adopt, adapt, modify, or start anew in order to provide the efficient, high-quality decision-making process that your group needs.
Whether you need a facilitator to guide a decision-making group, to develop a hybrid process, or to ask a question, JayWink Solutions is here to help. You can get in touch in the comments section, on our contact page, or by phone, text, or email.
For a directory of “Making Decisions” volumes on “The Third Degree,” see “Vol. I: Introduction and Terminology.”
[Link] “Seven Methods for Effective Group Decision-Making.”
[Link] “The Delphi Method.”
[Link] “Hartnett’s CODM Model.”
[Link] “7 Ready To Implement Group Decision Making Techniques For Your Team.” Anand Inamdar, UpRaise, June 14, 2019.
[Link] “Make Up Your Mind.” Johanna Rusly, Quality Progress, November 2017.
[Link] “Group Decision Making.”
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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