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In collaboratives, don’t forget to decide how to decide

By Sara Brenner

Have you ever been part of a collaborative in which meeting after meeting you felt stuck and decisions were not made?  

When talking with leaders across the country who are making transformational change, this sentiment is often shared. Leaders communicate a great optimism for the work, but also a frustration with the pace of progress. We hear about the importance of pivoting from planning to action, and about how groups repeatedly find their efforts stalled when trying to make this leap.

We have seen a common theme across efforts that are successful in taking action and achieving results: they have invested time in building culture intentionally. This involves not only establishing and living partnership principals, but also taking the time to clarify decision-making. Strong decision-making methods are critical because they empower people to provide direction and purpose for their work and they facilitate action.

Decision-Making Considerations

For any group of leaders it’s healthy to stop and reflect on whether decision-making is working:

  • Does our decision-making reflect our partnership principles?
  • Do we all currently understand how decisions are made? Does each party understand his/her role in decision-making?
  • Do participants have a strong point of view on how decisions should be made? Does each party understand the rationale enough to support decisions that are made?
  • Would a different decision-making structure increase our effectiveness? What existing dynamics need to inform a new decision-making structure?

We encourage leaders both to reflect on these questions individually and to foster group discussion inviting different perspectives on decision-making. When a new or existing group of leaders recognize the need to spend time intentionally developing decision-making processes, we have found that it can be helpful to evaluate the trade-offs between three common methods:

  • Command – One leader (or small group of 2-3 leaders in a collaborative context) are responsible for making the decisions.
  • Majority Rule – Majority vote makes the decisions (e.g., 6 out of 10).Decision Making Methods
  • Consensus – Decisions require general alignment of all stakeholders. This may not necessarily be a yes/no unanimous vote (see below).

These distinct methods present different speeds of decision-making as well as contrasts in the strength and longevity of solutions: the more engaged people are in decision-making, (1) the longer it takes and (2) the longer the decision generally lasts. Thus, collaboratives must balance speed and impact when selecting a decision-making method.

Collaboratives should ask themselves, “Would one of these decision-making methods be a better approach for our work? Are there other methods we should consider using? Might different methods be appropriate for different situations?”

Decision-Making in Emerging Collaboratives

Because consensus methods thoughtfully encourage diverse opinions and prioritize keeping all stakeholders engaged in the conversation, we have seen they are often the most effective method when collaboratives are in the early stages and just starting to bring together leaders from multiple organizations. Moreover, subsequent strategic development and action planning work is more successful because all stakeholders’ opinions have been incorporated into the work (as opposed to being mandated). That said, the most savvy collaborative leaders balance speed and impact. They isolate the most critical discussions for the collaborative and delegate specific decision-making to work groups or programs. Over time, as collaboratives become more sophisticated and structured, these leaders will adeptly distinguish between the type of decisions that require consensus and those that can be made in other ways.

Speeding-Up Consensus

Consensus is powerful because it engages all stakeholders in decision-making. At the same time, if it is too drawn out stakeholders can become disengaged.

One technique we’ve found to help ensure consensus happens successfully with strong input and relative speed is the “five-finger technique”:

Collaborative participants rank their support of a decision on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being completely disagree, 3 being in support of the decision but with some hesitations, 5 being completely agree). The group then addresses any rankings at a one or a two by allowing these participants to voice their concerns and inviting the group to discuss these concerns.

As these concerns are discussed, the collaborative participants amend the proposed decision to incorporate solutions to the raised concerns. After discussion around the concerns, collaborative participants re-rank the decision until general consensus is met around the decision (all 3’s, 4’s and 5’s from the group).

Not everyone may end up voting with a five, but through this iterative incorporation of solutions to address major concerns, people’s support will grow. In this process, all participants typically understand the final decision and can support it to a degree that will not hinder its implementation.

This is only one helpful technique to drive effective consensus decisions. As you strive to move groups toward decisions within a complex environment, what other techniques have worked for you? What challenges have you faced? When and why do you use the decision-making methods (e.g., command, majority, consensus) that you do?

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Sara Brenner

About Sara Brenner

As President, Sara Brenner leads the firm’s consulting business. Sara helped develop and is implementing the firm’s new strategy to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist, while leading a sales team that grew revenue by more than 45%. Sara oversees the implementation of the new strategy-aligning products, impact measurement, and talent initiatives with a results-based culture to deliver exceptional value to partners. With over 15 years’ experience in consulting for nonprofits, for-profits and the government, Sara worked extensively in the health and human services including at the Advisory Board Company and The Gallup Organization. See Sara's full bio

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