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August 1994

Group decision-making.

by Schwartz, Andrew E.

    Abstract- Many managers like to believe that they are accomplished in such group decision-making processes as action planning, goal setting and problem-solving. However, their ability to implement such techniques effectively is often hindered by their lack of understandiing of the dynamics of these group decision-making processes. As a result, these managers often end up perpetuating problems that they themselves create through their insensitivity to the needs of other group members. Hence, instead of achieving a consensus, such managers only serve their own interests by leading the group to situations such as decision-making by lack of response or by authority role. Sometimes, they lead the group toward decision-making by minority rule or by majority role, as the case might be. The better way to achieve consensus would be for them to track how decisions are made and ensure that they are achieved by true consultation.

Decision By Lack of Response (The "Plop" Method)

The most common--and perhaps least visible--group decision-making method is that in which someone suggests an idea and, before anyone else has said anything about it, someone else suggests another idea, until the group eventually finds one it will act on. This results in shooting down the original idea before it has really been considered. All the ideas that are bypassed have, in a sense, been rejected by the group. But because the "rejections" have been simply a common decision not to support the idea, the proposers feel that their suggestions have "plopped." The floors of most conference rooms are littered with "plops."

Decision by Authority Rule

Many groups start out with--or quickly set up--a power structure that makes it clear that the chairman (or someone else in authority) will make the ultimate decision. The group can generate ideas and hold free discussion, but at any time the chairman may say that, having heard the discussion, he or she has decided upon a given plan. Whether this method is effective depends a great deal upon whether the chairman is a sufficiently good listener to have culled the right information on which to make the decision. Furthermore, if the group must also implement the decision, then the authority-rule method produces a bare minimum of involvement by the group (basically, they will do it because they have to, not necessarily because they want to). Hence it undermines the potential quality of implementation.

Decision by Minority Rule

One of the most-often-heard complaints of group members is that they feel "railroaded" into some decision. Usually, this feeling results from one, two, or three people employing tactics that produce action--and therefore must be considered decisions--but which are taken without the consent of the majority.

A single person can "enforce" a decision, particularly if he or she is in some kind of chairmanship role, by not giving opposition an opportunity to build up. For example, the manager might consult a few members on even the most seemingly insignificant step and may get either a negative or positive reaction. The others have remained silent. If asked how they concluded there was agreement, chances are they will say, "Silence means consent, doesn't it? Everyone has a chance to voice opposition." If the group members are interviewed later, however, it sometimes is discovered that an actual majority was against a given idea, but that each one hesitated to speak up because she thought that all the other silent ones were for it. They too were trapped by "silence means consent."

Finally, a common form of minority rule is for two or more members to come to a quick and powerful agreement on a course of action, then challenge the group with a quick, "Does anyone object?," and, if no one raises their voice within two seconds, they proceed with "Let's go ahead then." Again the trap is the assumption that silence means consent.

Decision by Majority Rule (Voting and Polling)

More familiar decision-making procedures are often taken for granted as applying to any group situation because they reflect our political system. One simple version is to poll everyone's opinion following some period of discussion. If the majority of participants feels the same way, it is often assumed that is the decision. The other method is the more formal one of stating a clear alternative and asking for votes in favor of it, votes against it, and abstentions.

On the surface, this method seems completely sound, but surprisingly often it turns out that decisions made by this method are not well implemented, even by the group that made the decision. What is wrong? Typically, it turns out that two kinds of psychological barriers exist:

First, the minority members often feel there was an insufficient period of discussion for them to really get their point of view across; hence they feel misunderstood and sometimes resentful.

Second, the minority members often feel that the voting has created two camps within the group and that these camps are now in a win-lose competition: The minority feels that their camp lost the first round, but that it is just a matter of time until it can regroup, pick up some support and win the next time a vote comes up.

In other words, voting creates coalitions, and the preoccupation of the losing coalition is not how to implement what the majority wants, but how to win the next battle. If voting is to be used, the group must be sure that it has created a climate in which members feel they have had their day in court--and where all members feel obligated to go along with the majority decision.

The Better Way

Because there are time constraints in coming to a group decision and because there is no perfect system, a decision by consensus is one of the most effective methods. Unfortunately, it is one of the most time- consuming techniques for group decision-making. It is also quite important to understand that consensus is not the same thing as unanimity. Rather, it is a state of affairs where communications have been sufficiently open (and the group climate has been sufficiently supportive) to make everyone in the group feel that they have had their fair chance to influence the decision. Someone then tests for the "sense of the meeting," carefully avoiding formal procedures like voting. If there is a clear alternative to which most members subscribe and if those who oppose it feel they have had their chance to influence, then a consensus exists. Operationally, it would be defined by the fact that those members who would not take the majority alternative nevertheless understand it clearly and are prepared to support it in deference to any others that are probably about as good.

In order to achieve such a condition, time must be allowed by the group for all members to state their opposition--and to state it fully enough to get the feeling that others really do understand them. This condition is essential if they are later to free themselves of the preoccupation that they could have gotten their point of view across if others had understood what they really had in mind. Only by careful listening to the opposition can such feelings be forestalled, thereby allowing effective group decisions to be reached.

Of course, recognizing the several types of group decision-making is only part of the process. Managers must be specific in their approach to the one that is best in their own situation.

What are the actual steps in a decision made by a group?

1. Identify the Problem. Tell specifically what the problem is and how you experience it. Cite specific examples.

"Own" the problem as yours -- and solicit the help of others in solving it, rather than implying that it's someone else's problem that they ought to solve. Keep in mind that if it were someone else's problem, they would be bringing it up for discussion.

In the identification phase of problem-solving, avoid references to solutions. This can trigger disagreement too early in the process and prevent the group from ever making meaningful progress.

Once there seems to be a fairly clear understanding of what the problem is, this definition should be written in very precise language. If a group is involved, it should be displayed on a flip chart or chalkboard.

2. Clarify the Problem. This step is most important when working with a group of people. If the problem is not adequately clarified so that everyone views it the same, the result will be that people will offer solutions to different problems. To clarify the problem, ask someone in the group to paraphrase the problem as they understand it. Then ask the other group members if they see it essentially the same way. Any differences must be resolved before going any further.

In clarifying the problem, ask the group the following questions: Who is involved with the problem? Who is likely to be affected? Can we get them involved in solving the problem? Who legitimately or logically should be included in the decision? Are there others who need to be consulted prior to a decision?

These questions assume that commitment from those involved (and affected by the problem) is desirable in implementing any changes or solutions. The best way to get this commitment is to include those involved and affected by the problem in determining solutions.

3. Analyze the Cause. Any deviation from what should be is produced by a cause or interaction of causes. In order to change "what is" to "what is wanted," it is usually necessary to remove or neutralize the cause in some way. This calls for precise isolation of the most central or basic cause (or causes) of the problem and requires close analysis of the problem to clearly separate the influencing from the non-influencing factors.

This is probably an easier process to follow when dealing with problems involving physical things rather than with interpersonal or social issues. Typically, interpersonal and social problems are more likely to spring from a dynamic constellation of causes that will be more difficult to solve if the causes are only tackled one at a time. Still, whether dealing with physical or social problems, it is important to seek those causes that are most fundamental in producing the problem. Don't waste energy on causes that have only a tangential effect.

4. Solicit Alternative Solutions To the Problem. This step calls for identifying as many solutions to the problem as possible before discussing the specific advantages and disadvantages of each. What happens frequently in problem-solving is that the first two or three suggested solutions are debated and discussed for the full time allowed for the entire problem-solving session. As a result, many worthwhile ideas are never identified or considered. By identifying many solutions, a superior idea often surfaces that reduces or even eliminates the need for discussing details of more debatable issues. These solutions may be logical attacks at the cause or they may be creative solutions that need not be rational. Therefore, it is important at this step to limit the time spent discussing any one solution and to concentrate instead on announcing as many as possible.

5. Selecting One or More Alternatives for Action. Before selecting specific alternatives for action, it is advisable to identify criteria the desired solution must meet. This can eliminate unnecessary discussion and help focus the group toward the solution (or solutions) that will most likely work.

At this point, it becomes necessary to look for and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of options that appear viable. The task is for the group members to come to a mutual agreement on which solutions to actually put into action. It is desirable for positive comments to be encouraged (and negative comments to be ignored or even discouraged) about any of the solutions. One solution should be the best, of course, but none should be labeled as a "bad idea."

6. Plan for Implementation. This requires looking at the details that must be performed by someone for a solution to be effectively activated. Once the required steps are identified, it means assigning these to someone for action: it also means setting a time for completion.

Not to be forgotten when developing the implementation plan: Who needs to be informed of this action?

7. Clarify the Contract. This is to insure that everyone clearly understands what the agreement is that people will do to implement a solution. It is a summation and restatement of what people have agreed to do and when it is expected they will have it done. It rules out possible misinterpretation of expectations.

8. The Action Plan. Plans are only intellectual exercises unless they are transformed into action. This calls for people assigned responsibility for any part of the plan to carry out their assignments according to the agreed upon contract. This is the phase of problem- solving that calls for peopel to do what they have said they would do.

9. Provide for Evaluation And Accountability. After the plan has been implemented and sufficient time has elapsed for it to have an effect, the group should reconvene and discuss evaluation and accountability. Have the agreed upon actions been carried out? Have people done what they said they would do?

If they have not accomplished their assignments, it is possible that they ran into trouble that must be considered. Or it may be that they simply need to be reminded or held accountable for not having lived up to their end of the contract. Once the actions have been completed, it is necessary to assess their effectiveness. Did the solution work? If not, can a revision make it work? What actions are necessary to implement changes?

Other Considerations

Keeping adequate records of all steps completed (especially brainstorming) can allow energy to be "recycled." Falling back on thinking that was previously done makes it unnecessary to "plow the same ground twice."

When entering into problem-solving, remember that it is unlikely that the best solution will be found on the first attempt. Good problem- solving can be viewed as working like a guidance system: The awareness of the problem is an indication of being "off course," requiring a correction in direction. The exact form the correction is to take is what problem-solving is aimed at deciding. But once the correction (the implemented solution) is made, it is possible that, after evaluation, it will prove to be erroneous--perhaps even throwing you farther off course than in the beginning.

If this happens, the task becomes to immediately compute what new course will be effective. Several course corrections may be necessary before getting back on track to where you want to go. Still, once the desired course is attained, careful monitoring is required to avoid drifting off course again unknowingly. Viewing problem-solving in this realistic manner can save a lot of the frustration that comes from expecting it to always produce the right answers.

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