The answer to that question lies at the very heart of how people address issues, solve problems and make decisions in a group.
The elemental dynamics of group interaction tend to impose issue expansion, not issue synthesis, resolution and closure.So a group that is convened to solve a problem will tend to identify more problems, thereby ensuring they will never solve any of them!Or the group will meet indefinitely, with an expanding number of lukewarm or divergent options on the table, and no end in sight.
There are several basic but powerful reasons why this occurs:
Fear of subordination: The fundamental belief underlying group decision-making is that “two-heads-are-better-than-one”.Taking advantage of the two-or-more-heads in a group requires some blending or synthesizing of the ideas of all members.But in order to synthesize and articulate the collective thought of a group, some and perhaps all members will have to alter or subordinate their own position.Most groups are ostensibly convened to collaborate, but instead act as a group of individuals arguing for their own points of view.Add into this mix the traditional role of the facilitator, which has come to mean “making sure everybody is all right with everything”, and group decision-making can quickly devolve into vapid, “please all, please none” outcomes, or polarization and delay.
Fear of conflict: Members of a group will tend to avoid expressions of open disagreement or conflict.When a member of a group offers up an idea, other members will often shy away from directly discussing its merits, especially if they disagree.Instead, they will express disagreement indirectly, by offering oblique “concerns” about the idea, or bringing up tangential issues.As this dynamic continues throughout the meeting, each member of the group offers their own issue or concern, causing the discussion to become a meandering affair, wandering farther away from closure on the central point.
Fear of presuming leadership: Most groups are convened under the guise of equal participation.With “equality” as the unspoken ethic, no individual will “presume to assume” the role of “deal broker”, or “closer”, out of concern that it will seem self-serving, presumptuous or impolite. Group members will often continue to discuss or even argue an issue when they are actually in agreement.
Fear of imperfection:Group members may be predisposed to put off decisions until “the time is right”; or until “more data is available”; or until “we have explored every option”.A measure of these cautions is appropriate, but they can become rationales for avoiding the uncomfortable act of deciding.Groups can flounder in the quixotic search for the perfect time, the perfect universe of data, and the exhaustion of every option.
Due to these dynamics groups are fundamentally predisposed to resist closure.Is it any wonder that meetings become a system for problem expansion, not a system for issue synthesis and problem resolution?
Meaningful and creative exploration of issues is important.But there is a need for urgency and timely decisions.Collaboration doesn’t have to mean “endless delay”. But most group decision-making ends up being the worst of all worlds – a process-for-process-sake endeavor, where a lot of good people spend an inexcusable amount of time … and get nothing done!Busy people with real work to do deserve better.
Getting it Done
Some groups do move gracefully and effectively through decision-making.Often it is because they have a facilitator, leader, or chairperson who puts together a good process, manages the group’s habits, and pushes toward closure.Sometimes these are groups that have worked together for a long time, and have learned – through luck, nature or discipline –the habits of effective group decision-making.Others have such a critical task and so little time that they overcome the natural tendency to defer difficult decisions.But whatever the reason, groups that consistently and efficiently make sound and lasting decisions together exhibit four key characteristics:
Momentum:The discussion is initiated with a well-thought-out process and agenda, a disciplined approach, and urgency for closure and results.
Fairness and Openness:Each member believes that whether or not their individual opinion prevails, the process is transparent and fair to all members, and that members will deal honestly and ethically with each other.Real trust develops over time, but can be fostered through clear ground rules that create a shared expectation of how the deliberations will be conducted and how the decision will be made.
A Reductive Discussion Style:Discussion habits are focused and oriented toward reducing the range of issues on the table, and to paring down the universe of options toward closure. This includes advancing concrete proposals and potentially viable solutions, not just general concerns or statements of position.
A Collaborative Approach:Each member exhibits a willingness to manage their own disappointment, believing they have more to gain through group agreement than through individual self-expression.
Understanding the importance of these characteristics and wanting to exhibit them doesn’t necessarily make them so.These characteristics are the sum of a short list of behaviors and practices, starting with the way the group is chartered and structured, its ethics, discussion protocols, and the methods they use to land on a decision.
Want to assess your own team or group against the characteristics and habits of these high performing decision-makers?Use the Collaboration and Closure Scorecard to assess how many of the practices are exhibited at any given meeting of your group.
This article is from the Collaboration and Closure: Small Group Decision-Making (in Record Time) workshop.Contact authors Sue Diciple and Tony Faast for additional information about the workshop and collaborative decision-making models at firstname.lastname@example.org.