Is Decision Making A Team Sport?

Mark Farrer-Brown
Mark’s Scale Up Essays
5 min readOct 19, 2022

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As you scale not only the quantity of decisions accelerate but so does their impact. More people are relying on you, more customers, more team members and more investors. You have more to lose (and to win!).

You now have a team to help you grow the business, and you need them to do just that. No single leader can meet all the demands of running a business themselves.

As Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn co-founder, succinctly sums it up, “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.”

More minds together are better than one, right? Not necessarily. Larger pools of knowledge and expertise does not guarantee better outcomes.

Teams can make terrible decisions for many different reasons including if they let the wrong people say too much, and the right people say too little.

One of the key systems a team needs to get right is ‘how to make decisions’.

When I ask the teams I coach “How does your team make decisions?”, seldom do I get a set of answers which match up. Hint, not a good sign!

In this essay I am going to set out 3 foundational strategies on how to set up team decision making for success.

Making decisions on your own allows you to make quick decisions.

Often the barrier to bringing a decision to a team is that we associate teams with building consensus. You bring people into a team to create collective intelligence. Yet building consensus takes time and energy — sometimes more than it’s worth.

The challenge for the leader is to find the balance between individual autonomy and collective action. Sometimes collaboration can be a hindrance, and it would be better if people work on their own.

Instead of defaulting to your preferred approach, consider which the best type of decision making process is for each decision. The best leaders are like jazz players, improvising the decision making processes as they go along.

  1. Commitment- How much buy-in do I need? The way to get around needing to get buy-in is to involve your team members in the decision — done well they will own the decision with you
  2. InformationHow hard is it to get hold of the information and how much do you need? You want to gather the right kind of information before you decide. How hard it is to gather and how much you need will affect whether you do this on your own or with your team
  3. ConflictIs conflict likely over this decision? If you believe that the decision may cause controversy, it would better to include the detractors in the process than exclude them

So when do you make decisions on your own and when do you bring your team in?

To help decide which process to follow I have created the following checklist:

Answering these questions helps you figure out how urgent, complex, consequential, and controversial this decision might be to guide you as to choose the right which decision making process to use.

Having worked through the checklist, you can then consider the various decision making methods. The Team Decision Making Matrix below will help you determine which process to use.

If you have little time you alone should make the decision.

Majority voting should be used sparingly as it will create winners and losers, not helpful if you need the ‘losers’ to implement the decision. You could use it when you reach a deadlock and the deadline is fast approaching.

Teams should have multiple methods up their sleeves depending on the decision to be made.

Consent can work well and is usually quicker than building consensus. You are still tapping into collective wisdom but rather than aiming for everyone to agree, make sure no one will say no or fight it. One of Amazon’s principles applies the consent method — they encourage people to challenge decisions but once it is made to commit wholly — ‘disagree and commit’. (NB more on Consent process below)

And lastly, as your to-do list grows it is worth eliminating some decisions to allow your team to focus on the ‘big rocks’, the really impactful work.

Use this Team Decision Matrix to help you get clarity with yourself and your team as to what decision making process should be applied. And once you have made the decision make sure you have communicated to them the process you are going to use and why.

The best leaders know that all major decisions need an individual owner. The one owner can drive and co-ordinate the process.

Whatever the process — individual or collective — one person needs to own the decision.

  1. The team decides who owns the decision
  2. The owner works with the team and individual team members to come to an initial position
  3. The team then debates the proposed decision in order to bring out any disagreements
  4. The owner of the decision goes back to the individuals and the team to discuss the issues raised, working closely with the detractors.
  5. Once a new position has been arrived at (or if no changes were made) it is presented back to the team. The owner asks, “Do you see any reasons why adopting this proposal would move us backward or cause harm?” Objections must be unblocked. Only valid objections can be made i.e. based on present facts, not on personal preferences. Round 4 and 5 are repeated until the objections are cleared
  6. The decision is ratified

Eh Mark, wait a second. You’ve just told me that sometimes a decision should be made by the team. Yes the team is often involved in the process but in my experience when a team owns the decision, there is no one decision owner. This leads to lower quality decisions and delays.

For example, if you decide to use the Consent route. Here might be the steps.

This Consent method focuses on making progress over perfection and can lead to high quality decisions with full input from the team

“If you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you are better off trusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart the people are.”

In order to transition into a great scale up leader you need to learn how to embrace the power of collective intelligence.

I am not advocating you need to become a consensus driven leader on every decision. You need to learn when to make the decisions on your own and when to drive for consent or consensus.

As James Suorwiecki, in his book The Wisdom Of Crowds, concludes from numerous studies:

The starting point for helping you build wise team decision making is to fit the decision to the right decision making process.

Do you need help improving how your team makes decisions? Reach out and let’s discuss how we can help you.

Originally published at https://markfarrerbrown.substack.com on October 19, 2022.

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