Collaborative Stances: A Decision-Making Framework for Leaders and Teams
One tool I’ve taught many founders in order to help them run better meetings and make decisions as a team more smoothly is what I refer to as Collaborative Stances. It’s a term I got from Zach Nies who adopted it from Peter Senge’s work on Shared Vision.
There are five collaborative stances that range from the least collaborative and fastest decisions to the most collaborative and slowest decisions. They are, Telling, Selling, Testing, Consulting and Co-creating.
Being clear about what kind of input you’re looking for as a leader from the team you’re working with is very helpful. They know how to help you, and frustration on both sides is avoided because the leader doesn’t have to reject input in a case where it’s not wanted and they don’t have to beg for input in a case where they need the team’s voice and insight. Everyone is clear about what kind of feedback and input is helpful in making the decision from none at all to let’s figure it out together.
Telling is the most obvious decision type. There is no room for negotiation, it is a clear and authoritative decision. The decision is already made. Because there’s no collaboration or even an attempt to get buy-in from the group, it is very expedient. Depending on the situation, it may be the most appropriate way to move forward. When there isn’t time for more collaborative stance, when taking action is the most important thing to do, this stance is helpful. This leadership style is also helpful potentially in the early days of a startup when there are endless decisions to make, large and small. In those moments, leaders need to pick a subset of decisions they will not debate or collaborate with others around, a decision just needs to be made. There is not enough capacity to debate and gather input on everything, that’s a process that is better reserved for bigger decisions until the company has more people on more teams doing more work that can collaborate on more outcomes.
The next stance is Selling. It’s like Telling except for the leader takes the time to try and get the team to buy-in to the decision. You might call Telling “Command and Control” whereas you might call Selling “Convince and Persuade.” The leader wants everyone to be on board with the direction, there’s still no room for changes or negotiation, but the leader is willing to address concerns, questions and feedback in an attempt to win everyone over. Leaders who like this style are very good at either co-opting the team with charm and charisma or they are very good at arguing for why they think their decision is best. It does feel better and has more team safety than the telling mode, but it can also take more time and skill than selling. This stance works best when the leader has a significant advantage in terms of experience or knowledge about the decision. Perhaps the leader has gathered significant input or data that makes the decision clear but must be downloaded of the team. It also might be useful for a decision that wasn’t really a decision. Sometimes it happens that that there aren’t really alternatives, but framing it as a choice makes everyone feel better about the way forward. Successful leaders can do a lot with this collaborative stance to rally the team, keep engagement high, and generally communicate the “why” behind a decision, all of which can help the team feel positive about the future. As a side note, I like the term “Enrolling” better than “Selling”, this stands in and of itself doesn’t require manipulation or deception but rather co-opting and persuading.
Moving towards more collaboration and greater time commitment is the collaborative stance called “Testing.”In this decision type, the leader comes to the team with an idea fleshed out, but is open to ideas on making it better. It’s the “poke holes in the idea” approach to making a decision where helpful feedback is directed at additions, subtractions and edits to what already exists. It offers genuine opportunities for the team to influence the ultimate decision, but the larger direction is mostly set. A skillful leader knows that we are psychologically more inclined to agree with the group and the leader and will need to facilitate skillfully to create the safety needed for each member of the team to add their full-throated feedback. This collaborative stance is helpful when a leader has a clear idea but needs to check themselves with the wisdom of the team. These decisions can still be very quick, but does take into the account the team’s expertise. There are many cases where this collaborative stance makes the most sense, I like it most when there is an important decision to make and high alignment is already present. Teams can move quickly through these decisions and get to others where there’s more work to be done in order to align the team.
The next stance is Consulting, it is a useful stance for a leader who has a rough sketch for the final destination but wants to work with the team to flesh out the details. You can think of it as a skeleton or an outline, there are broad concepts and maybe some boundaries to the work the team is going to do together but there’s a lot left for everyone to work on and decide in the group. In a consulting decision, because there are still a lot of decisions and details to work out, it’s slower and more collaborative than any of the three stances before it. Consulting is more than just reacting to a first draft which is more like testing, consulting is asking the team to make a lot of the supporting decisions in alignment with a decision that has some high-level direction to it. Consulting decisions also imply that the leader can still reject suggestions made by the team that don’t fit the broad scheme that the leader brought the team. This stance is useful when the leader has a north star in mind but the team has considerable expertise and experience that will create a better outcome if their voices are significantly included in the decision. Complex decisions like roadmaps and product launches are examples of highly collaborative scenarios where more voices are helpful in terms of thinking through the decision from multiple perspectives.
The last collaborative stance is Co-creating. It implies that a leader comes to the team without few or no preconceived ideas about what the outcome will be. The team creates the decision together from a blank page. True co-creation also means that the leader trusts the outcome to the team completely, the don’t have a need to veto the ultimate decision. It’s the most collaborative stance, and it requires the most skill both from the leader in terms of trust and facilitation, and the team in terms of their skill and trust in each other and the leader. Teams don’t start out at this level, it’s highly skilled, it takes time, but it has the most unifying outcomes. It also requires a leader who is secure in the knowledge that they don’t need to have all the answers in order to be the leader. This stance is best used by leaders who are highly skilled or maybe even who employ an outside facilitator so that every voice on the team including the leader’s is equal. It also takes the most time because there’s nothing to start from, and the blank page problem can take longer for a team to start generating ideas, refine them and get to a decision.