Why am I writing about the two “weakest” means of effective decision making in meetings? Because they are among the most common means of group decision-making and they severely limit the effectiveness of meetings that rely on them. I am referring specifically to the use of compromise and of voting to reach a decision. Common approaches, certainly, but are they really that weak? I believe they are in that any decision achieved is not likely to receive broad support and commitment to necessary action. Rather than commitment to the decision, all that may be achieved is compliance. And mere compliance with a decision is hardly the result one would want from an effective meeting discussion.
Consider the Difficulties
In a compromise, each “side” gives up something they want in order to achieve support. Each side has to “give in” and give up something they care about. Rather than reaching an option that achieves something that everyone wants, the result is a decision that no one likes very much but will allow to go forward.
Voting can be an even weaker form of decision-making. In counting votes to reach a decision you necessarily have winners and losers. In this situation, it is even less likely that there will be widespread commitment to the decision. The “losers” can always say, “don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for it.” Voting can be efficient, and it is useful in some situations, but at what cost to the group’s ability to implement the decision effectively?
What Can Be Done to Create More Effective Meeting Decisions?
There are a number of ways to structure[i] a meeting to reach a decision that reduces or eliminates the problems of using compromise or voting methods in reaching a conclusion. Here are four:
1) Use multi-voting to clarify priorities.
2) Use the 80/20 principle to build the possibility of consensus or consent.
3) Use tools that build understanding of different views without creating a debate.
4) Hold off voting as long as possible
Multi-voting is a useful tool in building decisions where multiple options or variables are under consideration. A simple way to do this is to record the options or variables under consideration on a flipchart. Then, give each participant 3-5 colored dots to stick on the list of options and variables. (Each person gets fewer dots than there are choices). I tell the participants that they can place their dots however they wish. I may even tell them that they can put all their dots on one option if they wish (which usually does not happen). Once all the dots are in place, I ask the whole group to interpret the results. Frequently, participants will notice things like how hard it was to choose between two options, or how surprised they were that one option got few if any dots, and so on. Multi-voting builds individual and group understanding of priorities and trade-offs without forcing anyone to defend his/her position. Often a new option emerges that has broad support.
The 80/20 principleis another tool for structuring a more effective meeting and a better supported decision. To use this tool, I remind participants that in many situations, we do agree on 80% of some subject. It’s the 20% we disagree on that gets all our attention, energy (and meeting time). I ask the group to identify those parts of the subject that all agree on and to separate out those aspects where there is not general agreement, at least for now. The areas of disagreement are to be recorded and respected like any other meeting outcome. But the time and attention in the current meeting should be on confirming the areas of agreement and planning next steps. For more on this tool, see Choices and Tools elsewhere on this web site (www.meetingforresults.com).
There are also a variety of tools for structuring discussions in a meeting that enable everyone to feel heard and respected. If people feel their views were heard and understood, then they are more likely to feel a part of the decision even if the outcome is not one they would have chosen. Tools that can help here include 1-2-All and “Practical Subgrouping.” For examples of how these tools work, see earlier posts on Structuring Meetings for Respectful Dialogue, and Saving a Meeting from a Disastrous Decision.
Finally, I recommend holding off on any use of voting, even a “straw poll,” as long as possible. Voting can be efficient for non-controversial decisions, but for difficult choices it develops factions, and creates winners and losers. For example, when I worked with a local committee to resolve a contentious planning decision, we were able to work effectively together for a year and a half without voting on any decisions until the vote on our final proposal to the town. We used a variety of other approaches, particularly multi-voting, to clarify preferences as we worked. But there was no up or down vote until the very end. For more on this committee’s approach, see What If You Need a Town Planning Decision Supported by (Almost) Everyone?
[i] By “structure” I mean the physical and procedural aspects of a meeting that can be planned and implemented without expecting “better” behavior from participants. Many approaches to better decision making emphasize adopting different behaviors, something which I find hard to achieve in the heat of the moment. One of the best known of the behavioral approaches is Fisher and Ury’s classic book Getting to Yes.