A better way to make decisions

 In Change management, Coaching, Culture, Leadership, Uncategorized

In organisations today, many decisions are in the hands of teams tasked with finding solutions to uncertain problems. Teams are deciding on new product lines, customer offerings and inventing new processes.   All that extra freedom and autonomy, is making work so much more interesting. But have you ever thought about how we make decisions at work? Is there a better way we could be doing this?

How groups make decisions

At most organisations the go-to approach for group decision making is consensus-based i.e. we let people vote on their preferred way forward. This approach works on an assumption that lots of debate and discussion is productive, and allows many different points of views to be aired and explored in depth. But it comes with limitations:

  • debates can be derailed by small details, tangents and rabbit holes which is time consuming and frustrating
  • it also struggles where views are diverse – consensus is great when you have a group of people who share a similar view, but not so good when you have to convince the other side that your view is the right choice
  • it aims for a single ‘right’ answer which doesn’t always work. Brexit is a perfect example of this. Even though it was a majority decision, it’s causing huge amounts of disharmony.

There are also an awful lot of invisible psychological influences that run alongside the consensus process and skew decisions. One of these is the “sunflower effect” – where everyone follows the lead of the highest-paid person in the room. Unfortunately, group behaviours like this taint group decisions.


The different types of decisions

Some examples of the different categories of decisions are:

  • big strategic decisions: questions like ‘Should we relocate the entire business outside the EU?’ A specialist team of people (who are probably really good at Excel pivot tables) usually get to make these types of big black or white decisions.
  • operational decisions: decisions like who to employ, fire or how to do the Christmas Day work rota. These are made within an operational middle management layer (most of us don’t want to take control of these types of decisions).
  • personal choices: everyday decisions like ‘Should I eat that extra slice of cake?’ or ‘Should I go to the gym?’ We get to keep these all to ourselves.

Some of these decisions work well with traditional decision-making processes like consensus. But when there isn’t one good solution to choose from, you need to do something different.

Introducing safe to try decision making.


Safe to try decision making

How it works

Teams are given permission to step outside linear and bureaucratic controls, and experiment with non-obvious solutions to modern day problems. They aren’t constrained by long approval cycles and consensus decision making. The boss doesn’t decide (see our other post for more on that), instead putting that power inside the team – a horizontal style of decision making.

More on horizontal decision making

Rather than waiting for orders or a mandate, horizontal decision making is where teams are asked to decide their own next moves themselves. Instead of looking to their leader, they use their combined teampower to solve complex issues.

So far, so good. But to unleash that team power we need to rewrite the organisational script on how to make decisions. Over to Vicky Grinnell-Wright, co-founder of Ways of Working Labs:


‘Organisations are used to using a “minimum viable product” approach to innovation – test, learn and iterate. But rethinking this approach to HOW we make decisions, meet, organise and share information can unlock great innovation. Keeping the “how” we do things static, while innovating the “what” just doesn’t make sense anymore. And it creates drag on the organisation and its people.’



In other words, to unleash true innovation and problem solving in teams, organisations need new practices. It’s not just about empowering teams – it’s also about changing how they do things, and introducing practices that help teams make quickly and easily make decisions together.

This means the old consensus-based decision-making model just won’t cut it anymore. Because we’re not looking for agreement on a final solution here – we’re instead looking for permission to try something different. For most workers today, that level of autonomy is a new thing. Being asked to NOT follow the party line and speak up is very different to being given all the answers from the start. So, you need to teach people how to do that.

There is a solution – the consent process (first introduced by Sociocracy so full credit to them for being very clever).

The consent process

This teaches new ways of working to help teams feel comfortable with:

  • trying things they don’t know will work
  • naturally giving feedback to make ideas better
  • being able to see feedback and failure as an opportunity to learn.

It has many benefits over the consensus process. It empowers people and creates equal voices – each person gets the same amount of airtime. No one voice dominates and silence isn’t an option. The consent process builds trust, increases divergent thinking, reduces time wasting and empowers team members. And finally, it allows problems to be broken down into multiple smaller variables and explored – we don’t need to find the full solution immediately.

How it works

The consent process has three steps.

Step 1: Present a proposal

A team member comes forward with a proposal and thoroughly briefs the team on it. It’s not the finished product, and it’s small and about one thing only (as all the best proposals are) It’s something they want help exploring and can be tested in 30, 60 or 90 days.

Step 2: Get the team’s input

Now the team gets to speak. The group carries out three rounds to get agreement to try the proposal. It’s important that these rounds are run by someone outside the team.

The three rounds are:

  1. the clarifying questions round: the team asks questions to help them fully understand the proposal. The questions shouldn’t challenge how effective the proposal will be – everyone should hold back on making any judgements to consider new information about the proposal. The proposer can make changes based on these questions (but they don’t have to)
  2. the quick reactions round: the facilitator should now ask for quick reactions to the proposal. These should be brief – this stage isn’t about airing objections. Instead it’s about gauging the collective mood about the proposal. Again, the proposer can decide to make changes based on these reactions
  3. the consent round: now the proposer asks the group for permission to try. This round can be surprisingly quick. The only criteria the group are judging the proposal on is whether it’s ‘safe to try’ as an experiment. If someone thinks it isn’t, they need to state their objection and offer something that will make it safe to try. The proposer will then decide whether (and how) to change their proposal to get consent.

When the three rounds are done and the team’s given consent, the last step is to capture the final agreed criteria for the experiment. The facilitator should document the final position along with details on how long the experiment will run for and the support it’ll get from the people in the room.

It’s at this point that the team’s made a decision to run the experiment.

Step 3: Run the experiment

Once the proposal’s agreed, the team should bring together a task force to run the experiment. It should run for 30, 60 or 90 days with retrospectives every two weeks, that look back at the progress made and see what lessons can be learnt for the next sprint of activity. The taskforce will learn as they go and, at the end of the experiment, come back to the group and share their findings.

A video summary of the consent process

The short video below summarise the process and how it creates horizontal decision making in teams.


How we can help

The consent process is a quick way to make decisions. But unfortunately, there isn’t a quick way to learn how to use it. It takes practice and discipline. When people start using it they often try to skip steps and self-facilitate. Members get frustrated that they can’t just say what they think, when they want to. Taking turns can frustrate the hell out of people.

An experienced facilitator like Vicky Grinnell-Wright can help you deal with these objections and master this new style of decision making. Our How we workday is a great place to start. Drop us an email to find out more.

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