decision-making process

Decision Making in Meetings

One of the facets of a meeting agenda that is important to the success of a meeting being explicit about the approach and process used to make decisions.  Unfortunately, those planning meetings often leave the decision-making approach and process as unspoken and implicit. I have been part of team meetings, ad hoc, and other advisory groups, where there was no clear decision-making process.  In those meetings, decision-making seemed to stumble from feeble attempts to gain consensus to, “well, where should we go from here?” to an imposed decision made by the authority figure.  Being clear about decision-making approach and process is not something that can happen by default or be left to chance.  Decision-making needs to be intentional. So how do we incorporate clear decision-making into meetings?

The first step is to consider the approach for decision-making.  At one end of the spectrum are those decisions made by an individual.  In these cases, the group process associated with decision is simply advisory.  The group has input and might even influence the decision but the decision is owned and made by the individual and not the group.  At the other end of the spectrum are those decisions that are made by unanimous agreement of the group.  Some might call this a decision by consensus.  Setting the bar at the level where everyone must agree to the decision will lengthen the decision-making process.  Considering just these two end points, one can see the potential conflict if the decision-making approach is not explicitly defined for (or by) the group.  If the group thinks they need to get to unanimity but the group leader perceives the decision resides with him/her, the potential for conflict is high.

In between decision-making by and individual and decision-making by unanimous group agreement, there are a number of other points on the spectrum.  Typically the other options reference the “midpoint” of the group.  Most common among these are simple majority (one beyond 50%) or some version of a “super-majority” which can be defined as some other interval such as two-thirds or three-fifths.  Creating these numerical decision points simplifies the process by making the decision quantitative.  The down-side to the quantitative approach is that without adequate processing, numbers can inadvertently create a sense of winners and losers, with the minority voice potentially feeling disenfranchised.   This has the potential of undermining the implementation of the decision, especially in those cases where the group is required for the implementation.

One cannot change the fact that decisions are made by the individual or the group or some numerical point between. However, the potential of disenfranchising the minority view has led some groups to layer a relational framework over the decision-making process.  Common among these is the conceptual frame of  “support, block, or stand aside” In this model and its variations, votes are framed in relationship to how well one can live with the implementation of the decision.  Support can range from tepid approval to being a strong supporter of the idea, whereas the concept of blocking indicates a “no vote” and may even be read as the person will actively work against the implementation of the decision.  Stand aside may indicate a tepid “yes vote” or may suggest a “no vote” but, unlike blocking, standing aside suggests that the person will ultimately support the decision.  In a typical relational framework, a successful vote may require no active blocking votes. This might call for a straw vote along the way and allow for additional processing by those actively blocking the decision.  While this process may take longer, the relationship building that occurs prior to the vote strengthens the ultimate power of the vote because all voices are fully heard and vetted.

Once a decision-making rule is defined and clearly articulated to the group, then a supporting process can be established to move the group towards a decision.  It is important to recognize that there are a range of tools that can be used.  Common tools that can be used include:

•  Broad Discussion, Narrowing of Ideas, Prioritizing and Voting.

• Structured problem-solving using a model like IDEAL:  Identify the problem, Develop alternatives, Evaluate alternatives, Act on the alternative and Learn from the outcomes

• For more contentious decisions a process might include interest-based negotiation or mediation strategies.

The power of explicit decision-making empowers groups by offering a clear process to move forward.  Its presence enhances teams ability to productively make decisions, while the absence of clarity around decision-making can be a barrier to performance improvement.


Photo Credit: Manfred Antranias Zimmer


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.