Problem Solving and Decision-Making Skills
Collaborative Decision Making
The terms “consensus,” “compromise” and “collaboration” are often confused. Consensus typically involves general agreement (but can mean that the ideal decision is not often reached), and compromise involves giving up or weakening an opening position (and usually requires giving up certain beliefs or assets). Collaboration, on the other hand, attempts to build a shared vision, accountability, and buy-in. People know that their ideas will not always prevail, but through their contribution, they become, in fact, an important part of the ultimate choices or decision that is made. Collaboration therefore involves sharing key information ahead of time so that a better long-term decision can be made and in consequence, potentially at least, consensus or compromise do not have to take place at all.
If collaboration avoids having to make unwanted compromises or arrive at sub-optimized consensus decisions, making more of our decisions collaboratively, especially the critical ones, seems to be a worthy goal. In simple terms, most people will feel better about and even more accountable for a final decision if they have played an active role in the input process leading up to it. The choice that is ultimately made may not be their first choice, but they will have contributed to its selection. Even those people who do not agree with a final decision will still be more likely to support it because they have been included in the decision-making process and appreciate the genuine investment made in obtaining their input.
Can we adopt a collaborative decision-making approach all the time?
Collaborative decision-making requires the sharing of information and then listening carefully to any input that is made. However, before we determine whether or not we want to do this more often, the critical dimension we need to consider first is the time that is available to us. If time is short, or it is crucial that time is not lost before a decision is made, then a more individual or autocratic decision approach may be the most appropriate. The obvious example here is an individual who smells burning or sees smoke and decides to ring the alarm to help a whole team of people to exit a building to avoid the negative consequences of a fire.
At the other end of the scale, we may need to make a decision about redesigning the internal layout or décor of a floor of an office building to give people a more attractive or appealing work space. With almost no time pressure and the need for lots of input, a more compromise-oriented decision-making approach may be most appropriate here.
The above examples of little time and lots of it are real but rare for many managers. Most decisions are not as urgent and/or time-starved as leaders often think they are and we equally rarely have the luxury of being able to take weeks and months on decisions either. However, we still use perceived available time as a relative measure for many of the decisions which do not actually lie at these ends of the spectrum, and in so doing we miss an opportunity to intelligently use a collaborative decision-making approach.
In the diagram below, the available time dimension is shown on the left-hand side. However, what the chart also does is to include another much more critical factor – the Quality of Results dimension.
Quality of results is all about how much we care about the decision-outcome and carries with it an acceptance that several people participating are likely to make a better decision than just one. We now therefore have to consider both of these dimensions when making decisions.
We’ve already talked about the behaviors that are often adopted when driven only by available time that are individual or autocratic at the low end to compromise-oriented at the other. The middle option here (when there is a little time) is often called “integrative” behavior, because there is the possibly of integrating some people’s input into the decision. However, when we now add in the Quality of result dimension on the right-hand side of the chart, we can really start to gain a perspective on what is at stake here.
Unlike time available, the Quality of result scale does not run high to low but has a low or poor potential result at both ends of the dimension, and a high quality of result in the middle. This makes sense because one person will not always make the best decision for and on behalf of others. Equally, if we try to engage many people in a decision, we may gain consensus but, as we said at the outset, not reach the ideal decision. True collaborative decision-making therefore lies at the center of this dimension and actually at the center of this chart, which we have labeled the collaborative decision-making “sweet spot.” This is because it ensures that some time is taken for the key decisions and that a few carefully chosen people are invited to provide input. The critical step here is in the phrase “a few carefully chosen people.” Every individual who wants to be more collaborative in their decision-making approach or style needs to develop the ability to determine which people are most likely to provide useful input according to their knowledge and experience of the issues which are likely to affect the decision on a case-by-case basis. This is not usually one or two people, but neither is it ten or twelve. In most cases, it will be three to five people, who can typically be well-managed and relatively fast in turnaround time as a result.
It is important to note here that we are not identifying how collaborative or warm towards others someone is as a personality or style-based trait. Instead, we want to identify how much collaboration a decision needs before it is made. Where it is a higher risk decision, involves a high investment in time or money, or has highly negative consequences if things don’t turn out well (to name just a few criteria), collaborative decision-making is usually the best path to follow.
In the final analysis, electing to pursue a more collaborative approach is likely to increase any manager’s effectiveness in making important decisions. Increasing collaboration starts with identifying the team members or colleagues that are most likely to provide useful input and then genuinely listening to the input before a final decision is made. Many managers who have followed this path say that they had low expectations of being able to improve on their own personal effectiveness in deciding what should be done at the outset, only to find very quickly that the range of options that they didn’t consider were considerably greater and the general creativity of input much higher than they thought would be the case. Most importantly, the majority report that most decisions are of a much better quality and the commitment to those decisions is considerably higher, making collaboration the first choice, not the last.