How to arrive at creative solutions, together
How do you make decisions in the workplace? From the small to the big, what and how you decide as a team matters. It determines or prohibits outcomes, productivity, team dynamics, meeting culture, innovation, and transformation. Many people think of decision making as a concept. On the contrary, it’s a dissectable science. There are certain methods and processes that enhance decision making. These techniques help teams arrive at consensual decisions quickly and effectively, and you can start implementing them as soon as today.
If your team could benefit from improving your decision-making process, consider some of these techniques in your next meeting or work session.
Set the Scene
Before we can make sound decisions in the workplace, we must first unlearn what we’ve been taught about the process. As explained in Gary Klein’s iconic book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, the “sources of power” to make decisions expertly are not what most of us are typically taught–ones based on logical thinking, analysis, and statistics. Instead, they are intuition, mental simulation, metaphor, and storytelling. The science of effective decision-making is based on connection and understanding ourselves and one another.
This takes us to decision-making rule #1: leave your ego at the door to allow room for genuine creativity and connection. Daniel Coyle shared an intriguing experiment about ego-less decision making in his book Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. He shares that a Stanford researcher found kindergarten students outperformed groups of CEOs, engineers, designers, and even cross-functional groups when it came to making decisions. This was because the youngsters didn’t spend any time exploring or understanding status. They dove in with no ego and instead were experimenting and understanding what would get them to the goal. Take notes from the kids: comparing status gets you nowhere; focus on how you can generate creative solutions together.
Once you’re ready to lead with the child’s mind, implement some basic ground rules to ensure your meeting’s success. One of our top rules at Voltage Control is to have a designated decider. There usually is one, why not acknowledge them! Appoint a person to play this role before the meeting begins. They will serve as the mediator, leading the group to reach an agreed-upon decision. A good decider will implement the most effective decision-making techniques and listen to the team. Note: they are not necessarily the person who makes the final decision. Think of them more as a facilitator or guide to help the group navigate and introduce techniques when needed.
Visual thinking is another critical component in effective decision-making, especially with virtual teams. The purpose of visual thinking is to use imagery to communicate beyond words; essentially, thinking out loud in pictures. It’s critical in the business world because communicating beyond words alone often leads to greater success. Try our Visual Thinking Template to start using imagery to communicate your ideas with your team.
Here are a few more ways to set the scene for optimal decision making:
- Use a diverse heterogeneous group – varying perspectives breed better understanding and results. You want to understand all sides of the problem at hand to create the best solution.
- Keep the group small – only invite who you absolutely need in attendance. The group dynamic is more productive when everyone involved has something to appropriately contribute. People who do not need to be in the meeting can distract from the discussion.
- Don’t over-rely on experts – misconceived opinions can distort group think. Biases can evolve and pollute the ideas being presented in the moment. Use experts as guidance, but not as the end-all-be-all. Follow your intuition and believe in the power of the group.
- Make sure to invite the dissenter – opposing views give you valuable insight into the validity of the decision being made. Naysayers are actually a gift. They can save you trouble down the road for angles you did not consider. Hold space to hear their thoughts and lead with curiosity.
The Decision-Making Process
Let’s take a look at the structure of an effective decision-making process and how it can lead to successful outcomes.
Before the meeting begins, establish the decision parameters with the group. Have a discussion about how you are going to decide. Will a decision even be reached today? Or is that happening next week? Or am I collecting data and plan to make the decision privately? Understanding your end goal will help keep the group focused and on track to fulfill your needs.
Then, establish as a group what qualifies as a good decision. Identify and agree on criteria weighted by importance to measure the various solutions. Decisions aren’t always about options. When you measure options against determined criteria, you are able to make more informed decisions. This is how to build weight scoring for decision-making, an extremely helpful tool.
Decision Making Flow
The following is an example of a six-step decision-making process. You can think of it as an agenda of sorts for decision-making meetings.
1) Identify the problem – what is the issue that needs to be solved? This is also a good time to allow space for the team to quietly think through any concerns they have. Have everyone write down their concerns and then share them with the group. Airing them out can squash doubt or fear and get everyone on the same page.
2) Understand the problem – from all angles. What/who caused the problem? Are you seeing the real issues clearly? Discuss, discuss, discuss. Reveal all corners of the problem.
3) Collect information – gain as much insight about the problem as possible. The more information you have, the better equipped you are to solve the problem.
4) Explore various solutions – get creative, think outside the box. Instead of going with the first idea that’s presented, challenge yourself to think up additional possible solutions. Ask questions to understand everyone’s perspective and acquire understanding; lead with inquiry instead of advocacy for a single idea or viewpoint.
Techniques to help make decisions:
- Filtering and clustering reduce the available options and narrows the idea pool. Have everyone write their ideas on sticky notes (physically or virtually in MURAL or Miro) and add them to a collective whiteboard. Then, combine similar ideas into clusters. From there you will be able to identify any repeated or out-of-place ideas. Do away with duplicates. Have the group vote on their favorite idea in each group. Then repeat the process, recognizing patterns, merging ideas, or generating new ones, until you narrow down the options to arrive at the best one.
- A pre-mortem strategy is a simulation method to work backward from an idea. Have the group imagine that in the future the plan for a possible solution has failed and you have to understand why. This is a great exercise to consider the longevity and effectiveness of presented ideas. You can eliminate any ideas you do not see crossing the finish line.
- Repackage and re-frame options to find better versions of the solution. Sometimes an entire idea isn’t ineffective, but parts of it are. Before you do away with a solution that has some promise, see if there are salvageable pieces that could be effective. How can you alter the plan to optimize its effectiveness? Is there a solution you’ve tried before that you can revamp and improve?
When decisions become negotiations:
Some decisions come down to negotiations. The trick to negotiating is listening and understanding the needs of the other side. If we practice inquiry we can start to propose things that allow us to quickly agree (decision made!). Another critical concept is trading things of unequal value. If you really value something and I don’t value it much, that’s an easy negotiation. Find understanding and compromise.
Before moving on, make sure that everyone has had enough time to think through the scenarios and consequences.
5) Move forward with the best solution – once you are sure the best solution is chosen, implement it. Note: consensus = unanimity! If everyone does not agree, don’t move on. Foster understanding and if needed, go back to the drawing board. If everyone agrees, develop commitment and ownership on follow-up tasks and next steps. Make sure that everyone knows their responsibilities and their deadline(s) to fulfill them.
6) Debrief – evaluate what went well and what didn’t work. Gathering feedback is a learning process; it is critical to reflect on the effectiveness of the executed plan.
More heads are far better than one when it comes to ideation and arriving at creative solutions. Implementing decision-making techniques can help you get the most out of your team so you can do meaningful work together.