A Guide to Group Decision Making

When groups of people gather together to undertake a project, decisions have to be made that affect the group. There are a number of ways that these decisions can be made, some of them are better than others.

In my experience as a software engineer, I have found that the decision making process is usually poor. I think the same has to be said for the world at large.

Given the inefficiencies, stress, and sometimes life threatening consequences that arise out of our poor group decision making one would think we study the topic in our basic education. Sadly I’ve never met a person who has had such a course.

This is my attempt to draw some deliberate attention to how teams are making decisions. To identify some good and bad strategies for decision making and touch on the pros and cons of each of them, considering the cost in time and effort, the psychological impact on the team’s health, happiness, and productivity (which are strongly correlated), and the quality of the decision achieved.

Useful decision making strategies.

These are the decision making strategies that I think can be useful and productive for groups of people. All of these methods work well on a small scale – perhaps a group of 2 to a couple hundred people.

expertise based authority
One of the group (or perhaps a subgroup) has expertise in a particular topic, so the group agrees to defer to the obvious expert.
consensus
The group debates a decision until concurrences is reached – everyone agrees the decision is the best one on which consensus can be reached.
democracy
The group votes on the decision. There are a wide range of possibilities for democratic decisions, but the most common is simple majority.
stalemate strategies
Consensus can fail to be achieved. Democracy can be foiled by even numbers. You need strategies for these cases, like coin tossing, taking turns, or resorting to an outside authority.

Each of these strategies deserves deep consideration. Here I will simply attempt to give an overview of how these strategies compare and interact. Perhaps the most important thing to consider is that each strategy has value and deserves to be practiced. Striving for consensus and democracy should occur frequently enough that they are familiar and comfortable tools. This usually means applying them to less critical decisions on a regular basis, so that the process is smooth when a critical discussion must be had.

Regarding decision by authority: In the event that an individual or sub-group has particular expertise on a topic, it often makes sense to delegate decisions on that topic to the experts. They will often be able to determine a clearly better outcome with little discussion. As soon as decisions have to made about trade-offs that affect other parties however, those parties should be involved in the decision. When authority is overstepped it breeds both resentment and poor decisions, so groups should use this strategy with care.

A team typically has a large number of decisions to make where the entire team has a certain amount of expertise. As far as I can tell, these decisions should be made using consensus when possible, democracy when necessary, and other approaches only in corner cases.

Consensus is by far the best outcome. When a group reaches consensus, everyone can be happy about the outcome or at least accepts the necessity of that outcome and feels like their voice mattered. I’m convinced that decision by consensus, when reachable, produces by far the best outcomes.

Unfortunately there are never guarantees that consensus can be reached. It may be impossible to reach consensus at all, or be too time consuming and costly to be reached. When consensus fails, a good fallback is to rely on a democratic choice.

When making a democratic choice, the usual, and usually best approch is poll for a simple majority. When resentment might play a role, consider anonymous voting. There are many variants on the democratic decision making process and it is worthwile to survey some of these variants to see if improvements can be found for your process.

Democracy is riskier than consensus, and riskier than decision by authority, when the authority has a legitimate claim to expertise. A brief sampling of history provides a wealth of examples of people overstepping authority though, so beware! Democracy can also breed resentment when teams are formed, so this has to be actively monitored and combated. In my experience this tends to be more of a problem at large scale, and less of an issue within a small team, but if your experiences have been different I would love to hear from you.

Putting this together, an obvious algorithm is reached:

  1. Is there a clear and acknowledged expert on the topic? Then let the expert decide. Remember that experts can and should be challenged, and when the decision being made affects other parties they should be consulted and ideally part of the decision making process.
  2. In the absence of authority, go for consensus. Often decisions are pretty obvious and saying something like “It seems to me like X is a good choice, does someone object?” will stream right though since most people want to get out of the meeting room. When objections occur, let everyone have their say. You need a clear strategy to follow regarding how long you will strive for consensus, and your fallback will be when consensus fails.
  3. Democracy. This should be the default fallback. Some people will be unhappy, but done right people will feel that the decision was fair, keeping morale high. In the absence of consensus or legitimate authority, this will produce the best outcome and is not costly.
  4. There are rare cases where a person in a position of administrative authority, like a manager or team leader, might find it best to exercise administrative authority. This can be useful in extreme cases where the leader feels it is important to team morale, or has knowledge they can’t share that enables them to make a more informed choice. This should only occur rarely.

Harmful decision making strategies

There are not doubt an infinite number of identifiable patterns of harmful group decision making. Some like authoritarianism, monarchy, cult of personality, and fear mongering are well understood but nonetheless continue to play a large role in both the private and public sector. We can only try to be aware of these patterns and seek to avoid them when we have the opportunity. Some other common anti-patterns I’ve recognized which are perhaps less discussed are:

administrative authority
An individual is granted an administrative function which imparts them with the authority to override their teammates and make decisions by fiat. This can be very time efficient, but has many vectors by which it produces unsatisfactory outcomes. It should be an unwelcome last resort, but is sadly often the default.
avoidance of conflict
Often organizations seek to find ways to avoid having discussions and conflicts among their team members. When a decision is made it is made in the background without consulting others for the fear of difficult confrontations. This typically leads to the most difficult and stubborn team members leading by default.

Last words

As I write this, these things seem self evident to me, but in my experience the logical steps this analysis would indicate are rarely practiced. My suggestion is we citizens and employees study these approaches, and seek to correct and improve whatever decision making processes we can.

One simple exercise is to reach for democracy or consensus whenever you have been given administrative authority of something. Do this often enough and you may inspire others to do the same. As consensus building and democratic choice are practiced more in your organization they should become more accepted. The positive outcomes will help to spread the methods. Pitfalls that have to navigated include problematic colleagues, and excessive time suck. Have a good idea how much time to spend debating before calling for a vote.

In my experience following this advice typically leads to happier and more productive teams. As with anything worthwhile, there are challenges and intricacies to consider, but I hope you will agree that good group decision making is worth investing some attention and practice in.

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