Making decisions as a team
"Teams have great potential to make the best decisions, but this rarely happens in practice. Here's why - and how to make your team's decisions the best"
With their diversity of members' knowledge, abilities and experience, a team should be able to find better solutions and make decisions than any individual team member. But time after time research has shown this doesn't happen. Over thirty years of evidence shows us that generally a team will make a better decision than an 'average' team member - but the decision is not as good as it should have been given the knowledge that exists in the team.
Why? Well, the answer is that 'tricky', but very normal, group dynamics will tend to outweigh the extra benefit of all that extra knowledge and experience.
And on top of that, teams are especially prone to 'illusions of effectiveness'. Again, this illusion has been shown repeatedly in research. This is not good news. We think our team is the brilliant exception to the rule, but most likely it isn't!
But the good news is that it can be. The problem team dynamics are fairly well understood, and so are the solutions. They are just not implemented very often. The first solution is to accept that your team may be able to improve, and try some of the exercises below.
Evidence - the reality
A RAND research paper1 in 2009 summarized over thirty years of research in this area brilliantly and concluded that, when it comes to problem solving, judgement and decision making "... groups consistently fail to meet their full potential...." because of "... failures to adequately collect, share, integrate, or apply relevant information. “
Broadly speaking, groups tend to perform around the level of their second best member in most tasks. They tend to do about as well as or slightly better than their average members—but not as well as their best members. A simple solution would be to identify the 'best' decision maker for a particular task right from the start. But unfortunately (a) teams often can't identify correctly who that person is and (b) even if they can, the subsequent team discussion tends to reduce the quality of the solution they suggest.
All of this is well researched. The solution is to understand how normal team dynamics are getting in the way and to improve them.
The team dynamics section covers some general team issues that can impact all team behaviour - the development of group norms, existence of taboo subjects and social loafing. But there three very specific issues that we need to solve to have great team decision-making:
Team decision-making: challenges
- First and loudest
- The 'common knowledge' effect
- Group conformity
The first and loudest effect (known in the jargon as 'production blocking') happens when one person jumps in first with a view, often followed by one or two others who dominate the conversation. Usually it is the same people each time who dominate team discussions and they often seem to lack insight into their behaviour, or self-control. This has several really unhelpful effects: (1) simply in terms of time, it blocks other views being aired (2) it 'frames' the discussion around the issues or solutions they have raised, which may be the wrong ones (3) it disproportionately and systematically disadvantages certain people. 'First and loudest' are demographically likely to be white, male senior managers. HIPPO's (Highest Paid Person's Opinions) predominate and more junior staff's views go unheard.
The common knowledge effect refers to the phenomenon that teams tend to discuss what people already know 'in common'. Knowledge that only one or two people have is often not raised, especially if it contradicts what the group seem to know 'in common'. ("I won't mention this fact, because no-one else has, and it seems to go against what everyone else is saying"). A good experimental example: 'recruitment' experiments where the 'knowledge in common' to all the recruiters shows candidate '1' to be the best qualified, but if you take a piece of information that only panel member A has, combined with a piece of information that only panel member 'B' has, and a piece of information that only panel member 'C' has, it becomes clear that Candidate '2' is best. But the panel has to have a way of encouraging everyone to share their information to discover this.
Sometimes this reluctance is because the person may genuinely respect the views of others in the team and fear that their own information may be wrong. Or there may be 'unconscious' pressure to conform.
Group conformity is a well-documented phenomenon. In terms of sharing information, it may happen because people are too lazy to offer alternatives (a well documented phenomenon named social loafing), because they are reluctant to be the source of 'bad news' for the boss, or because they don't want to face the hostility of others in the group. Groups and individuals are known to 'prefer' information that matches their own views, so this is understandable, but it is an obstacle to good team decision-making. 'Dissent' is known to improve decisions.
Fortunately, there is good evidence that these pitfalls can be overcome by team training. The RAND report1 noted that, just as the obstacles to effective decision-making are often mutually re-inforcing, so the solutions will often overcome several of them at the same time. These solutions all involve encouraging dissent and facilitating divergent thinking. They fall into three groups, and their aim is to enable the team to better identify, generate, share and use relevant information.
Team decision-making: solutions
- Use proven creative problem-solving techniques
- Team leader as 'facilitator
- Team members as 'advocates'
The creative problem solving process
There is a section of this website devoted specifically to the creative problem solving techniques you will need. You can pick the best for the particular decision you are making. It is important, for big decisions, to separate out the decision-making process into three clear stages, which are covered in more detail in that section:
- Expressing the decision to be made as a question
- Use divergent thinking techniques to create some possible solutions
- Use convergent thinking techniques to select the best decision
Team leader as facilitator
The key to resolving many team dynamics issues is the example shown by the team leader. The team leader needs to:
- Establish ground rules for team discussion that make it clear that diverging views are encouraged.
- 'Manage' noisy or quiet members so that all relevant information is heard.
- Make sure the discussion is separated into the three creative problem solving stages. They each require a particular 'mindset' from team members.
- Ask people to hold back on expressing a view on the decision until all information has been shared.
- Most of all, the team leader should hold back on expressing their personal views until everyone has spoken. The role of the team leader in managing team decision-making is to facilitate an open process, not to shut discussion down by giving the view from the top.
Team members as advocates
Finally, for major decisions, it may be helpful for different members of the team to group together to 'advocate' for different possible decisions. This is helpful to make sure that the decision is covered from different viewpoints, but may fragment team cohesion, so should be used with care.
It is also helpful to reduce the size of the team to 10 people or fewer, from the point of view of effective decision-making and problem-solving dynamics. But team size is normally driven by many factors (eg organizational structure), of which team dynamics is just one.
Practice makes perfect
To improve your team decision-making, explore any of the creative problem-solving exercises on the exercises tab at the top of the page, or develop your own team ground rules if you haven't already done so.
1. Straus, S. G., Parker, A. M., Bruce, J. B., & Dembosky, J. W. (2009). The group matters: A review of the effects of group interaction on processes and outcomes in analytic teams. RAND WR-580.
The aim of this exercise is to help you improve the way you discuss and make decisions in your team.
You can do this exercise informally at the end of one of your meetings, to check in with the team that topics are getting aired and everyone feels able to contribute.
This exercise looks at the gold-standard decision making process for important decisons and helps you to review your normal process against this standard.