In our groups and organizations, we want to move forward and have an impact. We want to get things done, take action and change things in the world. To do that, we need to align on what we will do together, and how. In other words, we need to decide. But what decision making techniques are the most effective at making good decisions quickly and effectively?
Deciding in a group setting is not always easy! In fact, arguments over whether a decision has been taken (and it’s time to implement it) or not yet (so we are still discussing) are one of the most common sources of conflicts in a team.
In this post, we have put together a collection of 27 decision-making techniques you can facilitate to help your team make a decision together!
Any group process follows a flow, like a story unfolding. We start with a question, a challenge, or a problem to solve. Next, we ideate and brainstorm (aka “diverge”), gathering different ideas on what to do and how to move forward. After a divergent phase comes convergence when we refine and select among different possibilities and choose a direction or solution. At some point, we need to agree that the process is over: we have a decision!*
Deciding collectively is not always necessary (see this blog piece for more on decision-making rules and possibilities), but it can be a key to obtaining high levels of buy-in and enthusiasm from all. For high-stake decisions that require many people to participate in implementation, it’s important to know how to involve everyone in the process of deciding together.
To be honest, the facilitation community has so far dedicated more attention to the diverging and ideation phase of this process than to the last steps, converging and deciding. That said, there are still a lot of decision making tools you can pick from to support making decisions in a group.
* A decision is not really the end point of the story, of course. Instead of “happily ever after”, we now get the job of implementing and monitoring the decision, coming back to it in a few days, months or years to see how it’s going, revise, confirm or change it.
Trying to imagine how to reach a decision in a group without the support of facilitated activities or processes is hard indeed! By using agreed-upon tools and methods we can streamline the process, make it efficient, and distribute power in a way that makes sense for the type of decision and organisation we are in.
By introducing activities and methods to support a group in weighing up the pros and cons before taking a final decision we can reap a lot of benefits.
Many of these activities aim to enable the group to listen to itself, in all its components. At the 2022 Facilitation Impact Awards, co-host Shalaka Gundi reminded the assembly to “encourage the expression of all perspectives, including unconventional ones”. Complex challenges require a diversity of viewpoints and approaches; if we have ways for all voices to be heard, we have a higher chance of finding novel solutions to the challenges we face.
When people are given an opportunity to express their opinions and take part in shaping a decision, they will be more likely to support its implementation. This is a matter of “buy-in”. Offering activities for participatory decision making will reduce the effort needed later to ensure tasks get done and work goes ahead.
By spending time in a decision making process together, it’s easier for a team to identify potential risks in fair advance. Going through structured steps to articulate the possible consequences of a decision improves clarity. Many conflicts are avoided by clearing away potential misunderstandings at the start of the process rather than carrying them with us like dead weights.
When people claim that deciding together is a waste of time, they are probably thinking of unstructured conversations, in which participants take tangents, lose track of the topic, and ultimately agree out of sheer exhaustion. Using facilitated activities, on the other hand, can help reach convergence relatively quickly, even in a large assembly.
Furthermore, in a classic paradox familiar to any facilitator, taking more time to work through a process together saves time in the long run. This might not be initially evident, and in fact is the source of much resistance to facilitated processes: they take time. Over and over again though, we see how involving stakeholders and potential users can save a lot of trouble, time and resources in the long run. An exhaustive cost-benefit analysis, for example, can help ensure more intelligent business decisions are made.
Through deciding together, a team grows! We learn to understand one another’s needs and concerns better, both in a personal sense and in terms of the needs of the different roles and departments. In the long run, working together towards a shared course of action increases trust and awareness in a group.
What makes a decision “good”? Once the results are out, we hope to see that our decisions have been efficient, get us closer to our goals, and in a cost- or resource-effective way. Deciding on our own might be the fastest solution (and is sometimes a perfectly adequate one, see this blog article for more on why), but deciding together leads to more sustainable decisions in time.
Facilitation often focuses on the divergent part of a group process, brainstorming and creativity, but decision-making can be fun and effective as well!
Here are 27 decision making methods and activities that can help you learn how to decide better as a group, and make more effective decisions together in a well-managed flow.
Many facilitated decision-making processes go something like this: first we brainstorm options, then we vote on them, then we choose one or more to continue working on and refining. This sequence can apply, for example, to a consultation process, in which a team lead might ask the group for recommendations on actions to take in the next few months. There does not necessarily need to be “one single answer”, but an indication of interest.
In another scenario, the group might be looking for a direction for a proposal. The actual proposal will be worked on by a committee or a delegate and decided upon at a later time. Today, we are looking for ideas on what to base that proposal on. These are two possible situations in which what we are looking for is not yet a decision, but a prioritization.
Here are 6 decision-making tools that can help a group indicate preferences and rank alternatives.
This section is all about prioritization, and for prioritization, nothing beats dot-voting!
Whether you prefer sheets of sticky dots or just giving people markers, whether you are working in the physical world or with votes online, facilitators love dot-voting! Dot-voting allows a group to clearly and quickly visualize preferences and priorities at a glance. It’s a flexible, basic tool, easy to adapt to online environments as well.
There is even a mathematical formula for how many dots to assign. The formula is: N=[(T/2)xT]/P, where T=number of issues or topics, P=number of participants and N=number of dots needed for each person. Intrigued by that? Head over to this piece by John Amrhein, over at Michigan State University for a thorough explanation. Also note that it can be perfectly ok to give extra dots to the project lead or team manager, or tweak the system any other way that makes sense for your situation!
When inviting people to prioritize, it’s very important to pay attention to the words you use in formulating a question.
Rather than using generic terms such as “vote for your favorite” or “put three dots on the idea you think is best”, take some time to consider what kind of direction you are really looking for. An inspiring version of this comes from John Croft, who suggests asking “Which of these actions, if taken first, will lead to all the others happening?”. That gives a clear sense of looking for priority in time, and speaks to unblocking resources and enabling future actions.
Another useful tip is to use matrixes such as this one from the Gamestorming innovation toolkit. In this decision-making exercise, possible actions are mapped based on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. While this is similar to a cost benefit analysis, one bonus is that this matrix visualizes your various options as a basis for comparison and discussion.
The How-Now-Wow matrix follows a similar principle, but while the Impact and Effort matrix is focused on return on investment, this one is designed to select the most innovative and original plans. The X-axis denotes the originality of the idea and the Y-axis shows the ease of implementation, and the group is looking for steps forward toward the most innovative and plausible courses of action.
When people want to develop new ideas, they most often think out of the box in the brainstorming or divergent phase. However, when it comes to convergence, people often end up picking ideas that are most familiar to them. This is called a ‘creative paradox’ or a ‘creadox’. The How-Now-Wow matrix is an idea selection tool that breaks the creadox and helps the group sift through plans to select the “Wow” ones they wish to continue to work on.
This team activity is useful to increase focus and alignment in a team, particularly when there are a lot of possible options, activities or campaigns on the table. In the 20/20 Vision sequence, participants are called to spell out the perceived benefits of different courses of action, then rank them by general importance.
After this part, which is arguably the real value of the method, the facilitator asks the team to compare initiatives to one another in pairs. Which of these two is more important for the organisation? The question gets repeated, and discussions continue until all proposals are ranked.
Simple, tried and tested techniques might not be flashy, but they’re still effective ways to help you make a good decision. A Cost/Benefit analysis is among the most universally known way to help a company make a financial decision on how to move forward.
Start by clustering your ideas and then measure each by the cost associated with them as a team. Be sure to involve stakeholders to get an accurate costing, then move onto perceived benefits. Rank your items along these two axes to see which potential decision makes the most sense.
Working with restrictions, conditions and limiting factors is very useful to converge on a realistic decision. The 100$ test activity leverages this to speed up decision making and keep discussions grounded in the realities of resource allocation. Participants are asked to rank a list of items, initiatives or ideas based on how they would allocate an imaginary budget spending to each.
By using the concept of cash, this decision making technique captures more attention and keeps participants more engaged than an arbitrary point or ranking system. If this activity had a slogan it would surely be: put your money where your mouth is!
The convergent phase of a decision making process flows best when constraints are clearly identified. The NUF Test helps with this by encouraging team members to test a potential decision against three limiting factors: is it New? Is it Useful? Is it Feasible?
This test, which is derived from processes used in patents, consists in a simple matrix written up on a whiteboard. Include a line for each idea, and rank solutions in terms of novelty, feasibility, and usefulness. This kind of simple analysis can really help make comparing pros and cons easier.
One of the most talked-about (and feared!) group dynamics is Groupthink. This refers to the risk that people will prefer harmony over innovation and, in any decision-making process, will go with whatever is the most popular option—or the option preferred by whoever is in charge! This is truly a dangerous dynamic that can take groups down the rabbit hole of complacency. How to prevent it from happening?
In general, groupthink is less likely to happen the more trust there is in the team. In an environment of psychological safety, everyone is encouraged to express their actual thoughts, not what they think others want them to think. Much of the facilitator’s work is directed at creating just such an environment. In the specific context of decision-making, here are 4 decision-making techniques that support psychological safety and will help you avoid groupthink!
1-2-4-all is the essential go-to method to combine in a single, effective flow, individual reflection, paired discussion and shared opinions. Any activity that includes individual reflection before making statements that are heard by others will help prevent groupthink.
Ask participants to brainstorm their ideas in their own notes, or to decide what they will dot-vote and write it on a sheet of paper. Give some time for individual work and only then invite actions that make that work visible to all (such as marking a vote on a shared whiteboard). It’s that simple!
In De Bono’s classic thinking hats method, the different hats represent different points of view on a topic with the facilitator (blue hat) inviting everyone to “wear” the different hats in turn. The white hat is for collecting data, and the green hat is for innovative ideas. Avoid groupthink by making sure everyone gets to wear the black hat before making decisions.
If a team is afraid to express contrasting views or, perhaps, unwilling to straight-out criticize a plan coming from the manager, a facilitator can make it safer to navigate that territory by explicitly inviting criticism in. In De Bono’s method, this is called the black hat. When we wear the black hat we are looking for risks, weak points and blind spots. Let’s all wear the black hat for a moment and see if we can come up with thoughts on why this is not a good idea!
Remove the obstacles to critical thinking with TRIZ! In this seriously fun method, participants dwell on the question: What could we do to make sure we achieve the absolute worst result possible? Next, in a second round: what are we already doing that looks like that (and we therefore should stop doing)?
Laughter often erupts, issues that are otherwise taboo get a chance to be aired and confronted. With creative destruction come opportunities for renewal as local action and innovation rush in to fill the vacuum. According to this intriguing article from the Harvard Business Review, avoiding groupthink is all about creating enough trust to be able to constructively challenge the way things have been done so far, and TRIZ is the perfect tool for that!
Conducting an analysis of various solutions and ideas without relying on intuition is a great method to bring to your process. Use an affinity map when you want to see pattens and make recommendations based the data generated from a brainstorm or other idea generation activity.
Start by putting all your ideas and possible solutions on post-its and then cluster them based on relationships and ideas clusters. Once you’ve clustered your ideas, you can then combine, remove and refine in order to move close to a final decision.
In collective decision making it is key to find ways to enable everyone to express their agreement or disagreement with a certain course of action. It’s important to make space to hear different perspectives and evaluate before making decisions. Here are four practical decision making tools you can use to test the waters and enable all participants to make their voices heard.
As a precondition to collective decision making, we should know what type of problem we are facing. Different levels of uncertainty require different decision-making rules. If a problem is simple, for example, it’s not worth spending collective energy and time working on. An individual decision will suffice. On the other hand, group decision making is best suited to complicated or complex scenarios which require expertise and diversity.
But how do we know what kind of problem we are facing? The Agreement-Certainty practice from Liberating Structures invites participants to sit in small groups with the question “What type of problem are we facing?” Participants are invited to place their current challenges in a matrix based on these two questions:
- What is the degree of agreement among the participants regarding the challenge and the best way to address it?
- What is the degree of certainty and predictability about what results will be generated from the solutions proposed for addressing the challenge?
An awareness of the distinctions between simple, complicated, complex and chaotic scenarios is an important part of a team’s journey toward decision making mastery. The Cynefin framework is a more in-depth look into this topic, designed to support leaders to make decisions in context.
A big obstacle to taking decisions together is a tendency to want to push one’s favorite course of action rather than accept a decision that will work well, but is not everyone’s first preference. A concept that vastly helps to overcome this obstacle is the idea of a range of tolerance.
This activity from Airbus Leadership University invites participants to clarify and share what options are a “Personal preference”, which would encounter their firm “Objection” and what falls in their “Range of tolerance”. Visualising a wider area of tolerance, rather than limiting choices to a narrow Yes/No binary, makes it easier to find solutions that are acceptable to all parties. Very useful before a final decision is made.
Feedback Frames are a colorful and fun solution designed by Jason Diceman in 2014 to facilitate the expression and visualization of preferences after a brainstorming or ideation session. Participants rate statements by dropping tokens in a range of slots that are hidden by a cover, with results later revealed as a visual graph of opinions.
This simple in-person analog tool (which can be ordered internationally at the Feedback Frames website) uses secret score voting to recognize nuanced gradients of agreement towards consensus and avoid traditional voting problems such as groupthink and vote-splitting.
Once the group has prioritized a few possible courses of action, a decision-making technique like Gradients of Agreement helps clarify how everyone feels with respect to each option. This tool supports inclusion by ensuring team members have an opportunity to specify the level of their agreement or disagreement with a decision under discussion.
By marking their choice of a statement ranging from whole-hearted endorsement to vetoing, participants can express views in a more nuanced way than a mere “yes/no” vote. This version of what is also known as “quality voting” comes from the work of Sam Kaner and associates in the classic Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.
Fist to Five is a simple series of hand signals solving the problem of how to test for agreement, and move towards convergence, in a way that is easy to communicate, quick to do, and can work for large gatherings. Like other solutions such as Gradients of Agreement and Feedback Frames, it is based on the idea of giving participants more options than just Yes or No, in this case inviting them to show interest in a certain proposal on a scale from 0 to 5, with a show of hands (or, better, of fingers).
This 1-minute activity can on its own be enough to quickly clarify which course of action the group should take. In other cases, it might not be decisive on its own, but can still help decision makers and facilitators decide the next steps. Checking for agreement in this quick way might, for example, lead to discarding one option but keeping another two to continue working with using other tools.
In closing, it’s useful to support individuals in understanding what individual action they will need to take personally to implement the decision. Once the direction has been set collectively, what are the practical next steps? The next 5 decision-making tools are great to close a workshop session on a pragmatic note, ensuring that everyone leaves with a clear sense of their personal next steps.
Start, Stop, Continue is a very flexible exercise developed by Gamestorming methods. It simply asks participants to share their responses to 3 questions: What do we need to start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing?
Use this activity after a decision has been agreed upon to define the practical next steps for its implementation. Sharing what we need to start, stop and continue will of course lead to a discussion. If there is no time left for that, you can still use a variation of the same activity, simply asking each participant for one action they will start, stop and/or continue in order to make sure the decision is implemented effectively.
Backcasting is a very effective planning tool to support defining next steps. It makes sense to use it after a decision making process if the decision is long-term and implementation steps are not yet clear.
In a bit of time-travel, the facilitator invites participants to describe what success will be like in, say, 5 or 10 years if the decision is implemented. Then, the group moves to ideating what needs to be done in 5, 2, 1 year, in order to put the conditions for success in place. And what about in 6 months? And tomorrow? Backcasting is a wonderful tool for transforming a common goal into a practical plan.
In a similar vein to backcasting, this activity from Hyper Island encourages participants to use their imagination to visualise what will happen in the future once the decision is implemented, then works backwards to define practical actions. In small groups, participants share the overall vision, supporting and hindering factors, and land on defining three next steps to take.
This is a small-scale strategic planning session that helps groups and individuals to take action toward a desired change. It is often used at the end of a workshop or programme.
Economist Gareth Morgan popularized the idea of 15% solutions in his 1998 article, where he stated that small actions that can be taken easily have the potential to trigger substantial change. “What is your 15 percent? Where do you have discretion and freedom to act? What can you do without more resources or authority?”
Use this quick, practical decision making technique to encourage participants to take immediate action to implement a decision they have just taken. Make sure to stress that this is about small, easy actions (a phone call, an email, setting a meeting): taking action immediately is a boost to motivation, empowerment and self-organisation.
Looking for some activities for a training workshop on decision-making? Here are 5 ideas to start with! These are games and simulations designed to help a group think through a decision together. Run them with your team, then settle down to debrief and discuss what works well for you in deciding together!
It’s important for a team to build a shared understanding of the different possible ways a decision can be taken. Delegation levels is a decision making technique designed to get your group talking about when it is appropriate for a leader to decide on their own, when consultation is necessary, when to decide together. The group over at Management 3.0 has designed handouts and a set of “poker cards” to help you clarify management styles and possible different approaches to decision-making. Having more options in mind allows for more flexibility and adaptability in the team!
Escape hopeland is a game created for an Erasmus+ youth exchange which can definitely inspire you to create something similar based on the specific needs of the team you are working with. Create a map, which can refer to a real-world situation, a board game, or an online whiteboard with a series of “stations”.
Each station represents a decision, a choice, or an ethical dilemma. Participants navigate the map differently based on their choices, then regroup at the end to discuss.
As with all such role-playing games, the debrief part of the activity is crucial. Facilitate a conversation around powerful questions such as: how did you influence one another in deciding?
Becoming skilled decision-makers also implies being aware of personal biases, styles and approaches in deciding. By learning more about them, we grow in personal awareness, and increase trust and effectiveness in a team.
This activity from Thiagi group is designed to open a discussion around risk-taking. Why are some people more or less risk averse, and how will that influence our decisions as a whole?
Personally, I remember when my co-facilitator casually mentioned in passing that I was more risk-averse than him. It led to a cascade of realizations; talking about this difference in our preferences and styles brought us to a wiser place, where I take decisions for the team if a situation is risky, and he does the same in safer spaces, leading to a better balance and a forward momentum in our team!
In this simulation meant to stretch our moral and ethics muscles, the group discusses options they would take in a difficult scenario. The debrief focusses on understanding that we make decisions based on different personal sets of values.
The implication here is that in order to efficiently make decisions as a group, we need to first clarify our group values, as well as share a general understanding of each other’s value sets, so that they may all be acknowledged and addressed. Shared group values can become north stars to guide and align decision-making.
The cushions game is a playful way to start a deep conversation around competition, cooperation, win-win solutions and the importance of clear communication of goals.
The facilitator assigns three groups different instructions that appear to be incompatible. There is, in fact, a win-win-win solution, but in order to reach it participants must be willing to start communicating with the perceived adversary and reveal their goal.
I’ve led this game innumerable times, and have unforgettable memories of members of a small political party turning it into an unsolvable pillow fight… as well as of conflict resolution students solving it in less than 60 seconds (admirable, albeit anti-climatic). Extremes apart, it is a fun game that can lead to some powerful revelations in the debrief section.
Now that you are familiar with the building blocks of converging on a group decision, you might be wondering how to string these all together. Here are four examples of complete workflows going from brainstorming all the way to implementing a shared decision.
A very pragmatic, lighting-quick approach to going from ideation to decision comes in this method card contributed by AJ&Smart. Here is a great example of putting it all together in a design-sprint inspired flow!
Start by framing the challenge, go on to ideating solutions, dot-voting, prioritizing via an impact/effort matrix, and selecting actionable tasks for implementation. Short, focused sessions like this are great for making decisions quickly and effectively as a group.
Consent decision-making, as described by practitioners of Sociocracy, is a highly effective way to reach group decisions. Once a team is skilled in using it (which, disclaimer, can take some time and training!), decisions come quickly and efficiently. Participants know that their fears will be kept into consideration and included in the decision, as long as they see clear risks to the group and its mission.
In this activity, you’ll find a summary explanation of how consent works in teams. The practice develops as a series of talking rounds, in which participants can ask clarification questions, then express their feelings and comments and finally give their consent or objection to a proposal. In effect, the proposal is co-designed by the entire team through a structured process. To find more details on sociocracy you can refer to the education organization Sociocracy for All’s website.
Consent decision-making in practice works as a series of facilitated rounds, designed to refine a proposal and ensure concerns are identified and integrated into an improved decision.
Find here a detailed template you can read through and take inspiration from to ferry a group from ideation into deciding based on sociocratic principles.
How to effectively take decisions together while working in a fully remote team? At SessionLab we use a structured decision making process to set priorities and decide what we will work on each quarter. Check out this detailed article to see what works for us, from ideating actions to checking who will do what.
This is a highly participatory consultation process, as each team manager has the last word as to tasks to prioritize and metrics to assign. We’ve found it an effective way of making business decisions as a team. In the accompanying template you can find further details on how much time to assign to each step.
What activities have you used to support decision-making? Do they reflect the ones we’ve collected here? If you have any new ones, consider adding them to SessionLab’s library of methods: as mentioned above, facilitators tend to have a richer toolkit for divergence than for convergence, so let’s work on closing that gap!