Collaborative decision making

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These days my team has been all but immersed in organizational change related to diversity, equity and inclusion. We have helped clients who are beginning their DEI journey, and others who have put much into place already, and they are eager to identify and fill any gaps.  


In the journey toward becoming an equitable organization, our clients are sometimes faced with the challenge of reflecting upon their decision making. That is, they are leveling decision making power between the traditional decision-makers and those who hold no positional power 


Recently we recommended that a client explore more collaborative decision-making models, and move away from their strict hierarchical decision-making structure that felt cumbersome,outdated and exclusivefor employees, this structure sowed mistrust. One of the leaders questioned what this meant. “Doesn’t somebody have to be the boss?” she wondered.  


It’s a fair question, and it reveals a perception that being collaborative means that no one has the final wordThere is a final word, but how leaders get there is the question. I see two implications for collaborative decision-making that affect how leaders get to that decision point. One is about process, and the other is personal.  


A process that opens up decision-making—one that allows multiple organizational levels to, not only be heard, but be given real weight—should first determine which decisions warrant a collaborative approachCertainly not every decision in an organization must be collaborative. Criteria could include the degree to which a decision will impact many stakeholder groups, that resulting changes are long-lasting, that they require significant resources, or that the impact could potentially be felt inequitably. Once criteria are set, how does an organization go about collecting insight from multiple interested parties? The size of the organization, its workplace culture and other factors can determine what is appropriate, so there is no one right answer. Anonymous surveys, employee check-ins, and small or large group discussions are options, and the method used for input may vary from open ended discussion to voting on options. The client I mentioned above began by bringing together the senior leadership team, whom employees perceived as calling all the shots, with a DEI advisory body of leaders one level down. Their first step was to discuss the way key decisions could be made within this combined team.  


Fortunately, if your process is set up in a way that allows people to understand each other, the final decision isn’t a win-lose so much as it is creative solution that everyone can live with. When our team is tasked with bringing a group to consensus, we use the following process: 


  • Coalescing into a healthy and committed team that begins building bonds with one another 
  • Generating common objectives and ground rules that will direct and govern the group’s work together  
  • Engaging in free-flowing, divergent thinking to generate many diverse ideas without open evaluation, and  
  • Engaging in convergent thinking to sort ideas, exercise judgment of ideas and ultimately coming to a decision 


This process that opens up decision making belies the personal self-reflection and change that will be inevitably be neededAs a leader, once you hear perspectives with which you may disagree, the challenge is letting go of your leaders’ intuition and authority. This feeling of sharing power may bring real discomfortBut this is one thing I hope we can learn from 2020the voices at the top do not hold all the knowledge needed to make complex decisions that are sustainable, both in human and financial termsThere are, in plain sight, huge pockets of insight that are already generating new solutions, whether or not they are noticed by the traditional influencers at the top.  


Related article: “An Investment in Collaboration Creates Trust and Better Customer Service