Many teams lack a clear process for making decisions. Others create decision-making processes that are plenty clear, but take forever. Most employ a confused mix, running some decisions through an agonizing gauntlet of analysis but leaving others up to the leader-of-the-day's whims.
These teams waste money and time. They also undermine the group's confidence and trust.
Who wants to work on a team where nothing gets done, because no one ever makes a decision without first checking and re-analyzing 97,000 times? Not me. Not you, I'm guessing.
None of us wants to work with a leader who makes arbitrary decisions based on secret criteria, either. While executive mandate sounds powerful, in reality it means that the leader couldn't get anyone else to back that decision with them, so they chose to bully it into being instead.
What works? And if your team doesn't have great decision making habits, how do you get started?
We've done A LOT of work on decision-making in meetings, with lots of experts in lots of industries. We also happen to run a company here. Through all that, here are the five steps (and backing resources) we recommend to clients working to improve their decision making processes.
Here's a quick overview. Then, read on for details.
- Step 1: Define clear decision making processes and train people to use them.
Yes, I said processes - multiple. You need more than one way to make decisions, because not all decisions are the same. Some decisions deserve lots of analysis and debate, some just a little, and others should be up to the individuals most directly involved.
There are four major categories of group decision making processes, and a bazillion methodologies. You'll pick two to five specific examples for your team. (View Step 1)
- Step 2: Agree on which kind of decisions get made using which process.
When your team faces a new decision, they need easy ways to recognize which process they should use. In this step, you'll create some guiding principles and test them against real-life examples. These examples combined with a how-to for each process form the core of your decision-making agreement as a team. (View Step 2)
- Step 3: Develop standard criteria for big decisions.
Any time you're facing a difficult decision, you'll want to identify three or more viable options then analyze these to find the best one. The criteria you use can and should change based on the decision, but you'll speed everything up if you start with a core set of golden questions. You can see the ones we use below. (View Step 3)
- Step 4: Create a decision log for documenting and communicating every decision.
This critical step builds trust, creates decision-making discipline, and speeds everything up. Your decision log needs to outline both the decision made and details about how the decision was made. (View Step 4)
- Step 5: Run regular decision audits to keep it real and keep it fresh.
Every six months or so, run a Decision Review meeting. This is a specialized Action Review meeting where you review all the decisions your team made over the past period and discuss the results. Then, together you decide if you need to adjust any of your processes. You probably do. Decision making is tricky stuff. (View Step 5)
Let's look at each step in more detail.
Step 1. Define clear decision making processes and train people to use them.
There are four major approaches to decision making in a group: Command, Consult, Consensus, and Counting Votes.
Briefly, here's how they work.
One person makes the decision. They either act on the decision independently, or tell other people about the decision.
One person takes responsibility for making the decision after seeking input from others.
A designated voting group votes on one or more options. The winning vote sets the decision.
The group arrives at a decision together, often after extended discussions, and everyone agrees to support it.
How do these work in practice? Lots of ways! You can read more about each approach, the pros-and-cons, and see example methods for implementing them here:
In general, you want to make easy/simple decisions quickly. Whenever possible, you want to take more time to work through difficult and/or very important decisions. That "working through" time involves analyzing your options and building the internal support you need to implement the decision.
If you find this impossibly weird and overwhelming, try skipping ahead to step 2. In step 2, you answer questions like "who makes the decision about renewing our lease?" You might find it easier to identify and document your decision-making processes when you're working with concrete examples like this.
What We Do at Lucid
We're a small company, which means we can (and must) keep our processes light. We use three decision making approaches.
Command for anything obvious, small, or clearly within a single person's area of authority.
This means everyone has the authority and responsibility for making lots of decisions. We don't require documentation for the small or obvious ones, although we do post a quick note in group chat most of the time.
Command, with a hint of consultation.
For larger command decisions, we use a kind of reverse-consult. Here's how that works.
- The person responsible for the decision makes it.
- They announce the decision to the group and invite feedback, ideally before they've acted on the decision.
- The group chimes in with any feedback. Most of the time this is a quick thumbs-up. Sometimes it's a note about something the decision maker hadn't considered. Either way, the decision maker still has the final say.
- The decision gets recorded in our decision log. (See Step 4 for details on that.)
In our team, we often run through this whole process quickly in our group chat, which works for us because we're small.
This template by Paul Axtell spells out a fabulous way to achieve the same goal in a meeting, which you may want to do on larger teams.
Consult for complex or high-stakes decisions.
Even for the big decisions, we continue to identify the person responsible for making the decision. But when you're faced with a complex or high-stakes decision where there's no way to determine a single right answer in advance, that responsibility is more of a burden than a privilege.
For these situations, the decision maker takes the lead, but we all chip in. Here's how we keep the lines of responsibility clear while also benefiting from everyone's wisdom and support.
- We work to identify at least three viable options.
For the simple or merely complicated situations, the decision maker declares a single option which we can all chime in on. That presents everyone a black-and-white picture: either we're doing it my way, or not. That's not a problem for any situation where you can find "right" answers, but in a complex situation, that's what we call a false dichotomy and it's a major trap.
We work to avoid that trap by outlining at least 3 choices using our core criteria (see step 3 below) and any other factors that seem relevant.
- We discuss the decision in a meeting.
Here's a template outlining how to run that one.
You can use that same template to achieve consensus or when counting votes, too, or you can use templates built specifically for those processes. For us, even when we achieve a natural consensus (which we often do), the decision-maker still takes responsibility.
- The decision maker documents the decision in the meeting, which adds it to our log.
Ok, that's step one. Identify the decision making processes you'll use.
Step 2. Agree on which kind of decisions get made using which process.
At Lucid, we identify responsible decision makers for pretty much every decision.
In your world, you may have some decisions that work like ours do and some that require approval by committee - or even public vote. Regardless of which processes you use, it's important to know when to use each one.
Quick Aside About Working with Big Organizations
If you provide services to any large organizations, you need to understand their decision-making processes too.
For example, it's very common for a big organization to have a well-defined "waterline" for purchases. Any purchase that costs less than a certain amount, meaning it's "above the waterline," can be approved by a person or small group at their discretion. Bigger purchases go through more scrutiny, more internal committees, and take way, way longer to approve.
That's why as a vendor, you can often be more successful selling a series of smaller-budget items (which in the end cost more) than a single large-budget item.
Eric Coryell and Tammy Adams Span developed a really smart way to work through this by creating a Decision Matrix. It's a document you create collaboratively with your team that spells out the process used and the people involved for all kinds of example decisions.
Here's a template for running that meeting.
The matrix you create helps remind everyone about the process later, so that's handy. I feel that the discussions you have with your team as you work to complete the matrix are even more valuable, because it gives you a way to test how you think decisions should work against real-world examples.
What We Do At Lucid
Our business evolves pretty quickly, so we don't use a decision matrix per se. Instead, we use a combination of clear roles and responsibilities, so everyone knows what part of the business they're responsible for, and the Cynefin domains to help us recognize when a decision warrants a more thoughtful approach.
If you're familiar with the Cynefin framework, you may spot a simplified version of it lurking in the picture with the boat above. If it's new to you, check out this short video from Jennifer Garvey Berger, author of the excellent short book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps.
The short version for us:
If we're facing a complex decision (where there's just no way to know what the "right" choice might be) we need to find at least three viable options and talk it through in a meeting before we commit. Ideally, we try to choose an approach that starts with several small experiments to test out the decision, because we really can't say in advance how it will all play out.
Raising the question, how does a team efficiently compare multiple options?
Step 3. Develop standard criteria for big decisions.
Have you ever responded to a Request For Proposal (RFP), with its pages and pages of Musts, Shoulds, and Nice to Have selection criteria?
Or, let's keep it simple. Have you ever worked with your team to decide where you should go for lunch?
If you've ever chosen between multiple viable options, you've used decision-making criteria to make that choice.
With most decisions, the criteria are obvious and/or automatic. When deciding where to go for lunch, you're picking somewhere nearby, somewhere not too expensive, somewhere fast, and a place serving food everyone in your group will eat. At my office, that narrows it down to about 20 places (hurrah, Portland!).
Once we're narrowed down to 20 or so dining options, we get into secondary criteria. Do we know the owners? Have we been there too often recently? How's the ambiance, and the service? Finally, (or first) what sounds good right now?
We know how to establish and evaluate criteria for lots of decisions like this. We're not always very good at it, but that's human bias and emotion for you. Can't trust it to make optimal decisions, and you can't make any decisions without it. (For more on this, read The Leader's Guide for Making Decisions in Meetings - Part 1: The Science of How We Make Decisions
But how do you select standard criteria for your organization? Our little lunch example already includes eight criteria, and it's not a big decision! When you think of all the possible criteria you could analyze for those big ones, it quickly gets out of control.
Let's consider for a moment the RFP example - a process that seems like a good way for organizations to be responsible with their money. In reality, the RFP process often costs WAY more time, effort, agony, money, good will and delay than it ever saves. So, to move things along, everyone involved learns how to "work the system" - thereby defeating the purpose for the system in the first place.
There are three ways you can avoid this.
1. Define minimal criteria for each big decision.
This template by Beatrice Briggs walks you through how to do that with your group.
2. Use a predefined decision-making framework.
Most frameworks include some predefined criteria and some process steps that help a group work through those.
Need examples? You can browse several frameworks in these articles. But be forewarned; there is a mega-internet-level rabbit hole lurking behind each one, so block out some time and get ready to explore the wonderland.
- The 6 Decision-Making Frameworks That Help Startup Leaders Tackle Tough Calls on First Round Review
- Deciding How to Decide by Hugh Courtney, Dan Lovallo, and Carmina Clarke for Harvard Business Review
- Peruse MindTools section on Decision Making
- Grab a carrot and run a search on "Decision making in your sector."
e.g., "Decision making in hospitals", or "Decision making in intentional communities", or "Decision making in sales teams."
3. Keep it easy and use ours!
I've been down the rabbit hole, and I can tell you that it's full of cake and potions that never get it quite exactly right. Every framework works way better than winging it, but every one also struggles to find the right balance between irresponsible brevity (too short!) and analysis paralysis (too big!).
After reviewing these frameworks and the techniques researchers found most likely to improve decision-making quality, we decided to outline our own standard criteria. We settled on this set because they're flexible, giving you room to scale up or down the amount of detail we bring into the decision, and they work well when evaluating the options for all kinds of very different decisions.
Here's how it works. Once you've identified at least three viable options, answer these questions for each one.
Lucid Decision Making Criteria
What are the facts? You're looking for objective logic-feeders like costs, size, who’s involved, timeline, etc. We leave this section intentionally generic, so that the people making the decision can choose the facts that best support the decision at hand. You'll see how this plays out further on.
There are two questions here:
- What would it take for this option to work out? What resources and steps would be involved?
- What could happen to make this totally fail?
Two more questions:
- If this option worked out, what would we be celebrating a year from now (or whatever the timeline should be)?
- If this goes badly, what happens to us?
Final two questions:
- If this works out, what does it do to our community?
- What happens to our community if this fails?
Why these questions?
Writing this down helps anyone you’re deciding with make sure you both actually understand the options in the same way. It’s shocking how often people don’t realize they’re talking about completely different things, or looking at entirely different facts, and this helps avoid those kind of misunderstandings.
It also highlights individual biases, as the facts each person chooses helps you understand how they perceive that option and the decision.
By the way, these individual differences are a very good thing. There are always more facts than any one of us can care about, so getting everyone's version of the "facts" on the table means you get to benefit by learning from all those unique perspectives.
We have a natural tendency to be optimistic about things we want, and to rationalize (i.e., make up something) to justify why we should get it.
Forecasting the literal steps it would take to make something work helps bring in some realism. Do you have the time and resources to pull this off? If the option you're considering relies on one of those "a miracle occurs" steps, that's good to know in advance.
Forecasting how a plan could fail helps point out obvious risks. It also helps you make a better plan if you choose this option, because you can work to avoid those failures up front. This technique—deliberately exploring the possibility of failure—is known as a “pre-mortem” and has proven one of the most effective techniques for improving decision quality in the research on the topic.
Here, we include these two questions as part of our decision-making criteria. They're so powerful we also use them as steps in our standard Project Kickoff Meeting.
Research shows that we make decisions using emotion. Picking 3 options, then outlining facts and forecasting helps bring some logic to the decision.
The experience questions now deliberately tap into the intuitive wisdom locked in our emotional centers by helping us get clearer about our vision. Vision (literally the seeing-things kind) is the strongest sense in the brain, and when you envision celebrating, you can often “see” details of the plan in your mind that make it clearer what steps you’d need to take to get there and whether that party is really worth the effort.
We also practice envisioning success because it can clarify the underlying reasons why we might be drawn to one option over another. It helps us find the deeper "Why?" behind our want.
For example, if you envision the successful outcome of buying a bigger car is that you'll go on and experience more comfortable trips, you might realize that going on trips is what you really want; not the car. Then, you can consider other ways you might go on trips (which is what you really want to celebrate), opening up options that may cost less and save you space in the driveway.
On the other hand, the question about what it would be like to experience failure helps make the consequences of a bad decision personal; if this goes bad, what happens to me? We don’t like to think that our plans could end catastrophically, and this question forces us to acknowledge that possibility.
The questions about ethics help tie the decision to your values.
The facts, forecast, and experience questions all make the impact of the decision clearer to the people making the decision, but they don’t take into account how a decision might impact anyone else.
For some groups, these questions never come up otherwise. For others, they talk about community impact all the time and don’t talk enough about the facts or how they personally are impacted by a decision.
Dealing with the ethics question separately makes sure it gets addressed and helps put it in balance with the other decision making criteria.
How to Use These Criteria
Here's what we recommend.
- Answer the questions individually for each option.
Each person involved in the decision-making process answers the questions individually before the meeting. Try to keep the answers short. Use bulleted lists or simple phrases; just enough to capture the idea. When you’ve finished looking at all three options, review your answers and refine them with anything else you’ve thought up.
- Share your answers and read them before the meeting.
- Discuss your answers during the meeting, then make the decision.
Share and compare everyone's answers. Make it easy by giving everyone 5 minutes to read through all the answers silently and jot down anything that strikes them. Then, start talking about what you're seeing. The decision is made after discussing what you all discovered through this comparison.
Here's a simple Excel worksheet you can use to get started.
Now that you have a decision, it's time to write it down.
Step 4. Create a decision log to document and communicate every decision.
We picked up this tip from the team at Cloverpop. They provide research-backed software and services designed to improve a team's decision-making performance, which means they know a thing or two about how to support great decision making over time.
Here's what you do.
- Document every decision in a central decision log.
We use Lucid for this (more below). You could use Lucid too, or Cloverpop, or another system of record for yours.
- Share the decision.
Share with your immediate team, of course, and anyone else who should know.
What to Document for Each Decision
Erik Larson, Cloverpop's CEO, explained that it's not enough to simply write down what the decision was. A well-documented decision includes this information.
- The Decision
- Rationale, explaining briefly why this decision was made.
- Alternatives Considered, listing what else the group thought about but then chose against.
- Those Involved, listing the people who participated in the decision making process.
The last two pieces, documenting the alternatives considered and who was involved, are critical for building trust and efficiency into the decision-making process.
Why does that matter so much?
Because it turns out that people don't actually feel they need to be directly involved in every decision—that's exhausting!—but they do want to know that their concerns were considered and that the process used to reach the decision was fair.
If your team doesn't understand the process used to make a decision, they may mistrust those decisions—even when they yield a fabulous outcome. You need trust to get efficiency, because otherwise people waste time second-guessing every decision before they take action.
Explaining the rationale behind a decision helps some, but a suspicious or frustrated person will assume that the decision makers are fabricating reasons that justify doing what they want. By sharing what else you considered and who else was involved, everyone can see that the decision wasn't arbitrary.
Listing the alternatives considered also resolves some of the questions that tend to come up (much) later, when someone wonders "Why are we doing this? Did they consider XYZ?"
Here's your first awesome benefit to using a decision log. This practice builds trust in the decision, because it makes the decision process more transparent.
A second benefit: you'll make better decisions when you know you must document and share them. This works really well for a team like ours, where many decisions get made by one or two people. Those people slow down and think a bit harder when they know they'll have to share what else they considered and who else they consulted. No one wants to look stupid or sloppy in front of their team, and this practice helps them prevent that.
You can benefit even further by creating an opportunity for feedback. When someone sees a decision, they may realize that the decision makers missed a better alternative. With the information in front of them and a feedback process in place, they can speak up and save the day!
We track our decisions using Lucid Meetings. Here's what that looks like.
Step 5. Run regular decision audits to keep it real and keep it fresh.
Audits take time to examine a process and make sure it's performing according to the standards it's designed to support. In their article The Decision-Driven Organization, authors Blenko, Mankins, and Rogers suggest running a decision audit in preparation for a major reorganization.
We find decision audits even more valuable when we run them as a regular business practice.
A decision audit reviews the real decisions you've made to determine whether the decisions you're making are good ones, and whether the process is working for you.
At Lucid, we run our decision audits using a standard action review process.
A quick reminder: Action Reviews are used to formalize learning and find ways to improve going forward.
When run regularly, a decision audit is NOT a quality-control process; it's part of the learning and improving process. If your organization is large and complex enough to warrant a quality-control process too, read this article by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo, and Olivier Sibony - three of the leading thinkers working on decision making today.
Here's the agenda we use for that meeting.
Decision Audit Meeting Agenda
- Greetings and Confirmation of Goals
- What decisions did we make since we last met?
- What do we notice about these decisions?
- What's working well in our decision making process?
- What do we feel needs improvement?
- What do we want to change going forward?
- Confirm Next Steps and Next Meeting Date
Why You Should Make Time for a Decision Audit
We based our decision-making audit template on the action review process because action reviews are the best way we know to drive innovation.
Several studies have shown that groups that make high-quality decisions quickly outperform all the others. Once you establish a process, you're already leaps ahead of everyone who's winging it.
But just because you have a process, that doesn't mean you're making good decisions. Or, while you may be making excellent decisions, they could be taking you way too long, which means you're likely to miss windows of opportunity that your competitors will grab.
Without the audit, you risk two common failures:
- People will stick with a bad process because they don't feel they have the authority to change it. Government is full of this.
- People will ignore any part of the process they don't like and go back to rogue cowboy decision making.
The decision audit gives everyone both the permission and responsibility to change the process if it's not working.
More importantly, the decision audit brings the focus back to the big picture: how do we make the best decisions we can quickly and efficiently?
Finally, this meeting gives you an opportunity to look back and see progress. When your team sees how one decision led to another, you can detect patterns that get buried when we're busy. You can see everything you've accomplished. Or, if you're suffering from a particularly bad decision, you can go back and reconsider some of those alternatives. :)
If you love getting better all the time, document your decisions and run regular decision audits.
I know what you're thinking, but it's not too much.
"Ack! We have no time. I can't even breathe, we're so busy! How could we possibly find time to run through these steps!"
I hear these objections all the time when I talk about improving a team's meetings, and I'm sure you're thinking the same thing right now. Usually the people complaining that they don't have time to fix their meetings are completely booked in back-to-back meetings.
Apparently they can't spare any time to fix their meetings, but they have time to run ineffective, pointless, waste-of-time meetings day after day.
I'm guessing the same might be true for your decision making process.
If you don't believe you have time to establish a decent process, how can you imagine you have time to waste on recovering from bad decisions? Or on guessing what decisions your team members made? Or, worst of all, how can you afford to waste time frittered away not doing much of anything because no one made a decision yet? Ain't nobody got time for that!
We are always better off doing something well once rather than badly many times.
Put it to work. Share your experience.
I hope you found some part of this useful and that you find a way to put it to use for your team. If you do, please drop us a note in the comments. Your comment may add that key insight others need to improve the world around them, so don't hold back!
Also, if you'd like to explore more about decision making in groups and decision-making meetings, visit our Decision Making Meetings resource page.
What is a decision making process?
A decision making process describes how your organization makes timely, effective decisions without creating analysis paralysis.
What are the five recommended steps to Establishing a decision making process?
- Define clear decision making processes and train people to use them.
- Agree on which kind of decisions get made using which process.
- Develop standard criteria for big decisions.
- Create a decision log for documenting and communicating every decision.
- Run regular decision audits to keep it real and keep it fresh
What are the four major approaches for decision making in a group?
- Command - One person makes the decision. They either act on the decision independently, or tell other people about the decision.
- Consult - One person takes responsibility for making the decision after seeking input from others.
- Counting Votes - A designated voting group votes on one or more options. The winning vote sets the decision.
- Consensus - The group arrives at a decision together, often after extended discussions, and everyone agrees to support it.
What are good examples of decision making criteria?
Most decision making frameworks include some predefined criteria and some process steps that help a group work through those. Within Lucid Meetings our criteria looks like the following.
- Facts - What are the facts? You're looking for objective logic-feeders like costs, size, who's involved, timeline, etc.
- Forecast - What would it take for this option to work out? What could happen to make this totally fail?
- Experience - If this option worked out, what would we be celebrating a year from now? If this goes badly, what happens to us?
- Ethics - If this works out, what does it do to our community? What happens to our community if this fails?
What details should I document for each decision?
- The Decision - It may seem obvious, but recording the actual decision is a step that's often missed!
- Rationale, explaining briefly why this decision was made.
- Alternatives Considered, listing what else the group thought about but then chose against.
- Those Involved, listing the people who participated in the decision making process.
Why should we audit the decisions we've already made?
Without the audit, you risk some common failures. People may stick with a bad process because they don't feel they have the authority to change it. People may ignore any part of the process they don't like and go back to rogue cowboy decision making. The decision audit gives everyone both the permission and responsibility to change the process if it's not working.