I used to believe that everything was a choice.

Whether I ate healthy food or not: a choice. Whether I obsessed over past slights or whether I forgave and moved on: a choice. I believed every action I took, and every action everyone takes, began with a decision to act.

I believed this choosing applied to organizations too. Do you run decent meetings, or do you ignore the ineptitude and hope it will go away on it’s own? That’s a choice.

Yep. That sounded right to me. I’m big on self-responsibility that way.

Lately, my conviction has been shaken. I no longer believe every action follows a choice.

Now I believe instead that every action is a reaction. This goes for actions taken by organizations and those taken by individuals.

Begging the question: a reaction to what?

• We react to incidents imposed uncontrollably upon us. Unthinking gut reactions.
• We react based on internal biases, beliefs, old patterns and imagined constraints built up over time. Unquestioned rote reactions.
• And hopefully, sometimes, when we’re lucky and at our best, we react inspired by informed decisions made with intent. In control, aware, and purposeful.

Our futures are shaped by our actions; some say that the meaning of life itself is to choose those actions.

I still believe that we are always deciding.

We are not always master of our decisions. More and more, research shows that we make decisions not with logic, but automatically in response to millennia of conditioned reflexes. We decide based on past experience with failure and success, regardless of whether that experience applies to the current moment.

Even our conscious decisions are largely reactions. Often enough, these decisions are just wrong. If we want a chance to get in front of our fears and ignorance and wiring so we can have more say in our reactions, we have to decide that up front.

In the past few decades, we’ve seen a bloom of research into how we can make better decisions. Scientists reveal how decisions get made in the brain, in groups, and in society. Statisticians and economists discover new ways to model group decision-making dynamics and idiosyncrasies. Business experts catalog the way successful leaders approach decision making, and concoct new models.

We’ve learned so much.

We know that the path to a good decision does not follow a straight line. Good decisions can take no time or years to make. Anyone who claims there’s a simple checklist or flowchart of steps you can follow that guarantees a quality decision is full of it. Hogwash. Clearly they’re selling something.

So with that in mind, let me tell you about the checklist we’ve put together for making decisions in your leadership meetings.

## Deciding How to Design a Decision-Making Meeting

Here at Lucid Meetings, we’re largely generalists. We conduct some original research, we run and support businesses, we make lots of decisions, and we work closely with the meeting facilitation community. We read a lot.

When it came time to build a decision-making meeting template for leadership teams, we knew of so many fabulous resources we could draw on.

But then, a problem. The pieces don’t fit!

Research shows how individuals make decisions, and experiments highlight ways to improve a person’s decision quality.

Crazy useful - but sometimes we need to make decisions as a group!

Business experts focus on how to prioritize which decisions need to be made, and outline basic process steps for improving decision quality.

Again, very helpful! - but this advice concerns what you do before and after a decision is made, leaving that moment of actually deciding a mystery.

Facilitators focus on how to increase buy in and engagement in the decision making process, which in turn improves the chance that meaningful action will follow the decision. Facilitators also cover the explicit “deciding” step. But - these processes were designed with large groups in mind, and they don’t address which kind of decisions warrant the work involved.

So how do they fit together? How can we use all these distinct perspectives to drive our decision-making efforts?

More importantly, when you have all these valid and useful approaches you can use to make a good decision, how do you pick the right one?

This is “The Meta-Decision”. The Meta-Decision is deciding how to decide.

That’s the question I’m tackling here: How do we make the Meta-Decision?

This post has 4 parts. Each part seeks to answer a different part of the Meta-Decision question.

#### Contents

Finally, you’ll find abundant resources linked at the end. This is long, this is chewy; you may want to grab your bookmarks and a snack.

## Part 0: What is a Decision?

Surprise! There’s a Part 0!

What are we talking about when we say “Decision” anyway?

Decisions come in all flavors and sizes. Before we get too far, let’s clarify the kind of decisions we’re scooping today.

William Starbuck, professor in residence at the University of Oregon’s Charles H. Lundquist College of Business says:

"Decision" implies the end of deliberation and the beginning of action.

Awesome, but that “implies” part seems like a catch. I think we can take this further.

From a leadership and management perspective, I believe we’re well served by heeding Peter Drucker when he instructed executives to
“Take responsibility for decisions”.

He clarifies:

A decision has not been made until people know:

• the name of the person accountable for carrying it out;
• the names of the people who will be affected by the decision and therefore have to know about, understand, and approve it – or at least not be strongly opposed to it– and
• the names of the people who have to be informed of the decision even if they are not directly affected by it.
Peter F. Drucker
Introduction to the The Effective Executive

I prefer this definition, especially when talking about decision-making meetings, because it goes beyond implying action; it demands action. By declaring the requirements that must be met before you can call a decision decided, Drucker is pointing out:

Same goes for a decision without action. And who needs a meeting process for group wishing? Not me!

Speaking of that meeting process, let’s get a preview.

A decision-making meeting in it’s most simplified form looks like this.

1. Understand the Context
2. Discuss options
3. Decide & commit

In his book Traction, Gino Wickman offered an acronym for these steps to make them memorable.

IDS: Identify - Discuss - Solve

For some decisions, this may indeed be as process-heavy as you need to get.

I propose, however, that you entertain a step 0.

0. The Meta-Decision:
Select and Clarify the Decision-Making Process

Read on and see if you agree that taking a moment to decide how to decide before deciding makes sense.

## Part 1: The Science of How We Make Decisions

A quick level-set: I earned my degree in theatre arts and am an internet software company founder. In this arena, I’m simply playing bowerbird.

I’ve arrayed below the shiny bits of research that fascinate me, and which I’ve found useful in my own attempts to understand how to make better decisions. Perhaps more importantly, they help me better distinguish when I’m actually making a decision vs when I’m simply reacting.

Science folks: if I’ve misinterpreted something, please let us know!

These studies and concepts primarily describe how individuals make decisions. When we work in a group, and when we want to reach an effective decision as defined above, it’s good to understand that every individual in your group also grapples with the limitations and brilliance of their own human decision-making capabilities.

So what do we think we know?

### 1. Decision making is not logical. We use emotion to decide.

And thank goodness we do! Studies of people who’ve had traumatic frontal lobe injuries impairing their ability to feel emotion, found that people who can’t feel emotion get stuck when facing basic decisions.

So why does that happen? The theory says that without our ability to “feel” the difference between options, we can get lost in the worst possible case of analysis paralysis. For example, there’s no good reason to choose one ice cream flavor over another from a purely logical perspective. When we select from the menu, we’re relying on preference and desire to narrow the options, not logic.

Now extend that example to a thousand other scenarios, and you can start to see how important it is to have an emotional reaction. Our ability to “go with the gut” and call a decision “good enough” (all emotional value judgments) makes decision making possible.

No one says, however, that our emotions lead us to make good decisions – just that they’re involved and they’re doing a lot of the driving. This is one reason facilitators are trained to manage the emotional vibe in the room; the emotions at play in a group have a big impact on the final decision quality.

### 2. That is, when or if we’re consciously deciding at all.

Several studies starting in the 1970’s demonstrate that our subconscious mind “decides” something up to 7 seconds before it even registers in the conscious mind as a decision.

What the what?!

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision.

from Unconscious decisions in the brain

Now maybe this doesn’t matter. The research doesn’t imply that some outside force is compelling our decisions; just that we don’t consciously register these decisions right away.

Then again, we’ve also learned about the “emotional half-life”, or how we can continue to stay angry (or happy or whatever) well after the original cause of our anger resolves. When this happens, we know we’re angry and we know that we have no logical reason to be angry (because he apologized already! It was a mistake!) so we fabricate reasons to justify our emotions.

ra·tion·al·ize (ˈraSHənlˌīz,ˈraSHnəˌlīz, verb)
attempt to explain or justify (one's own or another's behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.

We’re very good at coming up with reasons why we believe what we believe, even if those reasons are unrooted from our experienced reality. And since we make decisions before we know that we’ve decided, this leaves us concocting a lot of logical backfill as we try to explain ourselves to ourselves.

In fact…

### 3. We’re always working with limited information. Heck, much of the time we don’t even notice what’s right in front of us.

You (often) can’t perceive what you aren’t looking for.

This is called “sustained inattentional blindness”, a phenomenon confirmed in study after study. Most recently, 20 of 24 radiologists failed to notice a gorilla placed on a lung scan.

"They look right at it, but because they're not looking for a gorilla, they don't see that it's a gorilla," Drew (the radiologist study author) says.

In other words, what we're thinking about — what we're focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.

Why Even Radiologists Can Miss A Gorilla Hiding In Plain Sight NPR Morning Edition, February 11, 2013

The study with the radiologists was inspired by this 1999 study, in which up to 50% of participants also miss something obvious.

The research here shows that we most often see the facts that match recognized patterns, either patterns we’ve been trained to spot, or patterns we’re hoping to find (see biases below).

Don't think that applies to you? Try this one:

This second one totally caught me. Isn't this fun?

The good news: while many people suffer from gorilla-blindness, not everyone does. This makes a powerful case for diversity, because the more diverse your group, the greater the likelihood that someone in the group can spot the gorilla that you can’t.

Which brings me to another interesting set of research…

### 4. It turns out that what you think you know might actually be something your friend knows, not you.

In their new book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach state:

We think we know far more than we actually do.

Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don't even know how a pen or a toilet works.

How have we achieved so much despite understanding so little? Because whilst individuals know very little, the collective or ‘hive' mind knows a lot.

The key to our intelligence lies in the people and things around us. We're constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads: in our bodies, our environment, our possessions, and the community with which we interact -- and usually we don't even realize we're doing it.

The fundamentally communal nature of intelligence and knowledge explains why we often assume we know more than we really do, why political opinions and false beliefs are so hard to change, and why individually oriented approaches to education and management frequently fail. Our collaborative minds, on the other hand, enable us to do amazing things.

From The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

Again, another good reason to make important decisions by drawing on the wisdom of your group.

Remember this when we look at the business-making perspective on decision making, which emphasizes the decisive prowess of brilliant leaders throughout history. Business books teach how to develop your individual capacity. Important stuff, but this here communal understanding of intelligence exposes a fundamental flaw in the heroic leader mythos.

### 5. Unless we’re very careful, cognitive biases will lead us astray. We’re enormously susceptible to persuasion. What’s more, knowing this doesn’t mean we can always outwit it.

There’s so much fascinating reading to do on this topic!

First, cognitive biases. These are the shortcuts we each make to help us keep on keeping on in the face of ambiguity, overwhelming options, and limited time. This article nicely categorizes cognitive biases based on the ways they help us navigate through the whole busy mess of things.

And OMG - how cool is the poster?!!! It reminds me of one of my other favorite diagrams.

On the topic of persuasion, I recommend reading Robert Cialdini’s books. I know marketers read these books and use these techniques, and living in a capitalist society as we do, I believe everyone else should understand what’s going on here too.

The short version: there are techniques you can use to get someone to do what you want that almost always work - even if that person isn’t otherwise interested.

Here’s a quick overview.

Put that all together, and you can see the striking implications for decision quality. Beyond the basic fact that we can’t see the future and can’t know the right decision in advance, we now know that our decisions are subtly and constantly influenced in all these pernicious ways.

The good news: paying attention to the biases and principles of influence will teach you techniques to get more buy-in for the decisions you need to make. Also, facilitators have techniques that help reduce the impact of all this cognitive baggage.

You’ll need these techniques because…

### 6. Groupthink is real.

I’ve written before about the pitfalls of traditional brainstorming, where groups are asked to come up with a whole lot of ideas all at once, refraining from any critique or criticism. “No idea is a bad idea.”

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink

Research shows over and over that the classic brainstorming technique fails due to groupthink. When we hear someone else’s idea first, when we see what the boss thinks, when we’re asked to suspend criticism so we don’t trample on anyone’s feelings, we fail to generate the most or best options. We literally and explicitly shut down critical thinking in the name of harmony, effectively stripping the spark plugs from our own tractor before we’ve mowed a row.

Effective decision making requires understanding the situation and then deciding between viable alternatives. Groupthink can severely limit the number and viability of your alternatives, which is a real handicap.

Especially considering the overarching obstacle…

### 7. We suck at predicting the future.

The future presents a huge challenge to decision makers. We’re making decisions that drive action into a dimension we can’t see. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.

The future we choose emerges in ways we find obvious only in hindsight.

We more than don’t know; we fail to even remotely imagine. Several studies on goal achievement, happiness, forecasting, and even memory (I admit memory reconstruction freaks me out) show that we largely build our visions of the past and future based on our current experience.

There is some very exciting work going on that can increase our chances of detecting important change early, known as weak signal detection, and some cool mathy models for increasing the accuracy of predictions. Lots of smart people are working on better ways to predict future outcomes, but until that’s ubiquitous (and how boring would that be?!) the implication for decision makers is this:

That decision might be wrong.
We have no idea how things will turn out.
Better make a plan to check it later.

Some also believe we should seek to keep all decisions small, so that the failure of any one decision won’t derail the whole train. If only we lived in a world where we could control the size and scope of all the decisions we need to make! Such a lovely idea.

Finally, let’s look at decision fatigue.

### 8. If we make too many decisions in a day, we wear out our decision-making muscles.

Decision fatigue limits the number of decisions we can make well in a day. Mark Zuckerberg made this one famous by explaining why he always wore the same gray t-shirt. He said:

I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible, other than how to best serve this (the Facebook) community.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook Q&A November 2014.

He goes on to cite studies that show how, as we make more decisions during the day, our capacity for reasoning through the nuances involved takes a dramatic dive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how big the early decisions are - the more of them we make, the less decision-making ability we have available. As we tire, we tend to make “safer”-and-easier-but-not-better decisions. We stop weighing all the factors logically, and rely more heavily on those gut reactions.

This phenomenon works to sabotage everyone’s diet. After a full day of making decisions on the job, our ability to choose the healthy salad over the comforting pizza is totally worn out. The gut decision wins (yes, pizza!) which sadly means the gut loses out.

The classic research study for this one came from the Israeli legal system, where the consequences of decision fatigue are more chilling. They found that the timing of a parole appeal in a judge’s day - whether it was first or later - impacted the judge’s decision. Early morning hearing? You have a chance of getting out on parole. Later on but before the lunch break? The judge gets tired and plays it safe; no parole for you.

Here’s a video from Standford Researcher Baba Shiv talking about the brain chemistry that contributes to decision fatigue.

Speaking of fatigue, I think that’s enough of the science bit. Let’s turn our attention to the business at hand.

## Part 2: The Business of Making Decisions

OK. Decision making is a heck of a challenge. We can also convincingly argue that making good decisions is the leadership team’s primary job responsibility.

• Which decisions do you need to make (and which should you ignore or delegate)?
• How do you prioritize the decisions in front of you?
• How do you judge the size and importance of a decision so you can invest the appropriate amount of time and resources into making it?

For this section on the Business of Decision Making, we’re going to start by getting personal.

### The Decision Makers Creed

Every leader faces an uncountable string of decisions; successful leaders learn to give their attention to the ones that count.

Even if they’ve never heard of decision fatigue before. ;)

A ton of the available advice on making decisions is geared toward individual business leaders and managers; it’s essentially business self-help. This is the right place for us to start too, because the first step in making The Meta Decision in a business context is figuring out:

• Which decisions need to be made?
• How do you prioritize the decisions in front of you?
• Can you make this decision on your own, or do you need to get other people involved?

Al Pitampalli recently published a new book, aimed at helping leaders get to better decisions. In it, he coins:

The Decision Maker’s Creed:
Slow down for the major and speed up for the minor.

In other words, make small decisions fast (good enough is good enough!) and take your time on the big ones. There’s only so much time and decision making gas in a day, so don’t blow it on figuring out what’s for breakfast. See the video in the sidebar to hear him tell it.

Time management experts take this further. They advocate planning out your days in detail, paying special attention to allocating the most time for the highest priority activities - such as making big decisions.

David Allen's famous Getting Things Done method combats decision fatigue by setting aside a dedicated “processing” time for sifting and prioritizing your to-do list. In other words, you dedicate time for deciding what to do, so you don’t wear yourself out on it all day long.

Then, for a power-up bonus, he throws in the 2-minute rule. If something is going to take less than 2 minutes to complete, don’t write it down - just do it! Don’t waste any energy deciding when/if/who/why. Just crush that sucker.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport advocates a series of rituals for the morning and evenings, designed to clear out the noise and keep you focused on the highest and best use of your time.

All these top-10 morning rituals of successful people you read about? A lot of that magic is simply deciding in advance how the morning will go, so you don’t have to waste any more time on those decisions.

Example:

When should I wake up? 7am.
Which morning? Every morning.

And done! Now I don’t have to make that decision pretty much ever again.

These planning rituals also help leaders reconnect with what’s important and their identity as good decision makers.

The GTD 2-minute “can be completed quickly” rule really isn’t the same criteria as identifying something as a small or “minor” decision, though. I’ve found lots of ways to get yourself into real trouble in 2 minutes or less, believe you me.

The minor qualifier in the Decision Maker’s Creed speaks to a decision’s risk/reward profile. What do we risk if we get this decision wrong? How significant is the reward for getting it right?

Stephen Covey’s famous Time Management Quadrants come in useful here. Covey designed the quadrants to help people figure out which tasks to prioritize, but I think they work nicely when you’re trying to figure out which decisions matter too.

• If a decision is not urgent nor important, ignore it or automate it.
• If it’s urgent but not important, make it or delegate it, but be done.
• If it’s important but not urgent, get the team involved.
• If it’s important and urgent, this is where we run into trouble. Ideally, get the team involved. If that’s not possible, make the best and least risky decision you can until you can get the team involved.

### The Waterline Principle

How do you judge the size and importance of a decision so you can invest the appropriate amount of time and resources in making it?

The Waterline Principle summarizes everything we just discussed in a handy metaphor. Originally credited to the Gore company, the Waterline Principle goes like this.

Think of being on a ship, and imagine that any decision gone bad will blow a hole in the side of the ship. If you blow a hole above the waterline (where the ship won't take on water and possibly sink), you can patch the hole, learn from the experience, and sail on. But if you blow a hole below the waterline, you can find yourself facing gushers of water pouring in, pulling you toward the ocean floor. And if it's a big enough hole, you might go down really fast, just like some of the financial firm catastrophes of 2008. To be clear, great enterprises do make big bets, but they avoid big bets that could blow holes below the waterline.

Excerpted on Bloomberg from the book, How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In By Jim Collins

Above the waterline = minor. Below the waterline = major.

The rule that follows:

• Make decisions that could hit above the waterline fast and without pestering a bunch of people.
• Make decisions that could hit below the waterline deliberately as a group.

Organizations can apply this principle broadly by defining waterline markers for people working at different levels. For example, you might give your front-line managers purchasing authority up to a certain amount, but require discussion and approval for any bigger purchases.

This doesn’t suggest that there should be rules dictating a strict process for every decision - rather, you’re looking to set some boundaries that help people understand where that waterline sits relative to their seat on the ship.

The Waterline Principle is a simple and useful way to help people pay attention to the difference between major and minor decisions. Of course, there are other ways to clarify the decision making approach.

### Decision making process steps and checklists

Making decisions isn’t new or novel, and neither are codified decision-making processes.

The WikiPedia article on Decision Making lists the GOFER (Goals, Options, Facts, Effects, Review) process, the DECIDE (Define, Enumerate criteria, Consider alternatives, Identify the best one, Develop a plan, Evaluate and monitor) process, and several other multi-step processes. Each one expands on the simpler IDS (Identify, Discuss, Solve) process we discussed at the beginning, and all work to combat common decision making pitfalls.

When you start to look, you’ll see that decision-making checklists pop up like spring dandelions. Speaking of, look what came across my desk while I was writing this article! Cloverpop is a startup building software designed to improve a company’s decision making process. Their founder lays out a 7 step decision-making checklist.

This checklist isn’t the same as GOFER, IDS, and the others , but it’s not that different either. To get a feel for what these look like in detail, let’s peruse this one more closely.

#### A Checklist for Making Faster, Better Decisions

1. Write down 5 preexisting company goals or priorities that will be impacted by the decision. Focusing on what is important will help you avoid the rationalization trap of making up reasons for your choices after the fact.
2. Write down at least three, but ideally four or more, realistic alternatives. It might take a little effort and creativity, but no other practice improves decisions more than expanding your choices.
3. Write down the most important information you are missing. We risk ignoring what we don’t know because we are distracted by what we do know, especially in today’s information-rich businesses.
4. Write down the impact your decision will have one year in the future. Telling a brief story of the expected outcome of the decision will help you identify similar scenarios that can provide useful perspective.
5. Involve a team of at least two but no more than six stakeholders. Getting more perspectives reduces your bias and increases buy-in — but bigger groups have diminishing returns.
6. Write down what was decided, as well as why and how much the team supports the decision. Writing these things down increases commitment and establishes a basis to measure the results of the decision.
7. Schedule a decision follow-up in one to two months. We often forget to check in when decisions are going poorly, missing the opportunity to make corrections and learn from what’s happened.
Erik Larson, HBR March 2016

If you look back to the biases above, you can see how Cloverpop works here to combat them. Many facilitative meeting processes use very similar steps for this reason. Beyond the justifications Erik gives in his article, these steps work to combat other common pitfalls as well.

1. Writing down the goals impacted by a decision also combats the Recency Effect, where we make judgments based on what we’ve heard or seen most recently rather than our larger priorities. It then uses the Anchoring Bias to your advantage, making your higher goals the focus that precedes decision making.
2. Creating multiple viable alternatives helps combat all kinds of logical fallacies. And OMG - another awesome poster!
3. Writing down what information you’re missing helps you understand which kind of analytical framework you should use to examine all these viable options. Analytical framework, you say? More on that soon.
4. Write down the impact your decision will have one year in the future; this is a super explicit application of the Waterline principle. If this goes wrong, where's the hole?
5. Involving a team of at least two but no more than six stakeholders fights the invisible gorilla problem.
6. & 7. Steps 6 (Write the decision down) & 7 (check later to see if it worked) follow an invisible step 5.5: Decide.
Steps 6 and 7 bring Drucker quality to the decision, ensuring it’s followed by action and review.

That step 5.5 though - like station 9 3/4, that’s where the magic lives.

Before we move on, let’s talk about step 5 there. Why 2 to 6 people, and exactly how do you “involve” these folks?

This 2 to 6 rule is largely derived from research about the optimal size for keeping corporate teams productive. You’ll see similar-but-different advice from facilitators; in groups larger than 7 or 8 people, things get messier and you need to get more structured to achieve results. But just because some teams are most productive at this size doesn’t mean that every decision should involve 6 or fewer people. Take government, for example! Lots of decisions get made there where I think we’re all crazy grateful to have more than 2 to 6 deciders involved.

I call this out not to tear down the Cloverpop checklist. I think the checklist is extremely useful – in the right circumstances. In other contexts, limiting your group to 6 or fewer is terrible advice.

Every checklist and recommendation in this crazy long post - including our template at the end - works well in some situations and makes things worse in others.

For example:

### Principle 13 from The Toyota Way

In large stable environments, even “minor” decisions can have major consequences. A small productivity loss or gain in a manufacturing environment, where tiny actions are repeated hundreds and thousands of times per day, quickly adds up to a massive productivity impact.

Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, and similar frameworks for describing, managing, and making decisions were designed specifically for high-volume, complicated and stable organizations.

Principle 13 states:

Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly (nemawashi).

The following are decision parameters:

• Find what is really going on (go-and-see) to test
• Determine the underlying cause
• Consider a broad range of alternatives
• Build consensus on the resolution
• Use efficient communication tools
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Toyota_Way

Thorough, considered, cautious. Fabulous guidance for those decisions that you know will have significant impact.

But what should you do in less certain situations?

### Decision Support Tools

When blessed with multiple viable options and uncertain outcomes, how can we choose between them?

Let’s assume your situation lacks the predictability of an established large scale manufacturing operation. Perhaps you need to make a decision more quickly, perhaps underlying cause remains a mystery, and forget building consensus - you don’t even know how to evaluate the options!

These approaches to business decision making help groups whack a trail through the underbrush of uncertainty.

#### Analytical Frameworks and Decision Analysis

Should we hold our next conference in Las Vegas, Orlando, or Nashville?

Here’s a decision with three viable options. We could decide based on our gut preferences, but we’re more likely to get better results (or at least feel better about our decision) if we do some analysis first.

We could make a Pros and Cons list for each option.

Las Vegas
Pro: cheap airfare, ample meeting space
Con: dripping with drunken bachelor parties

We could compare the hard costs and logistics for each option.

Cost per attendee:
Vegas $500 Orlando$600
Nashville \$750

We could compare the perceived value of each option.

Opportunities:
Vegas - easy for people to get to, fun
Orlando - you can bring the family

Analytical frameworks give us criteria we can use to pit the options against each other as we try to figure out which option will get the best result. The examples above show 3 of the most common criteria groups use, since they apply to pretty much any situation and they’re easy to use on the fly.

Basically, using a decision support tool is an attempt to predict the future.

In the HBR article Deciding how to Decide, the authors describe several decision support tools and provide a flowchart showing when to use each one. This is serious business stuff; they do not advocate making a “pros and cons” list.

The authors describe conventional capital-budgeting tools that, like our simple lists, work when the options are well understood.

Then they go into quantitative multiple scenario tools (like Monte Carlo simulations), qualitative scenario analysis, case-based decision analysis and more (Delphi method, crowd-sourced analytics, etc).

In some circumstances, extraordinary analysis is warranted.

A simpler takeaway: to improve the quality of important decisions, list multiple viable options then analyze those options against a set of common criteria.

Unfortunately, none of these analytical tactics guarantees a good decision, and they always take more time.

It only makes sense to spend time on decision analysis if you’re using a decision support tool appropriate to the situation. As our world becomes more interconnected, dynamic, and unpredictable, there are fewer situations that lend themselves to tidy analysis.

So how do you figure out the context you’re operating in? Behold our final business decision framework:

#### Sense-Making and Cynefin

I have a huge geek crush on Dave Snowden and the whole sense-making community right now. The ideas are somewhat controversial, and still evolving. For now, though, the sense-making approach seems to me like our best bet for sussing out what we’re experiencing in this time of global transition.

And here’s why. This approach recognizes that the way we should make simple decisions is entirely different than how we should approach complex decisions. In case the horse isn’t dead yet, let me beat it again; the right decision making process depends on the context.

The IDS approach, the Toyota Way, and the Monte Carlo simulators are all entirely correct in their place. The Cynefin framework helps decision-makers figure out which of those places they’re in.

A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

## Part 3: The Organizational Effectiveness Perspective

Who should be involved in making each decision?
How do we get to a decision that will stick?

The last perspective we’ll explore looks at what it takes to turn decisions into the right kind of action.

In our review of the science, we learned about the many automated mental shortcuts and cognitive pitfalls that can trip us up individually, and how working in groups can help us overcome our individual limitations. We also saw how groups can fail when they give groupthink free reign.

Then when we looked at the business perspective, we learned that we should make minor decisions quickly and major decisions carefully. For the little ones, good enough is good enough! Don’t let your team get bogged down by trivialities and handicapped by decision fatigue. The key challenge for leaders is distinguishing between minor and major decisions, so that when the big ones hit, they can assemble the team and conduct the appropriate analysis for the situation.

Now we’ll look at the moment of decision itself.

When a leader identifies a decision that requires group involvement, either to make the decision or to carry out the actions that follow, what process can they use to get the best result?

### Effective Decisions Lead to the Right Action

Here’s a simple formula I learned when I took Leadership Strategies Effective Facilitator course.

You can achieve more effective results when solutions are created, understood and accepted by the people impacted. If they create it, they understand it and they accept it.

In his book Transforming the Mature Information Technology Organization, Dr. Robert Zawacki from the University of Colorado put the secret this way:

ED = RD x CD

That is,
Effective Decisions = The Right Decision times Commitment to the Decision.

Dr. Zawacki’s point is that the multiplication sign in the formula means that even the best decision can be rendered completely ineffective if commitment to the decision is lacking.

From the eBook: 10 Principles of Facilitation from Leadership Strategies

Any parent knows this to be true. I can decide that my children will make their beds in the morning, and I can even get them to agree with me. “Yes”, they say. “Yes I will make my bed! I know, mom! Stop telling me the same things all the time!”

But their commitment is weak/entirely absent. My very right decision that “kids will give a fig about tidiness” proves ineffective.

The facilitation community bursts with techniques designed to get the group involved in the decision-making process and committed to action. While none of these techniques work with my kids, they work wonders in the workplace.

### The 4 Genera of Group Decision Making

Every major book on group facilitation lists a set of decision-making methods. Some books have just a few examples whilst others have 7 or more ways of leading a group through the process. Most are designed for large groups, since working with large groups is where facilitators make bank.

I am not going to go into a lot of detail here. For those with the time, aptitude, and inclination, I highly recommend attending facilitation training and doing your own studying.

For today’s taxonomic purposes, we’ll stick with the big 4 decision-making approaches and leave it to the facilitators to distinguish the separate species within them.

They are:

1. Command
2. Consult
4. Consensus

(Major credit to Rick Lent for the alliteration here! :)

Let’s look at each in turn.

#### Command

How it works:
A decision is made. In the meeting, people are told what the decision is and what they are expected to do next.

Pros:

• Fast and simple. (and aren’t those the foundation of the new American dream, eh?)

Cons:

• Most of the time, people really hate being told what to do.
• Doesn’t build commitment to action.
• Excludes potentially important perspectives from the decision-making process.

Command sounds harsh, and it can certainly feel that way sometimes. It’s also an entirely appropriate decision-making approach for many situations. And, as an organization grows, what may have been a very involved and inclusive process for the leadership team will eventually devolve into commands delivered to the front line. Command at some level is unavoidable.

Happily, our review of the scientific and business perspectives on decision making give us guidance about when a command-style process can be appropriate.

• If you can decide and execute safely all by yourself, use command.
e.g., “Me, put on yellow socks! Yes, ma'am!”
• If the decision is “above the waterline” for your role in the organization, and you don’t need a lot of cooperation to execute, use command.
e.g., “Get that subscription to Lucid Meetings. Here’s my department credit card.”
• If you are in a chaotic situation or facing crisis, use command.
e.g., “Bolt the doors and get out the sunlamps! The vampires are coming!”

#### Consult

How it works :
One person makes a decision after seeking input from others. Ideally, the person making the decision commits to remaining persuadable.

Pros:

• Efficient, but not careless.
• Keeps lines of responsibility and accountability clear.
• Can increase buy-in to the decision.

Cons:

• Tricky. It’s hard to stay truly persuadable.
• Can shortcut the opportunities for information gathering and option analysis.
• Can backfire if the input provided isn’t treated with respect.
• Can be mistaken for consensus.

As I’ve described it here, the Consulting process sounds like a sneaky way to get a Command decision past your team. While it can be used that way, that’s not the intent.

For a lot of internal teams and small groups, the Consult process is the default. See those business checklists up there where they breeze past step 5.5: a decision is made? I believe they assume the process to be “someone then decides”. Consult is also the process implied by the IDS model; somewhere in that “Solve” step, someone makes the decision.

#### Who’s got the D?

My partner John worked at Intel during Andy Grove’s tenure. He shared this story about their meetings.

When I was at Intel, there were rules about how to run a meeting posted on the conference rooms walls. It was really common at the start of a meeting for someone to ask “Who’s got the D here?” What they were asking was who was responsible for making the decision.

A lot of the time the manager had the “D”, but not always. Sometimes the person with the “D” was way down the chain, because that person knew the most about the topic, or because they were going to have to implement whatever got decided.

Asking who had the D up front made the whole discussion easier. We all knew what our responsibility was, whether it was to give our best advice or to actually decide, and we knew how to end the meeting. When the D made the call, that was it.

This practice helps prevent one of the big pitfalls of the Consult approach; assumption about who and how the decision gets made. Without declaring who has the D, it’s easy to assume that it must be someone else (I’m off the hook!) or worse, to leave the meeting without actually clarifying the decision at all. Using Consult without clarifying who has the decision is just lobbing a water balloon into the center of a group; that process is all wet.

With one or more clear decision makers in place, you can use a Consult approach to help you reach a decision - like John describes from his days at Intel - or you can use it to help you double-check a decision you’ve already made before carrying it out.

There are four meeting templates in our gallery showing these variations.

How it Works :
A designated voting group votes on one or more options. The winning vote sets the decision.

Pros:

• Clear. Vote results are (usually) unambiguous.
• Time-limited. Voting terminates otherwise interminable discussions.
• Breaks stalemates. Voting forces a decision when stakeholders can’t find consensus.
• Legally validating. Many decisions require explicit votes before they go into effect.

Cons:

• Potentially polarizing. Voting creates “winners” and “losers”; not exactly the happy team conditions you want going into a new initiative.
• Reduces buy-in and commitment to the decision. Just ask the US coasts how bought-in they’re feeling about the recent presidential election.
• Creates delays. For decisions where the rules don’t require it, waiting to assemble the group for a formal vote slows down progress.

There are a lot of ways to count votes in meeting, and many decisions that require votes to be count.

That said, because putting a decision to a vote is such a terrible way to go about it if you want to get commitment, most experts recommend you use voting as a last resort. If you work with corporate boards, standards committees or other groups legally required to vote, you’ll see that the best of them work very hard to ensure general agreement on the final decision before calling the vote. These groups work diligently to achieve consensus up front, then use the vote to formally record the decision. This is an appropriate and useful application of Counting Votes.

The worst use of Counting Votes happens in groups attempting to force majority rule on an unpopular minority. In these situations, Counting Votes puts a quasi-respectable facade on bullying. Because this kind of abuse destroys healthy working relationships, facilitators avoid Counting Votes whenever they can.

Also not awesome but not evil: we’ve seen situations where people use voting to dodge direct responsibility.

This sounds awful, and it’s painful to watch when it happens, but it’s also an effective way to keep an organization moving when there are no other strong driving forces. What color should we use for the new logo? No one cares? Put it to a vote! In groups where everyone is taking 5 steps back, voting forces forward momentum.

I said above that facilitators avoid Counting Votes. Let me modify that. Facilitators often count votes during meetings as a way to gauge consensus. For example, the facilitator might ask for a show of hands in favor of the current option as a way of “getting the temperature” of the group. In this case, counting votes works as a compass pointing the path to consensus, not the actual decision-making mechanism.

Which raises the question: how exactly does a decision by consensus work?

#### Consensus

How it Works :
A decision is stated, and everyone involved agrees to live with it.

Pros:

• Most inclusive and participatory process
• Creates greatest shared commitment to the decision
• Best process for fostering healthy productive teams

Cons:

• Time consuming
• Can be ambiguous; false consensus is common
• Process most likely to be sloppily implemented

Consensus is the process we assume when we say “Everybody good with that?” We assume that if anyone has an issue with the decision, they’ll speak up. Often they don’t, so we get false consensus.

Facilitators avoid this problem by defining consensus up front, then making the moment of decision explicit. Before the group starts discussing the options, they agree on what agreement looks like. Meta!

Consensus can mean:

• Unanimity. Everyone completely backs the decision.
or
• Everyone can live with and will support the decision.

Of these definitions, smart leaders opt for “Everyone can live with it”. In some organizations, this is called "disagree, but commit." Once we've had our say and the decision is made, we all get behind it. See Jeff Bezo's advocate for this as a crucial way to ensure decision velocity in his company letter.

By contrast, striving for unanimity often results in big delays and weak decisions. All the inevitable compromises made in an effort to achieve unanimous consensus wear out the group; they end up agreeing to a solution no one particularly likes just to be done with it.

ED = RD X CD:
An Effective Decision is the Right Decision times the Commitment to the Decision.

In the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making, the authors explain a technique for evaluating this commitment called The Gradients of Agreement. They know that for some decisions, you need the unbridled support of the group. For other decisions, eh, not so much.

The Gradients of Agreement describes an 8-point scale for expressing support.

1. Whole-hearted Endorsement - “I really like it!”
2. Agreement with a Minor Point of Contention - “Not perfect, but it’s good enough.”
3. Support with Reservations - “I can live with it.”
4. Abstain - “This issue does not affect me.”
5. More Discussion Needed - “I don’t understand the issues well enough yet.”
6. Don’t Like But Will Support - “It’s not great, but I don’t want to hold up the group.”
7. Serious Disagreement - “I am not on board with this - don’t count on me. “
8. Veto - “I block this proposal.”

To see where the group stands, ask them to indicate how they feel about a proposed decision along this scale. Based on what you see, you can decide if the commitment level is “good enough” or if you need to keep working on it.

The Michigan State University Extension posted a quick guide to using this scale in a meeting: Gradients of Agreement can help move groups forward

Ingrid Bens and other facilitators simplify this scale to 5 points. In the Agile community, a related method is called The Fist of Five.

Personally, I prefer to whip out the Fist of Five instead of the Gradients of Agreement, because it just sounds cooler - like something the Fast and Furious crew would use to commit to an epic car jacking.

The other way to get explicit consensus is with a Go-Around. In a Go-Around, the leader asks each individual in turn to state their support for the decision out loud in front of the group, thereby invoking the self-consistency rule to build commitment to the decision.

I like to think of a consensus-check Go-Around as The Council of Elrond Technique. This is exactly what the elf lord used to get all those hobbits off to Mordor.

There are two templates in our gallery that walk groups towards consensus, both by Rick Lent.

### The Critical Step: Write it Down

It seems like it should be so obvious. We decided on that issue already, right? Surely the group will remember.

Too often, no one writes the final decision down and it gets lost. This isn’t a problem for voting bodies - the Supreme Court rarely loses a decision they’ve made - because the voting process requires a written decision. Everyone else runs into trouble.

Remember the gorilla? We don’t always register what’s happening right in front of us right now. Then throw in the Curve of Forgetting, and you realize how quickly we all forget a ton of what little we did notice.

Decisions need to get written down so we can find and remember them.

Facilitators always write down the decision (or proposed decision) where the group can see it, then check:

• Is the wording clear? Will we be able to remember what this means when we look back at it in 6 months?
• Is the wording correct? Does this accurately reflect our agreement?

After a group agrees on a written decision, they're ready to complete the decision-making process by outlining the actions required to make all that time spent deciding pay off.

As a reminder:

A decision has not been made until people know:

• the name of the person accountable for carrying it out;
• the names of the people who will be affected by the decision and therefore have to know about, understand, and approve it – or at least not be strongly opposed to it– and
• the names of the people who have to be informed of the decision even if they are not directly affected by it.
Peter F. Drucker

## Part 4: The Leadership Team’s Guide to Planning a Decision-Making Meeting

Alright! Time to put it all together. Using the insights we’ve gained from science, business experts, and facilitators, let’s walk through making the Meta Decision and planning our meeting.

### Step 1: Make the Meta Decision

• What kind of decision is this?
Refer to the business advice above. You’re trying to figure out if the decision is above or below your waterline, and if the situation is simple, complicated, or complex.
• Who has the authority to make this decision?
Some decisions can be made by a single person, and if they’re minor, should be. Others are complicated enough that they should involve a group. Some decisions can only be made by the Board or another governing body.
• Who needs to commit to this decision for it to succeed?
Decisions lead to action. Some actions can be completed by the person making the decision; most require cooperation from the group.
• Do you have or can you quickly determine viable options?
Before you can discuss the pros and cons of different options, you have to understand the real problem you’re solving and have some options to discuss. Some issues are too complex or too sensitive to work through all this during the meeting in real time.

Here’s an illustration of making the Meta Decision.

The answer to the Meta Decision is:

#### Just Decide and Act

• When the decision is minor and you can execute it yourself.
• When you can delegate the decision to someone who can decide and execute.
• In a crisis, act quickly to stabilize the situation. You can worry about your decision-making process after the fire’s out.

#### Make a Command Decision

• When the decision is minor and you have the authority.
• When you need to act quickly and can minimize the risk of failure.

#### Consult the Decision Maker

• When the decision is minor, and additional expertise or buy-in is desired.
• When the decision is major or complicated, but the responsibility for execution clear.
• When the decision is nearly final, but needs additional vetting and buy-in.

• When meeting with the Board or another group legally required to do so.
• When you need a tie breaker, deciding between two options with equal and passionate support.
Why isn't Count Votes on the map above? Because you don't need a map to know when you're in a board meeting, and for other situations, Counting Votes shouldn't be one of your go-to processes.

#### Use Consensus

• When the decision is major and requires buy-in from the team to succeed.

You see that Consult appears twice on the illustration? That’s because the Consult decision-making process works best for most leadership teams most often.

“Who’s got the D?” starts a Consult decision meeting. Naming a specific decision maker in this way:

• Creates clear accountability for the decision’s success; teams that can’t take personal responsibility for their decisions have no way to correct poor decision performance.
• Provides a mechanism for group input; having the final decision doesn’t mean that this person has to think it through alone, or that they’re the only ones with a valid opinion.
• Saves time, as there’s no need to go through a big process to build formal consensus.

### Step 2: Plan the Meeting

Every well-run decision meeting includes at least three steps:

1. Understand the context
2. Discuss options
3. Decide & commit

For minor decisions, you might include these steps in the flow of a longer agenda.

Wise leaders schedule dedicated meetings for any significant decision. They never try to make a big decision in the same meeting where they’re sharing status updates and coordinating operations. They understand that trying to quickly switch context between these different kinds of thinking leads to fractured attention and rushed decisions; it’s not something people do well. Best to tackle one topic at a time, and give it the full weight of the team's attention.

#### Scheduling the Meeting

There are two approaches to scheduling a leadership team's decision-making meetings.

1. As needed
2. Monthly

Or both! There’s no conflict there.

Leadership teams with an established meeting cadence proactively schedule 2 to 3 hours every month for making big decisions. They know that new issues and opportunities come up all the time, and this ensures they have time set aside for tackling them.

#### Preparing for the Meeting

The preparation time required depends on two factors:

1. How well the team understands the decision and the options
2. The process used

To reach a quality decision, everyone involved needs to understand what they’re deciding. Deciding as a group means that the whole group needs to grok the situation, which takes time as each individual works through their own series of revelations.

Decision making fails when leaders try to shortcut the preparation.

• Don’t shortcut understanding
We may think that because we understand an issue, everyone else does too. We forget the chain of insights we forged, and try to cram the whole concept on the group all at once. They get a partial understanding at best.
• Don’t shortcut root cause
Teams often fail to identify root cause, especially since the root cause of many problems is uncomfortably people-related. Then they end up trying to solve the wrong problem.
• Don’t shortcut options
Teams fail to identify multiple viable options before deciding, forcing them into the trap of choosing between two evils. Several studies found that having 3 or more real options to choose between had a bigger impact on decision quality than any other factor.

For small decisions, you can create understanding and outline options during the meeting.

For large or complex decisions, advance preparation is required. Distribute information in advance. Brainstorm options using decision support software or in a dedicated brainstorming session. Run your Monte Carlo scenarios and focus groups and sense-making workshops and site surveys. Then come to the meeting deeply informed and ready to decide

### Run the Meeting

Here’s a sample agenda for a dedicated decision-making meeting. Slightly longer than the mandatory 3 steps, this agenda fleshes out the process to incorporate the essential structural elements of any decent meeting.

#### Sample Agenda

1. Welcome
• Greetings
• Confirm purpose: We are hear to decide on____
• Clarify the decision making process: Who’s go the D?
2. Present the Decision Challenge
Ensure everyone agrees on the core issue or opportunity to be addressed.
3. Debate & discuss options
Explore the pros and cons of each option.
4. Decide and commit
Document and confirm the decision.
5. Define next steps
• Set next steps: who, what, when
• Determine cascading messages: who needs to know what?
• Set a date to review the decision outcome.
6. Close
• Final review: anything that needs to be answered, said, or addressed?
• Appreciations
• Meeting feedback

#### Adapting the Agenda to the Decision-Making Context

Larger groups and more complex decisions warrant more structure. For very large or tricksy discussions, it’s worth getting a professional facilitator involved.

Facilitators usually work to build consensus, so most of the decision-making techniques they describe help with that.

When the group faces a steep climb to consensus, facilitators carve out more steps. This diagram shows how the discussion can extend and becomes more structured when ascending this ladder with a large or contentious group.

### Traps and Counter Measures

Even if you don’t need to explicitly build consensus, it’s useful to know a handful of facilitation techniques for busting through all those cognitive biases.

Use this table as a quick reference when you find the process you’ve picked isn’t doing the trick. Also, use it as inspiration for your own research, since this list is nowhere close to exhaustive.

Problem Techniques to Try
Analysis paralysis, never-ending discussion
Negativity and Getting Stuck

Reframing

Failure to Achieve Consensus
Too few options Productive brainstorming and more
Tangents
False Consensus
• Fist of Five
• Confirm consensus in a Go-Around, Council of Elrond style
• Anonymous Voting

## Closing and Next Steps

Just as you do when you come to the end of a long and productive meeting, we will end here by quickly recapping the key points discussed and confirming next steps.

### Take Aways

• Making good decisions is one of leadership's most critical functions.
• There are many "right" ways to make decisions, and many more ways to foul it up.
• Working as a group helps us counteract individual biases and gaps in knowledge.
• Working as a group can also slow everything down and creates new problems when we do it wrong.
• Research, tools, and techniques exist to help leaders determine which decision making process to use for the decision at hand.

After reading an earlier version of this post, my colleagues all had the same feedback. Each one learned something new and intriguing, and each one felt I'd left out something critical. And of course they're right. It's a huge topic that people spend whole careers exploring; I've left out nearly all the things.

Knowing this – that we can make better decisions when we use an appropriate decision-making approach – that's the take away. It's not important to remember all the techniques and traps; just bring awareness to the process and you will start making more effective decisions.

So, next steps.

### Next Steps (Who, What, When)

• Business Experts: Please share your frameworks and examples to help us all better gauge how to tackle the decisions in each of our unique universes.
Again, whenever suits you is fine.
• Facilitators: Do you have a process for running a specific kind of decision making meeting you'd like to share? Get in touch!
We'll be ready to start on new templates in June 2017.
• Team Lucid: Finish publishing leadership meeting templates, and include a facilitator's guide for running the sample decision-making meeting outlined here.
Due in May 2017.
And start making awesome decisions now!