Pop Quiz #1: In your team meeting, you’re discussing whether to change the meeting time. After fifteen minutes of unfocused discussion, a teammate decides to take the bull by the horns and propose a new time. They then ask the group if everyone is good with the new time. In your team of eight, two people say yes, three appear to nod their heads, and the other three are silent. The conversation ends and shifts to the next item on the agenda. Has your team made a decision to change the meeting to the new time?

Answer: Who knows? (Read on for the “correct” answer.)

Mushy Decision Making

Approximations of the dynamic in the above scenario when making decisions are quite common. Typically, such scenarios later result in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • A team member gets upset and says, “I never agreed to that!”
  • A team member follows up with the team and asks if they had in fact made a decision, which then causes confusion and further discussion amongst the team around what the decision was
  • Revisiting the same topic at another meeting because it wasn’t clear what had been decided
  • Nothing changes and no one brings it up again; the discussion was for nothing
  • The team goes back to the drawing board because no one is clear if they had agreed to even change the meeting time in the first place, or if they were just trying to decide on the new proposed time

Clear decisions are crucial for growth and success. Clear action is preceded by a clear decision. Without clear action, real impact, change, or success is limited.

The above scenario is based on a rather simple and low-impact decision. Now, consider the many decisions teams and organizations need to make on a regular basis and imagine the impact such mushiness has on an organization’s productivity, effectiveness, and morale. The results aren’t pretty.

The Signs of Clear Decisions

Pop Quiz #2: Look at your current work team. Do you know when your team has made a decision? If yes, what objective signs tell you that your team has made a decision?

Amongst the teams I’ve consulted with or coached, most aren’t able to say yes. If they do, when I ask for objective signs that they’ve made a decision, they typically stumble around for a minute before realizing that they really don’t know.

The bottom line is this: unless every team member can answer yes and explain their process for making decisions, the team doesn’t have a clear process.

Making the Decision to Make Clear Decisions

It’s not enough to have a clear process for making decisions. Unless everyone knows what the process is, some of the above symptoms will surface. Therefore, two elements are crucial for making clear decisions:

  • A clear decision-making process needs to be established
  • Everyone involved must know what the process is

Circling back to our initial scenario and Pop Quiz #1, was the decision made? Assuming everyone knew the process, if the process only required two people on the team to verbally say yes, then the decision was made. If the process was by majority vote and silence equals consent, then the decision was made. And so on. However, my guess is that based on your and my experience of similar scenarios, no clear decision was made.

The process itself for making decisions ultimately doesn’t matter, nor do teams need to use the same process every time. Whether it’s by consensus, majority, autocracy, or any other process, what most matters is that the two decision-making elements above are used for any decision. Ultimately, the team leader will decide and is responsible for making sure everyone on the team knows what that process is. That said, some processes are better suited for certain types of decisions or teams, so it’s important to choose thoughtfully. Check out this article for examples of decision-making styles, including the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Questions for reflection:

  • If you aren’t the team lead, how can you influence establishing a clear process for making decisions?
  • What decision-making processes would generally best suit your team?
  • What benefits could incorporating the two decision-making elements have for your team and/or organization?