Decision Making That Doesn’t Kill Innovation

Let’s talk about decision making.

The instinct in most organizations is to use consensus or majority rule.  Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but there is a third way—Consent Decision Making.  It is an energizing way to get new thinking out of employees that also creates positive teamwork for evaluating, modifying, and deciding to try innovations.

A prerequisite for Consent Decision Making is safety.  Participants who bring new ideas to the team need to feel safe when doing so.  If you work in an organization that has trust issues or is dysfunctionally competitive, Consent Decision Making will be a challenge.  Needed is a positive assumption that everybody has good intentions, is smart and capable, and should be trusted to have some reason they’re making their suggestion. 

So, consider how your organization makes decisions now.  Are they ready to try a new model?  If they are, here are five steps for facilitating a Consent Decision Making process.

First is the Proposal Step

Someone proposes a solution to a problem that they see.  In this step, the proposer simply lays out a problem statement and the solution they are proposing.  The meeting participants are not responding in this step, they are only listening and taking notes. 

This is an underappreciated and powerful phase because bringing unpleasant news into a meeting can be a vulnerable thing to do as an employee.  But it is powerful because we work in a world that does not stand still and will always present problems. 

Far riskier for the organization is to deny and assume the status quo is the way to go because it has worked in the past. 

Second is the Clarifying Questions Step

Here the rest of the team asks questions but only for clarifying their understanding of the proposer’s problem/solution statement.  Questions like, “What did you mean by this or that?”, Why do you suggest this?”, “Why do you think it’s a good idea?”, etc. 

This is an important phase because the intention here is to understand the proposal on its terms.  Enforce a ground rule of no criticisms.  A participant’s role is to listen to understand what the proposer said and is proposing.  

The participants need to know enough about the new thinking before they have permission to criticize it.

Third is the Reaction Step

This is where meeting participants get to have an opinion as a team.  This step hosts two conversations,  Concerns and Improvements. 

But there is a ground rule here as well, no judgments.  A participant’s role is to make their opinions known but not propose an action or final decision about the new idea. 

Participants do not get to say, “I don’t like this” and leave their comment at that.  They also have the responsibility to communicate their concerns or improvements in a non-judgmental way.  The proposer just hears the feedback and does react to the reactions.  The intention is to make sure everyone is heard.

For the participant with a concern.  They simply express it, omitting a conclusion on the merits of the new idea.  Further, the person offering the concern must also tell the group what would remove that concern.  Thus, the person with the concern has two responsibilities, express their concern and tell the group what could be done with the new idea to remove that concern. 

For the person with an improvement idea.  This step is the place to make that suggestion.  The facilitator simply asks the participant to provide suggestions for deletions, additions, modifications they recommend that would improve the new idea.   

Fourth is the Amend and Clarify Step

This is where the proposer can amend and change their proposal for clarifications and improvements.  They also provide the logic behind their decisions.  The proposer does not have to use everybody’s feedback, but they do have to offer their reasoning for the changes they made.  Most of the time there is space between this and the previous step, so the proposer has time to make these changes.

Fifth is the Decision Step 

This is the judgment phase where a “go” or “no go” decision is made by the group.  The team can object to doing the thing that’s been proposed.  But even here there is a ground rule.  The “no go” decision bar should be high. 

Innovation is a fragile thing.  I’ve seen heated arguments over small things like every little bit of copy on a website home page.  And I’ve seen groups stall from fear that they will make a mistake—even a trivial mistake.  In reality, very few decisions in an organization are irreversible. 

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away” (Linus Pauling).  It is not good business to try and agree on your predictions.  Better is to test and learn as you go. 

Parting advice. 

If you are the facilitator, it is best to take these steps in order, following the good group management dictum of separating idea generation, evaluation, and decision making into separate conversations. 

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