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November 17, 2004 Volume 4, Issue 46
 
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Decisions, Decisions: Part I

by

Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right process for the job?

As I write this, it's Election Day 2004 in the US. I don't yet know what the result will be, but it occurred to me that we're engaged in one kind of group decision-making process. And that got me wondering about how many different variations there are for smaller groups. Here's Part I of a little catalog of commonly used group decision-making procedures. For Part II, see "Decisions, Decisions: Part II," Point Lookout for December 1, 2004.

Consensus ensures
that any accepted proposal
has everyone's support
Unanimity
Everyone has to agree whole-heartedly.
Unanimity means "the state of being of one mind" and that's about the size of group this works best for: one. For larger groups, if there's even a little controversy, this process is very difficult.
Consensus
Everyone votes either "I agree completely, I will support it;" or "I can live with it, and I will support it;" or "No, I can't live with it and I will not support it." Sometimes this is done by a show of thumbs, respectively, Up, Sideways, or Down. If there's a single down thumb, the proposal is defeated; otherwise it's accepted.
Consensus ensures that any accepted proposal has everyone's support. Some disadvantages: a small number can block any decision; there's a risk of groupthink; and achieving consensus can be slow. It's probably unworkable in a highly polarized environment.
Consensus Minus N
Thumbs up
Like Consensus, except that the proposal is accepted with any number of No votes up to N.
This is an attempt to deal with the problem of blocking by a tiny minority, and it can speed the decision. It's more workable than Consensus in a polarized environment if one faction is very small. The big risk: a dissenting minority can feel alienated or "check out."
Multi-voting
When the proposal before the group involves either rank ordering a set of options, or selecting one option from many, simple voting or consensus don't work very well, because they're oriented toward either accepting or rejecting a single proposition. In Multi-Voting, each participant has a set number of votes, which he or she can distribute among the options in any way at all.
One weakness: there's no way to vote No. You might be able to address this by giving people a set of No votes to distribute freely among the options.
Authority
The Authority (or Chair or Executive or manager or leader) decides, possibly after open discussion.
This method is best for time-critical decisions, or for decisions for which open discussion is inappropriate, impossible, unethical or illegal.
There is a risk of overlooking some issues, and alternative proposals; a risk of ethical conflicts; a risk of bias; and a risk of alienating some stakeholders, who might feel excluded from the process. And if the Authority controls compensation decisions, either directly or indirectly, participants in the discussion might not surface all issues.

Now the only problem is deciding how to decide — and this is just Part I. See "Decisions, Decisions: Part II," Point Lookout for December 1, 2004, for more. Next in this series  Go to top  Top  Next issue: Are You Micromanaging Yourself?  Next Issue
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For a great resource on consensus, see "A Short Guide to Consensus Building, from the Public Disputes Program of Harvard Law School, the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the not-for-profit Consensus Building Institute.

Reader Comments
Brad Appleton
Great article! This is an issue that I deal with a lot in my work. I wonder if you have seen any of the work of Ellen Gottesdiener. She has a book called "Requirements by Collaboration: Workshops for Defining Needs" and a good article/excerpt called "Decide how to Decide".

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