When Teams Can't Decide

The Idea in Brief

When cross-functional teams have trouble making decisions, leaders blame psychological factors like mistrust or poor communication. But the problem isn't the team's people; it's the decision-making process. Each member has constituencies in the organization. So each vies for resources for favored projects — virtually guaranteeing an impasse. To break the impasse, the team leader makes a unilateral decision, leaving a majority of the team disgruntled and resentful of the "dictator."

To improve your team's decision-making process, Frisch recommends several tactics. For example, clearly articulate the outcome your team must achieve. When people understand the goal, they more readily agree on how to get there. And surface members' functional preferences through pre-meeting surveys to identify areas of agreement and disagreement and to gauge the potential for deadlock.

These deceptively simple tactics position your team to prevent stalemates--instead of forcing you to be "dictator-by-default."

The Idea in Practice

Frisch suggests these tactics for improving your team's decision-making process:

Specify the Desired Outcome

Without clear desired outcomes, team members choose options based on unspoken, differing assumptions. This sets the stage for the dictator-by-default syndrome. To avoid the syndrome, articulate what you want the team to accomplish.

A division of an industrial company was running out of manufacturing capacity for a product made in the U.S. The leadership team assumed the desired outcome was "Achieve the highest possible return on assets." So they discussed shuttering a U.S. plant and building a plant in China, where costs were lower and raw materials closer. But the parent company's desired outcome was "Minimize corporate overhead and maximize earnings." The move to China would mean closing an additional facility that supplied materials to the U.S. plant, significantly lowering earnings. Once the division team understood the desired outcome, it could solve the capacity problem in a way that was consistent with the parent's actual goals.

Provide a Range of Options for Achieving the Desired Outcome

Break alternatives into a broader range of options beyond "Accept the proposed plan," "Reject the plan," and "Defer the decision."

Test Fences and Walls

When team members cite a presumed boundary (for example, a real or imagined corporate policy), ask "Is it a wall (it's relatively immovable) or is it a fence (it can be moved)?"

For a division of a global financial services provider, executives never considered expanding their offerings to include banking services. That's because they thought corporate policy prohibited entry into banking. When the division head tested this assumption with her boss, she learned that the real concern was not to do anything that would bring new regulatory requirements (the wall). So the division developed strategic options that included several features of banking that avoided dealing with new regulations.

Surface Preferences Early

Survey members before meetings to identify their preferences and focus the subsequent discussion.

A global credit card company was deciding where to invest in growth. Executive team members conducted a straw poll of countries under consideration. The process enabled them to quickly eliminate countries that attracted no votes. And it focused their subsequent discussion on the two regions where there was most agreement.

Assign Devil's Advocates

Make thorough and dispassionate counterarguments an expected part of strategic deliberations. Assign devil's advocates to make the case against each option. This depersonalizes the discussion and produces more nuanced strategy discussions.

Further Reading


The Leadership Team: Complementary Strengths or Conflicting Agendas?

Harvard Business Review

April 2007

by Stephen A. Miles and Michael D. Watkins

The authors describe four kinds of complementarity among members of leadership teams: task, expertise, cognitive, and role. Bringing together two or more people with complementary strengths can compensate for the natural limitations of each. But with the benefits comes the risk of confusion, disagreement about priorities, and turf battles. Leadership succession also presents substantial challenges, especially when a COO or president who has worked in a complementary fashion with the CEO moves into the top role. An organization's board of directors and CEO can manage the risks by fostering a shared vision, common incentives, communication, and trust. They can also ensure smooth succession processes in various ways, such as brokering a gradual transfer of responsibilities or allowing the CEO and the COO to share duties as long as they maintain the logic of complementarity.

The Discipline of Teams

Harvard Business Review

July 2000

by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith

The essence of a team is shared commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a unit of collective performance. The best teams invest a tremendous amount of time shaping a purpose, and they translate their purpose into specific performance goals. Team members also pitch in and become accountable with and to their teammates. The fundamental distinction between teams and other forms of working groups turns on performance. A working group relies on the individual contributions of its members for group performance. But a team strives for something greater than its members could achieve individually. The authors identify three basic types of teams: teams that recommend things, teams that make or do things, and teams that run things. The key is knowing where in the organization real teams should be encouraged. Team potential exists anywhere hierarchy or organizational boundaries inhibit good performance.


Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great

Harvard Business Press

January 2008

by Ruth Wageman, J. Richard Hackman, Debra A. Nunes, and James A. Burruss

Many CEOs stumble when creating a leadership team. One major challenge is that members often focus more on their individual roles than on the top team's shared work. Without the CEO's careful attention to setting the team up correctly, these high-powered managers often have difficulty pulling together to move their organization forward. Sometimes they don't even agree about what constitutes the right path forward. The authors explain how to determine whether your organization needs a senior leadership team. Then, drawing on their study of 100+ top teams from around the world, they explain how to create a clear and compelling purpose for your team, get the right people on it, provide structure and support, and sharpen team members' competencies — and your own.

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