Last Updated Feb 17, 2009 2:21 PM EST
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.
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by Ruth Wageman, J. Richard Hackman, Debra A. Nunes, and James A. Burruss
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