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Have You Hit a Group Decision Making Wall?

Making group decisions is one of the great challenges of meetings. Oftentimes, decisions are made by a show of hands, the (mis)interpretation of silence as agreement, or whoever speaks the loudest - methods which can leave people out or feeling uncommitted to the next phase of a project. What does good group consensus and decision making look like, and can it be used to generate an excellent business product?

Yes! Here we offer three approaches from the large and complex field of group decision making. Consider these strategies the next time you want to quickly know what the group is thinking, when there are many options to choose from, and when you want to include everyone’s voice to achieve consensus.

Get a Sense of Support Level Through Fist of Five Voting

This approach is best used in a larger group when there is limited time for a full verbal discussion. Consider these remarks by Jake Calabrese, an Agile expert who works with Fist of Five:

“Fist of Five Voting is a deceivingly simple process you can use to check-in, learn, gain consensus, and/or vote to understand where people stand on an issue or idea. I say deceivingly, because there is so much more you can learn about what is really happening in a team if you are paying attention.”

Indeed, group dynamics will play out in your meetings. Use Fist of Five to gauge the support level in the room, uncover unspoken concerns, and get commitment from the team.

How does it work?

  • Step 1: The facilitator clarifies the question. The facilitator must frame the question so everyone clearly understands the proposal on the table.

  • Step 2: Group members vote with their fingers. The facilitator counts to three and then members display their hands in front of them with 0 (no fingers) all the way up to 5 fingers to let others know where they stand. Zero fingers (a fist) means the person vehemently disagrees with the idea and does not want to move forward. Five fingers means the person supports the idea 100% and will serve as its champion. Simultaneous voting increases the likelihood that group members share their honest opinions in the moment.

  • Step 3: Elicit feedback from those who have reservations. The facilitator can then ask individuals with fists of 0,1, and 2 to share their concerns and suggest amendments to the original proposal. The remaining team members can follow up with their clarifying questions and comments. These shares should be brief 1-2 sentence summaries and the facilitator can set a time limit for the discussion. In the meantime, the note-taker should capture these concerns in the meeting notes.

  • Step 4: Consider another round of Fist of Five. Once people have spoken and the proposal potentially adjusted, the facilitator calls another Fist of Five. People can modify their votes as a result of the group share. This brief sharing and vote iteration may continue for a few rounds until the team is satisfied with the results.

Fist of Five is an optimal strategy to use in virtual meetings that include the rising trend of video conferencing, as it easily includes colleagues in multiple locations.

Choose Between Many Options with Multi-voting

When there are more than two or three options to vote for, simple majority rule voting may not be the most democratic option. For example, if 12 people are voting among five options, the votes may get spread out such that most people in the group do not end up voting for the option that wins. For a true group consensus, Multi-voting provides a result more reflective of a group’s opinion so that outcomes get more buy-in.

Multi-voting helps a team prioritize the most important options from a larger list through several rounds of voting, so that the list of options decreases.

How does it work?

  • Step 1: Identify the large list of options. Make sure everyone is clear about what each option means. If there are multiple options with subtle differences, number them or assign them letters to minimize confusion.

  • Step 2: Clarify the voting process and identify the number of options available for selection. Each person votes for one-third (or so) of the options. For example, if there are 12 options, each person can choose four.

  • Step 3: Vote. Vote by a show of hands. If you want to maintain anonymity, vote in an online survey or by paper ballots. Alternatively, use marks or dot stickers which people can place next to the option if written on large paper or a whiteboard.

  • Step 4: Count the votes and narrow down the list. The items with the most votes make it to the next round of voting. The general rule of thumb is to cut the list down by 50% in each round.

  • Step 5: Vote again. Repeat the voting process until you identify the most popular option. You can also record the runner-up choices in the backburner for future reference.

Before implementing this technique, explain to the group that it will more accurately represent the consensus of the group than traditional voting. The group is likely to appreciate that!

Eleven members of the Meeteor team use the Multi-voting technique to identify company core values from 50+ options.

Inclusive Consensus Building with the Stepladder Technique

The Stepladder Technique was developed by researchers Steven Rogelberg, Janet Barnes-Farrell, and Charles Lowe. The goal is to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink and get individual opinions in the room. Studies show that groups that apply the Stepladder Technique to problem solving outperform others using more traditional decision-making approaches.

The Stepladder Technique works best with a group of 4-5 people facing a complex decision. A group any larger than this reduces the effectiveness of the technique.

How does it work?

  • Step 1: Clarify the problem and allow time for individual thinking. The facilitator presents the issue and allows team members sufficient time to individually reflect and generate their own solutions. Neither the presentation of the issue nor the time for problem solving have to occur during a meeting. You can also assign this step as meeting prework.

  • Step 2: Start the first round with two people. Ask a “core group” of two people to start problem-solving the issue for 10-15 minutes, depending on the complexity of the problem. The rest of the group listens in silence.

  • Step 3: Add another member to the discussion. A third member joins the “core group” by sharing their perspective. The remainder of the group continues to listen without interrupting. After the new point of view is fully understood by the first two core members, the team of three generates a solution integrating all three points of view. In the next round, a fourth member joins the conversation and repeats the process. Limit each round of conversation to the same amount of time to keep the conversation contained and focused.

  • Step 4: Reach a final decision. Once all team members have joined the group discussion, the team can finalize the decision, which is already iterated and accounts for everyone’s voice.

The Stepladder Technique may appear to be a high investment in time, but it’s worth the effort to create truly inclusive group decision making.

Final Thoughts on Group Decision Making

Customizing an approach to decision making to best fit a particular team size and complexity of problem takes more effort than a conventional discussion and vote. But the outcome is worth the investment: engaged employees, astute solutions to problems, and more compelling meetings. Remember to also include a rationale for each decision in your meeting notes to keep for future reference.

Let us know how you do it! What kinds of group decision making strategies does your team use in meetings? Where have you succeeded and fallen short?


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