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January 20, 2022
Avoiding the High Cost of Ambiguous Decision-Making
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Nancy Settle-Murphy
Nancy Settle-Murphy
Despite the best intentions to give careful thought to important decisions, many nonprofits feel pressured to make decisions fast, due to strapped resources, the inability to get the right people around the table, or simply not allocating enough time for needed discussions.

The unfortunate result: Truly bad decisions are made every day, and many cannot be easily undone. What’s a better approach to facilitating group decisions? And how can this be done when group members are working from multiple locations? According to Rick Lent, president of Meeting for Results and author of the new book Leading Great Meetings: How to Structure Yours for Success, the Five Cs can help.

Better group decisions begin by clarifying your intent for the group's involvement. Five Cs is a simple reminder that there are five distinct ways to reach a decision with a group. Some work better in certain situations than others. What's critical is that group leaders be explicit about the planned decision-making approach and the rationale behind it, and set realistic expectations about peoples' roles in advance.
  1. Consensus. True consensus decisions are those for which everyone has clearly indicated his or her support. This does not always mean that everyone has agreed to all aspects of the proposed decision.

    Areas that fail to gain everyone's support can be set aside as "not yet agreed" while action begins on the areas where there is consensus. In a virtual world where discussions tend to be truncated, online tools can be used for asynchronous and synchronous conversations.

  2. Consent: This is more akin to seeking permission, where the buy-in of each person is needed before moving ahead. For example, a team may include a representative from several organizations, such as product engineering, manufacturing, sales, and customer service, all of whom need to agree on important details of the launch plan for a major new product.

    If even one representative withholds consent, the launch may not be able to go on as planned. Clarify exactly what people are actually consenting to, and make sure everyone is aware of the implications of consent or lack thereof. Ask those who withhold consent what it would take to agree.

  3. Compromise. A compromise is a negotiation. The leader should have a good idea of participants' perspectives in advance, either through interviews, online conversations or some other way. During the meeting, the leader openly acknowledges areas where certain compromises may be necessary to gain agreement, and asks participants to brainstorm possible compromises, either through verbal discussion or by using an online conference area.

    If further discussion is needed after this meeting, ask for volunteers to develop options for consideration by the full team at the earliest possible date.

  4. Count. This is deciding by counting votes. Make sure to allocate time for a reasonable discussion beforehand, which can take place in advance, perhaps in an online conference area or in a previous meeting.

    The voting itself can be done offline in advance (anonymously or not), with the ensuing discussion taking place during the real-time meeting. Indicate whether the vote must be unanimous or whether majority rules. If taking a vote during the meeting, plan the sequence carefully, especially if some participants are likely to have an undue influence on the votes of others. In that case, having people type in responses can help level the playing field.

  5. Consult. In this case, the team leader needs to make it clear that s/he is simply soliciting input from participants, explaining how the decision will be made, and by whom. In the virtual world, a meeting leader can seek input from a wide array of people by using online conferencing tools.

    If participants can see and build on others' ideas, they are more likely to generate richer input. Make sure that everyone who provides input is privy to the decision as soon as it can be communicated.
How can group leaders use the Five Cs to make more effective group decisions? Think about an upcoming meeting and decide which process might work best. Let people know in advance how, exactly, they will participate - before, during and after the meeting. Be explicit about what the decision entails and the implications from multiple perspectives. Create a level playing field by making sure that everyone is equally informed about the topic in advance.

Once the decision is made, communicate it to everyone, along with the rationale. The more people understand about how you arrived at the decision-making process, the more likely they are to want to fully participate the next time.

Nancy Settle-Murphy, president of Guided Insights, helps nonprofits design and run more productive meetings, whether face-to-face, virtual, or both. Call her at 978.263.2545 or email
June 2017
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