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Tips for Group Decision Making: It’s All About Action

One of the toughest things about being on a nonprofit board is that you have to participate in group decision-making.  Anyone who’s ever tried to figure out where to go to dinner with both sets of in-laws knows that it’s much easier to boss people around or do what you’re told than it is to make a group decision.

In the case of dinner, everyone’s highly motivated to make a decision because, let’s face it, they’re hungry.  On a board, however, people can easily be lulled into inaction until a real crisis comes along because it is difficult to move a group to take decisive action.

Of course, you have no choice but to make decisions.  The fulfillment of your organization’s mission depends upon it.  You’ve got to establish a vision, determine organizational goals and objectives, hire and manage an executive director, oversee fiscal health, and so much more.

Here are a few of my favorite tools for guiding your board through decisions that will translate into action:

Start by finding alignment.

Any decision must first be grounded in some basic principles you can all agree on and that aren’t about the individuals at the table, but rather the issue you are tackling.  Pose a question that requires people to articulate what they care most about or what their vision is for a successful outcome.  For example, if your board is grappling with hiring an executive director, ask a question like: What is the single most important role of an executive director for our organization?

Have everyone write their answer on post-it notes and then group those responses by theme or intent.  If the responses cluster around a few key themes, you’re in good shape to move forward with some real decision making.  If they’re all over the place, you’ve got some work to do to get everyone on the same page about priorities.

Define the question to be answered very, very clearly.

Tease the question apart, break it down, focus on its key elements.  For example instead of saying, “What kind of executive director should we hire?” ask the group to define what changes they’d like to see in the organization and the role an Executive Director should play in making them.  Ask them to consider the cultural aspects of the organization and identify the characteristics that would make an Executive Director successful in that setting.  And so on.

Make room for creativity.

Don’t move too quickly to narrowing your choices.  I find myself tempted to do this for the purpose of expediency, but it’s much better to allow for plenty of visioning and brainstorming.  People will feel more engaged and excited if they’re allowed to dream first and then prioritize their thoughts into actionable items.

Hear all voices.

Consider hiring a facilitator to bring some neutrality to the process.  A professional facilitator can make sure that a few people don’t dominate the conversation and use techniques to elicit input from the quieter parties.  If that’s not possible, establish ground rules for participation.

Listen, listen, listen.

Any good agreement is grounded in a shared respect for each others’ opinions and perspectives.  Without that, it’s really not an agreement! 

Focus, focus, focus.

The traditional “parking lot” that you see in facilitated meetings is there for a reason.  If someone brings up a valid point that should be addressed, but it does not pertain to the question at hand, cut off the conversation quickly and add the issue to the parking lot to be addressed at a different time.  Having facilitated zillions of group decisions, I can tell you that you have no choice but to do this.  You’ll simply never get through your agenda if you allow for tangents.

Go for consensus, but be prepared to settle for less.

I’m not at all tied to consensus.  What I am tied to is mission-fulfillment and productive action.  Getting caught up in consensus, in my opinion, puts too much emphasis on the board’s emotional needs when the priority should be on the organization and its needs.  I know, I know.  You can argue for consensus and you’re probably right that it’s fabulous, but I’m a pragmatist and at some point, majority may need to rule.   That said, be sure to talk about how the ultimate decision will be reached (consensus or vote) before you get to that stage.

Just do it!

Sometimes people are afraid to make a decision.  They’re worried they’ll make the wrong one.  But, most of the time, boards feel really, really good after they’ve worked hard to reach an agreement and move forward.

I highly recommend the Mindtools website for management tools and facilitation techniques.  Good luck with those decisions and remember, the first step in making a decision is deciding to decide.

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