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7 ways to clarify your decision-making and improve your meetings

Meetings have various and diverse goals, and often some sort of decision-making is part of it. A clear decision is what participants usually expect by the end of a discussion. But interestingly enough, when a topic is on the agenda, we just start the discussion. That means that by the time you want to come to a close, you’re not sure on how to end in a satisfactory way. Or maybe you are, but then participants might be caught off guard by the decision and your promptness.

Clarify decision-making in meetings

Clarity in decision-making brings better meetings


If you do not clarify the decision-making process upfront in your meetings, you’re putting yourself and the group in a difficult position. Not immediately, but at the end, when you’re running out of time. And the group is then in a state of confusion and lacks commitment.


That was not the outcome you, as a meeting leader, were expecting.


In control… yet your meetings run astray

When I ask meeting leaders (usually a manager, program or project lead) what they will do at the end of a discussion, the usual reply goes along the line of ‘we’ll figure it out when we get there.’


It’s bewildering to see such a high-risk attitude when it comes to working in groups. And a high-risk attitude, it is! The complex work environments require different and new skills to keep groups moving forward. And also to unstuck them when needed. It requires more than the unprepared improvisation that most meeting leaders currently use.


Where those same leaders keep in control by endless reviews of all possible financial risks, implementation pitfalls and success indicators, they turn a blind eye to managing the risk of a poorly run meeting. As a leader you’d tick all the right boxes and yet as a meeting leader you’d fail.




Work has changed, so change your meetings

That wouldn’t be so much of an issue if meetings wouldn’t have such an impact on your team performance. In many organisations meetings abound, and most people loathe them. They interrupt their workflow, are often run poorly and drain energy even long after the meeting.


Steven Rogelberg, in his book ‘the Surprising Science of Meetings’, links the abundance of meetings to the new work zeitgeist in which values of employee inclusion, empowerment and employee buy-in are deemed essential to the survival of the organisation.We are currently experiencing a shift in which managers are less rewarded for their super-expertise (historically the smartest guy would grow into the management position) and increasingly need to promote cooperationbetween all kinds of levels and different stakeholders (think interdisciplinary teams across hierarchies and divisions).


Before the shift, there was clarity. The meeting leader would make the call, a note-taker (the secretary) would write it down in a meeting report and the participants would follow-up on the decision. With cooperation and buy-in gaining importance the decision-making process is not that clear anymore.


That requires meeting leaders to know more than just the old ‘I decide and you execute’ way to close a discussion. This way of decision-making still has its value, but the toolbox of a meeting leader needs to be broader.


There are 7 ways for decision-making. And the trick here is to clarify the decision-making at the beginning of meetings. Participants engage more easily when they know the rules of engagement. So bringing clarity on the decision-making process drives engagement and buy-in. Furthermore, as is rightfully noted by Bob Frisch and Cary Green (in this HBR-post) participants want to understand what’s going to happen if they can’t reach an agreement.


So, here we go! The 7 ways to clarify decision-making in meetings.


1. You decide with consultation

The one we know. It’s the autocratic decision-making. There’s one person in charge and in the end it’s his or her call to make. The meeting is there to give input on the upcoming decision. It means you’re consulting the group. What are the pro’s and con’s, how will it impact the work, what are the risks of a certain decision.


Is a meeting always needed? Of course not. And it’s worth considering what the added value of a meeting would be for the decision-maker. If you think the putting all the intelligent minds together within one room outweighs the interruption of their workflow, then go ahead. Otherwise, ask their input individually.


2. You decide with command

Here’s a second form of autocratic decision-making. You don’t need input and consultation, you just make the decision. Go ahead, you’re commanding! And no input also means no meeting.


Maybe you’d like to call a meeting to convey the decision you’ve made to the rest of the team and stakeholders. But holding a meeting just to inform is more a waste of time than anything else. There are so much more ways to inform. So to add value, think of discussing in a meeting how the team will cope and work with your decision.


Most organisations are run the autocratic way. And employees at every level usually have their domain of responsibilities entitling them to make their own (autocratic) decisions within their domain.


3. We decide by voting

Voting is the first of three democratic decision-making processes and maybe the one we know best. When I ask people about democratic ways of decision-making, they come up with this one first. It’s a very helpful tool when you have several options that participants may decide about.However, from my experience, it’s not often applied in meetings; bar very formal ones (in which a strong protocol rules the official decision-making process).


There are endless ways of going around with voting, 50% plus one being one possibility to define a majority. It’s up to you (and the meeting) to decide what the majority means (e.g. within the Council of the European Union there is something called QMV or Qualified Majority Vote, where a decision passes when approved by 55% of the member states representing at least 65% of the EU population). The main drawback with voting is that it leaves the minority empty-handed. So, as fair as it seems, it also lacks buy-in and engagement.


4. We decide by consensus

If you want more buy-in then deciding by consensus might be a good way to go around. Consensus means that all participants should agree on the decision. Therefore all perspectives are taken into consideration.


If the stakes are high(and they usually are when you chose for consensus), prepare for a lot of talking and a long meeting. So, having a facilitator that has no stake in the outcome will help you surf the process. Having said this, the decision, being supported by everyone in the room, has a strong likelihood of being executed.


5. We decide by consent

Consent is different from consensus in that it allows for buy-in without having everyone to agree. The group makes the decision after making sure no one has any significant objection. This allows the organisation or the team to find a good enough solution and to move forward on that basis.


When someone voices a significant objection on a proposal, the objection needs to be clarified with reasons so the other meeting members understand the objection. The meeting then adapts the proposal, till there is consent by everyone.Consent is not about persuading others, it’s about crafting a proposal that allows for moving forward.


Like consensus, a facilitator will be of good help when you decide to use consent.


6 & 7. The oracle and random decision-making

There are two more ways for decision-making. And highly undervalued as far as I am concerned. They are the ‘it decides’as opposed to the autocratic ‘I’and democratic ‘we’.


Why undervalued? Because we tend to believe that decision-making should always be rational. But sometimes it’s important to make decisions based on external interventions (like oracles) or to just move forward (random decision-making).


The word oracle is derived from the Latin orare, which means to speak. In ancient times, oracles directly spoke the words of deities. In our modern organisations, oracles usually take the form of consultants. Random decision-making doesn’t require any external involvement. It’s just a random pick of the different options that you have in front of you.


In short: clarify your decision-making in meetings

Now that you know these 7 ways for decision-making, you can prepare your meeting and give clarity about how the meeting will make decisions. As already said in the beginning of this post: participants engage more easily when they know the rules of engagement.

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