Group decision making is when multiple people work together to look at problems and issues, analyze the information they have available, and come up with effective solutions they can all agree with and act upon. As the saying goes, two heads are better than one. The idea is that as more minds work on a problem, the better the outcome will be. Philip G. Zimbardo put it best when he said, “Research shows that the decisions of a group as a whole are more thoughtful and creative when there is minority dissent than when it is absent.” In other words, it’s good when people with different points of view become part of a group as their voice joins with others as everyone comes to a decision together.
As seen in several studies, when people get together in groups, they tend to make better decisions as they share ideas and correct mistakes. These are all outcomes they may not see if done individually. Businesses that don’t encourage this process risk alienating their workforce. People may become frustrated knowing only a select few make the final decisions, and further workplace conflict may arise. However, when groups make the decisions, people feel like they’re part of a larger team, leading to more productivity and higher job satisfaction.
Learn about what makes a good group size for the decision making process. Then, find out about four different group decision making techniques you can use, how to reach a final decision, and how some of today’s prominent leaders approach decision making for groups.
What to Know Before Making Group Decisions
One important step before beginning the group decision making process is determining how big the group is. For smaller organizations, some may simply invite everyone who would be affected by the decision to join. Others may only choose a few select individuals with expertise on the matter. They don’t all have to be members of a mastermind group, but they should have some knowledge of the issue and the ideas they will discuss.
Researchers have yet to reach a consensus on the ideal group size for group decision making. One study done by Harvard Business Review found that the best size consists of seven people. Other studies show that the more people there are in a group, the more likely it is that decision making problems will increase. For example, researchers from Princeton determined that smaller groups lead to more accurate decisions. For all their disagreements, experts do seem to agree that groups should consist of an odd number of people so disputes can be settled through a majority vote if needed.
Once you’ve settled on group size, it’s time to begin the group decision making process. Luckily, there are multiple techniques, with pros and cons to each. Take a look at the following methods.
Group Decision Making Techniques
The Delphi Technique
For many people, remote work has become the new normal. However, just because people are in different locations doesn’t mean groups won’t have to make decisions. In cases where people work in separate areas, try the Delphi Technique. First started by the Rand Corporation, each member of the group works first as an individual coming up with their own ideas. Then, they all post their solutions to the same platform. This might be done through an email, a project management software, an electronic bulletin board, or a messaging app. You might even hold a virtual meeting where everyone shares their ideas with the team.
Once this is done, the group can then ask questions about each person’s ideas and give feedback in a constructive way. The group may rate each solution, but they don’t have to make an immediate decision. In fact, you might go through multiple rounds of this process before making a final choice.
How to Follow the Delphi Technique
- Pick people for the group with specific expertise on the problem being discussed.
- Choose how the group will share their ideas (email, platform, app, virtual meetings, etc.).
- Select a deadline for everyone to submit their ideas.
- Have each group member review the solutions at the deadline and rate them.
- Provide feedback and ask questions about each solution.
- Follow this pattern for several rounds until reaching a consensus.
Perhaps the most well-known method of group decision making is brainstorming. This is when a group gathers in the same place (either physically or virtually) and works on coming up with solutions to a specific problem. During this process, members of the group quickly share their ideas, while one person records these thoughts in a way that everyone can see them. Furthermore, group members also discuss the solutions, providing their own opinions on the merits of each one. Once everyone has shared their solutions, the group then works together to make a selection.
The person leading the brainstorming session plays a key role in making sure everyone has a say in the decision. Sometimes, they might push for more ideas when people are quiet, or they might keep the session organized and on track if it threatens to jump the rails (as happens from time to time). Brainstorming is generally a casual way to generate ideas and discuss how best to proceed with a solution.
How to Brainstorm
- Select a group leader to take charge of the brainstorming session.
- Send out invitations in advance so people can think about their ideas ahead of time.
- Set a time limit on the session (i.e. 60 or 90 minutes).
- Keep people focused on the objective of the session.
- Treat everyone’s ideas with respect and consideration.
Nominal Group Technique
Unlike brainstorming, the nominal group technique is a bit more structured. With this type of group decision making, group members privately work on creating their own list of solutions. During the group meeting, each member shares a single item from their list. One major difference between this and brainstorming is that while people share their ideas, others can only ask clarifying questions. They are not allowed to provide their own opinions on the proposed solutions. After all the ideas are shown, the group ranks solutions based on individual preference. Voting continues until the group makes a final decision.
One of the main features of the nominal group technique that differentiates it from other methods is that the group cannot critique the ideas individual members propose. Evaluation is based on ranking. As a result, people may feel more comfortable sharing their solutions knowing they won’t receive criticism from their colleagues.
How to Practice Nominal Group Technique
- Encourage group members to write their ideas down privately.
- Schedule a group meeting for everyone to share their ideas.
- Do not allow criticism of people’s ideas.
- Narrow down solutions until reaching one.
Dialectical Inquiry Technique
Dialectical inquiry is a method that uses debate and argument to reach a decision. Like the other group decision making techniques, the team meets together to discuss a problem and come up with solutions. However, this strategy takes a look at each solution and has the group divide into two smaller groups. Each group represents a side either in favor of the idea or against it. From there, the groups debate each other, pointing out the strengths and flaws in each side.
The group opposing the solution plays devil’s advocate, even if they personally like the choice. The team needs to examine all of the potential drawbacks of each idea so that every member understands the downsides. Because of this, the dialectical inquiry technique is great to use when leaders need to analyze the impact of a decision.
How to Use Dialectical Inquiry Technique
- Keep the number of solutions discussed low to allow ample debate time.
- Schedule multiple meetings to discuss more ideas if necessary.
- Don’t group the most talkative or opinionated people together.
- Mix each group with executives, managers, and lower-level employees.
- Make sure each solution is discussed thoroughly.
Methods for Making a Final Decision
Even once you know which technique you want to use, coming to that final decision is not always easy. Emotions can sometimes run high, and disagreements can be fierce. With this in mind, it’s important to settle on what method you’ll use when making a final decision. That method can be broken down into the following categories.
Think of this as the “majority rules” method. It’s one of the most common ways that groups decide which solution to adopt. It’s also the main reason experts advise that groups consist of an odd number of people at all times. Understand, though, that the minority may still be unhappy with the outcome.
Use this method when you:
- Want a fast decision
- Prefer the democratic process
- Know that everyone has agreed to follow the results beforehand
The group decision making process proceeds like normal with this method, but the ultimate decision comes down to one person. That person is usually the main executive in charge of the organization or the leader of a department. This method may lead to even more dissatisfaction from members of the group who didn’t get their way.
Use this method when you:
- Need a decision as quickly as possible
- Have someone on hand who is a true expert in the matter
- Understand it may cause some discontent
While not as straightforward as a majority decision, the ranking method still makes use of votes, only those votes are kept more private. Group members write down their ranking of their preferred solutions and hand them in. The group leader gives each rank a point total and tallies the votes. Whatever solution has the most points at the end is the winner.
Use this method when you:
- Have some extra time to calculate the votes
- Don’t mind a possible scenario where nobody’s first choice gets picked
- Want a method where everyone has at least some say in the decision
For the unanimity method, everyone must agree on the final decision. That doesn’t mean they must achieve a unanimous vote right from the start. Additional persuasion and discussion may be needed. While this method takes time, it results in all group members accepting the decision. Ideally, this means no conflict, hurt feelings, or disagreements. Just understand that reaching a unanimous decision may be difficult or sometimes even impossible.
Use this method when you:
- Need everyone to be in agreement
- Have time to reach unanimity
- Want to limit dissent
Sometimes the only way to reach a final decision is to whittle away at the less-than-ideal solutions first. The negative minority method works by eliminating the most unpopular idea from a group of solutions. After enough rounds and you’ll eventually only have one idea left.
Use this method when you:
- Are leading a small group with a lot of ideas
- Have time to do multiple rounds of voting
- Want a democratic solution but prefer eliminating less popular ideas first
How Famous Leaders Handle Group Decision Making
So how do these techniques work in the real world? Luckily, there are many examples of how leaders direct groups to make decisions in their organizations. Through these examples, we can see that there’s no one size fits all method. Every company has to approach issues in a way that does what’s best for the business.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos is a big believer in reaching decisions quickly. In a letter to shareholders, Bezos explained that in order to stay competitive, companies need to come to decisions as fast as possible. Even if disagreements occur, in his view, it’s better decisions are made than there being no decisions at all.
Larry Page, Google
Google’s Larry Page has stated that every meeting should have only one person who makes the final decision. That means Page favors the authority method. Like Bezos, Page wants workers to reach decisions quickly, even if it means not coming to a consensus. He believes that once a decision is made, leaders should make sure everyone understands why they selected this particular choice.
Alfred Sloan, General Motors
Alfred Sloan, the late CEO of General Motors, took a different approach to group decision making. He preferred workers spent time making a decision, even warning that if they reached consensus too quickly, it might indicate something is wrong. Sloan advocated for a longer group decision making process, one which allows for disagreements to arise. As he said, “If we are all in agreement on the decision — then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” As such, Sloan likely favored decision making techniques that took more time and cultivated more conversations.
Group Decision Making: Being Part of the Team
Group decision making goes hand in hand with the 5 step decision making process. These tools allow people to look at a problem from all sides and come up with a decision that everyone can follow. By promoting group decision making, businesses will see greater unity within their organization. Workers will feel like they’re an important part of the group, allowing them the opportunity to chime in on decisions both small and large. And with more minds tackling a problem, a successful solution is sure to follow.
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