Can Your Team Make Decisions?

January 13, 2015
In the first session of every Vital Teams™ process, I have the team generate a list of verbs that describe what they should be doing with their time together.  With leadership teams, the list usually includes words like strategize, prioritize, and envision. The other word that is almost always in the draft list is “decide.”   In my experience, the word decide does not belong on the list of things a leadership team should be doing. But from the reactions, I’m in the minority.

As soon as I challenge the role of a leadership team in deciding, I get significant push-back.  “Of course we decide, that’s what we’re here for.”

Really…?

Try this test. Choose a decision that you think your team makes. For example, the team will decide whether we launch a new product or not.  Now think about what would happen if the majority of your team was in support of launching the new product, while the boss was dead set against it.  Would the product get launched?  In most cases, the answer is no.

That’s because, in most cases, the decision making authority lies with the team leader.  The team leader might be a consensus-oriented person who makes it feel like the team is making the decision, but really, it’s just the leader’s authority that the team is using.

So what?

If you’re thinking it’s all semantics, you’re missing the point. Teams that falsely believe they are making decisions don’t use their time and energy wisely. They:

  1. Spend too much time trying to come to a resolution with too many people in the room. This reduces productivity.
  2. Get stuck when individuals have a vested interest in one solution or another. This erodes trust.
  3. Make decisions based on the relative persuasiveness of the individuals arguing each option rather than on the best answer. This creates risk.

 

The alternative

In the vast majority of cases, teams need one person who is ultimately the decision maker. The team’s value is as advisors to the decision maker and champions of the decision. Here are a few alternative verbs to replace “decide” in your list.

Define: leadership teams add significant value by defining an issue and/or a solution.  The right words to say to define are: “What do we mean when we say…?” “What would good look like for us?” “What are the criteria that would be important to consider…?” “How would we know we’ve got the right answer?”

Optimize: this is one of my favorite team verbs. Your leadership team brings together people from a variety of departments to provide a perspective on the whole group (whether it be a department, business unit, or complete organization). Optimization conversations focus on the interplay between different functions. They focus on the push and pull and trade-offs with questions such as “If we do x, how will it affect y?” “What is the least we can do in x while still achieving y?” “If we can only invest x dollars, how would be split them between y and z?” You add significant value by helping your team leader understand the implications of different options on your part of the team.

Validate: when potential solutions come to the team, you might think that your role is to approve them, but approve is synonymous with decide.  Although the team leader gets to approve (or not), your team can add considerable value by validating the proposal.  Validating might take the form of “How would this play out with…?” “Which stakeholders were considered in this plan?” “What assumptions underlie this approach?”

Align: high performing teams spend considerable time aligning—making sure that they are coming to a shared view on something.  This could be at the beginning of a conversation, such as “what are we trying to solve for here?” It could be after the team leader has made a decision as the team clarifies what needs to be done “What are we each going to do to implement this?” It’s also important to spend time aligning on communication “What are we going to say to the team?”  Most teams underinvest in alignment, with significant negative consequences. (Read more about getting aligned here.)

Don’t feel disempowered and devalued by the thought that your team is not a decision making body. Instead, divert your energy toward your true purpose: putting your team leader in a position to make the best possible decision.

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