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Collaborative Decision-Making in Self-Organizing Teams

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Giving people the opportunity to express their full potential in self-organizing teams is the best way to make an organization thrive today, argued Lorenzo Massacci. At Agile Business Day 2019, he presented how teams that organize themselves can continuously make decisions effectively and efficiently.

Collaborative decision-making is a complex activity. Massacci presented different approaches for taking such decisions, such as consensus, majority voting, autocratic decisions, and consent. His advice is to understand the context and adopt one method over another with awareness.

To enable self-organizing teams to make decisions effectively and efficiently, they must deal with decisions not as "moments," but as "processes", as Massacci explained:

It is necessary to create processes that help us to ask the right questions and allow the knowledge to reach those who will have to make the decision and put it into practice. Take the time to understand the problem and generate options by striving to find alternatives without taking the usual solutions for granted.

Massacci stated that the most important thing is that the team works to create alignment on business objectives, values, and guiding principles. If there is a strong alignment of people on these issues, it will be much easier to make consistent, effective and quick decisions, he said.

Seldom, in a company or team, people have the opportunity to follow a "path" to growth in decision-making. It is something that is often obtained only through seniority, but decision-making is a skill that needs training, Massacci argued.

InfoQ interviewed Lorenzo Massacci after his talk at Agile Business Day 2019 about the challenges of decision-making in self-organizing teams, decision-making approaches, preventing teams from acting on anarchy or not making decisions, and improving our decision-making capabilities.

InfoQ: What are the challenges that come with decision-making in self-organizing teams?

Lorenzo Massacci: In my experience, I see two great challenges.

The first is to know how to correctly involve team members without necessarily having to listen to everyone’s opinion every time, and without having to every time make a unanimous decision. The challenge is to be able to involve everyone effectively, avoiding falling into the trap of anarchy or immobility.

The second, and maybe the most underhanded and often underestimated challenge, is to overcome the fear of deciding. For example, an organization that adopts the "culture of blame" where every time something goes wrong the hunt for the culprit starts, develops an approach that we can call a "Fear of Failure" Driven Decision, where people’s focus is on making sure they can say "it’s not my fault" instead of exploring and experimenting to make better decisions.

InfoQ: What kinds of decision-making approaches do you recommend for collaborative decisions?

Massacci: I don’t think there’s an ideal approach to making collaborative decisions. It is a complex activity, and therefore, it very much depends on the context. The most common mistake is to choose an approach and use it in every situation.

The most common approach is using "consensus" to achieve unanimity. It’s probably the method that wants to take into account "collective intelligence" most of all, giving everyone a chance to express themselves. On the other hand, it is a rather slow method, and sometimes, you risk making watered-down compromises to please everyone. In my opinion, what is preferable are complex, high-impact decisions where it is important to get unanimous support, and the focus is on relationships.

A much faster way to make decisions thanks to people’s participation is by majority voting, which enables the involvement of many people, and in a short time ensures the contribution of everyone (even if rather superficial). The risk of this approach is that it tends to make the decision too "digital": 0 or 1, A or B, black or white, cutting away the shades of grey, which is sometimes where the right solution to a problem is found. As a result, it forces people to choose the "lesser of evils" instead of what they want. However, it is particularly efficient in simple situations that allow short consultations and require quick decisions.

The autocratic approach, in which only one person is left to decide, when done with respect and clarity is also a valid approach in situations of chaos and emergency where it is important to decide quickly (better a wrong decision than no decision at all).

A very interesting approach is "consent" (see consent decision-making from Sociocracy 3.0), where instead of focusing on having to agree on something, we focus on finding objections (are there any good reasons not to go ahead?). This approach rewards self-responsibility by letting people decide how and how much to participate, and thanks to the process of raising objections and the wise use of listening, helps to make good decisions.

"Looking for a valid objection to make good enough decisions safe to try".
(Samantha Slade, Going Horizontal).

But even this approach has its risks as it requires a safe company culture where people are comfortable handling option-based conversations, and still requires good communication skills to be effective.

InfoQ: How can we prevent teams from acting on anarchy or not making decisions?

Massacci: Making collaborative decisions in a self-organizing team does not mean that everyone decides. It is therefore important not only to define how a decision is to be made, but also to establish who is to make it. Clarifying the level of delegation is very important because the delegation of a decision can be a very ambiguous aspect and a source of misunderstanding, betrayed expectations, and problems.

One way to avoid this ambiguity, for example, is to use a common vocabulary, such as the one introduced by Jurgen Appelo with seven levels of delegation (Delegation Poker & Delegation Board).

The important thing to point out is that you don’t have to decide together all the time; what is important is that it be clear how to participate and that everyone learns how to contribute.

InfoQ: What tips do you have to improve our decision-making capabilities?

Massacci: No instrument can really improve our decision-making skills; the reality is that the human being, with all his cognitive bias, is a bad decision-maker. The real way to become better decision-makers is to know our identity as individuals and as a group. Our identity and beliefs filter how we interpret information and make decisions. Being aware of this allows us to take it into account and use it to our advantage.

In addition, the quality of interactions and relationships within teams and entire organizations strongly influences the toughness and effectiveness of decision-making processes.

Therefore, it is important to work towards building a context of psychological safety that favors a culture in which people do not feel judged, but work together to improve themselves and the organization itself. This ensures that people are able to make decisions for the good of the organization, rather than decisions for their own good.

"A simple reality of collaboration is that people can’t create together if they don’t trust each other." (Nilofer Merchant The New How)

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