Monday, March 10, 2008

Consult-and-Decide and Build-Consensus for Making Decisions

How do you make more effective decisions?  As a leader, how do you know whether to build consensus or to simply make the decision based on input?  In The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, Michael Watkins writes about effective decision making using consult-and-decide and build-consensus techniques.

Watkins writes:

"When a leader solicits information and advice from direct reports -- individually, or as a group, or both -- but reserves the right to make the final call, he or she is using a consult-and-decide approach.  In effect, he or she separates the 'information gathering and analysis' process from the 'evaluating and reaching closure' process, harnessing the group for one but not the other."

Watkins writes:

"In the build-consensus process, the leader both seeks information and analysis and seeks buy-in from the group for any decision.  The goal is not full consensus but sufficient consensus.  This means that a critical mass of the group believes that the decision to be the right one and, critically, that the rest agree that they can live with and support implementation of the decision."

When to Choose One Over the Other
Watkins writes:

"When should you choose one process over the other?  The answer is emphatically not 'If I am under time pressure, I will use consult-and-decide.'  Why?  Because although it may be true that you reach a decision quicker by the consult-and-decide route, you won't necessarily reach the desired outcome faster.  In fact, you may end up consuming a lot of time trying to sell the decision after the fact, or finding out that people are not energetically implementing it and having to pressure them.  Those who suffer from the action imperative are most at risk of this; they want to 'reach closure' by making the call, but may jeopardize their end goals in the process."

Rules of Thumb
Watkins outlines some rules of thumb for choosing which decision making approach to use:

  • If the decision is likely to be highly divisive -- creating winners and losers -- then you usually are better off using consult-and-decide and taking the heat.  A build-consensus process will both fail to reach a good outcome and get everyone mad at one another in the process.  Put another way, decisions about sharing losses or pain among a group of people are best made by the leader.
  • If the decision requires energetic support for implementation from people whose performance you cannot adequately observe and control, then you usually are better off using a build-consensus process.  You may get to a decision more quickly using consult-and-decide, but not to the desired outcome.
  • If you are managing a team of people who are relatively inexperienced, then you usually are better off relying more on consult-and-decide until you have taken the measure of the team and developed their capabilities.  If you try to adopt a build-consensus approach with an inexperienced team, you risk getting frustrated and imposing a decision anyway, which effectively cuts teamwork.
  • If you are put in charge of a group of people with whom you need to establish your authority (such as supervising former peers), then you are better off relying on consult-and-decide to make some key early decisions.  You can relax and rely more on building consensus once people see that you have the steadiness and insight to make tough calls.

Key Take Aways
Here's my key take aways:

  • Choose the most effective decision making approach for the situation.
  • Don't simply use consult-and-decide under time pressure.
  • Prove you can make the tough calls using consult-and-decide.
  • If you need buy-in and support for implementation, build consensus.

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