Article: Harvard Business Review: 7 Strategies for Better Group Decision-Making
By Torben Emmerling and Duncan Rooders September 22, 2020
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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to explore questions about business and business practice. In the process of examining them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but one that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. And by the way, if you want to learn more about how to work more closely with us, stay tuned at the end of the show.
I am Zac Swartout, and always with me is Carol Sanford, our inhouse positive contrarian. Who responds to big and hard questions with a radically different take.
Carol: Hi Zac,
Zac: So we are going back to basics this time. Decision making. I can really relate to this one because I’ve seen how in other organizations decision making skills like matrices and consensus processes get taught, but rarely ever remembered to get used. And more importantly do any of these tools actually help? Well today we’re gonna dig into an article that offers, not a model but 7 strategies for better group decision making…and in fact that’s what the article’s called. And, as always, it’s from HBR, the September 2020 issue, by Torben Emmerling and Duncan Rooders.
Carol: That reminds me. Let me tell people again, of a new practice we put in place thanks to Susan Gladwin, one of our super smart listeners. You can now go to the show notes in advance, find out the reference article or source for which we are giving a Second Opinion. Even a link to follow. Zac, why do I call Susan smart for recommending this?
Zac: In our Regenerative communities one of the principles we work from about learning is the idea of having a subject in mind before you hear or go to work on another’s idea. Throughout my years in this work, it’s been invaluable to be able to find a continual process of intentional thinking I can keep coming back to fresh. The hard part though is being in dialogue with someone who I don’t agree with who may not share the same world view as me.
Carol: That’s risky isn’t it because you are ready to debate them. How do you get that value and not foment a battle?
Zac: Turns out I come from a long line of debaters so yes that definitely is my default mode. But I think starting from a place of caring for the other person, while working hard to not get myself hooked in the conversation, and set up a reflective conversation for both of us, more than a competitive space where we are just trying to convince one another of what we already believe. But as you can hear in my voice it’s not always easy. I just had a conversation with one of our contractors last week. There was certainly a decision to make but instead of me making it for him, I did my best to follow the ideas I just laid out. It wasn’t an easy conversation but by the end we were both grateful for it. Oh and, surprise, surprise, we made some decisions!
Carol: You just gave us a start on today’s Second Opinion on decision making.
Zac, give us your overview in outline form of their seven strategies that we’re going to speak about a bit.
Zac: Sure so the issue they are trying to avoid with these 7 strategies is groupthink, or the idea that people’s opinions can quickly become co-opted and everyone agrees with one another. This ends up degrading thinking, leading to less optimal and more narrow minded decisions. The 7 strategies the authors offer to arrest groupthink are:
- Keep the group small when you need to make an important decision
- Choose a heterogeneous group over a homogeneous one (most of the time)
- Appoint a strategic dissenter (or even two)
- Collection opinions independently
- Provide a safe space for people to speak up
- Don’t over-rely on experts
- Share collective responsibility
Carol: So shall we do our paradigm questioning here to get started? What paradigm are they holding when they developed these in your mind? How can you tell?
Zac: Well they start from two places – the desire to arrest the problems that come from most decision-making processes – mostly groupthink. As we’ve talked about before this paradigm we call arrest disorder. It has roots in most entropic views of the world, meaning that everything is seen as constantly tending towards chaos and we as humans need to control those processes….or else.
The other thing to note here is that they source their ideas from behavioral and decision science. I wish we as readers had more details on their sources because a cursory examination of behavioral and decision science entails about 15 different disciplines of sociological research. We might say some of these come from the human potential movement, like creating safe spaces. This is the Do Good paradigm at work. One thing is clear though, these land on me as less interwoven strategies but more a list of rules or steps I might follow when making a decision with two or more people.
Carol: Of course, that is primarily to prevent things from going awry, as you said, arrest disorder. It’s interesting how most things that show up, I’d say 70% of what shows up in Harvard Business Review is arrest disorder, because there’s so many problems in running an organization. That’s what these seven are. Now I also notice they have a different idea about how people come to know something to be a right and a good direction. What do you see? It is related to the paradigm but focuses on how truth comes about. An Epistemology of thinking and knowing.
Zac: Good point. So for example: the authors speak in here a bit about bias. The authors indicate that bias is something that needs to be managed externally – through changing the size of the group and making sure that people get their thoughts out before the meeting on a shared document to be iterated on. The only issue here is they totally miss the idea of development. The implication here is that bias is always present so it needs to be managed for people, rather than seeing a decision as the vehicle for working to manage one’s own biases through development. It’s subtle but here we see again traditional cue ball theory of humans at work.
Carol: I think another thing this article represented for me was this idea that is’s all about directly going after it. You mentioned the cue ball theory, where you’ve got to hit this head on, rather than backing up and thinking about the capability. As you said, the development.
So I think it’d be fun to offer a different set of strategies from a different paradigm, and different epistemological view and maybe a framework to help hold in mind a Regenerative Decision Making Process. Zac, what would you like to apply them to as we explore; any recurring or upcoming big decision with your life or business partner or Super Alloy clients?
Zac: Good idea. Ok but first for the audience, I would encourage you to hold in mind a big decision you have coming up as well, and watch that subject in your mind as Carol asks me questions. Ok so big decision – we potentially have a big hire coming up and my business partner and I need to come to a decision about making this hire or not.
Carol: So we have 7 strategies but from very different levels of how learning, the world and humans work. We will put the framework in the show notes
First Strategy: Intend to and design for the development of people, ideas and decisions simultaneously. All events can develop people in the use of thinking skills and personal self-management. In DuPont Canada, Peroxide, they had a monthly strategic meeting to make and evaluate decisions. They always invited visiting members to the Core Team and rotated Core Team membership. They had a resource who worked with the task leader and visiting members. They designed the meeting using a living systems framework and both the task leader and visiting member got better at framework thinking. They never used agendas but an overall flow that was building something.
Zac, do you have a process of doing this, or an experience Or what do you see as the value of such a strategy?
Zac: We’re still pretty young but I will say that it’s become clear that, as we get busier, we need ways to keep everyone on the same page, growing, learning, and have all of us building towards something greater than just doing motion capture shoots. I see this as immensely valuable because it means we’re all growing together rather than keeping information siloed with just my business partner and me. This is critical to bringing new folks into a structure where they can immediately contribute and create their own trajectory in relationship with our team, customers, and larger work.
Carol: The second strategy is to use the Core Team members to make the decision. If expertise or information is needed, a core team member stewarding that arena gets it in advance. They test it with their own experience with customers, suppliers, contractors and their own lived experience. It has to be internalized by one or more members of the group, so it is not an expert’s advice or lets it all become metrics driven. They wanted it understood, not just known and accepted. Key here is questioning the outsider’s idea for its paradigm and fit in a situation. What is the advice’s source? This epistemology of non-expert driven demands the core group to understand, evaluate, and internalize the outsider thinking. Process avoids the hierarchy being evident, whether authority by rank or by expert, because this strategy is about leveling the playing field.
How does that resonate with you Zac? What does that make possible that expert/authority model ignores? Compare to their suggestions on size of group and experts cautioning you.
Zac: I like this because it’s not removed from the work process. So often development happens on retreat or some conference room offsite. But this is about the work we are doing now. And its subject is our clients and their lives. All of a sudden the decisions are contextualized for the whole team, allowing them to build their own decision making capacity not only that moment but ongoing in our work and their entire life.
Carol: The third strategy is to engage in reflection at any transition point (e.g. between breaks or subjects. Beginning or end of the day. Etc). Or when stuck and wanted to know why. In DuPont and elsewhere, there was a process (including a framework and questions.) It was used for time and space to enhance more capability development, and to ensure ableness for self-reflection, of the group on itself and their own working evolution and how to move the decision forward. There was inner and outer reflection. Caveat: Never comment on one another but rather the mental energy of the group since it is happening by all. Always using We, or I, never you not them. Zac, what does this offer Zac
Zac: I can see how ongoing personal reflection is critical. Decisions are events…moments in time that are part of a larger process. So often we treat decisions as the beginning and the end. Instead, this ongoing reflective process allows decisions to occur in a larger stream of work. So hiring this person becomes less about a hiring decision, and more about the ongoing evolution and growth of our company as it seeks to contribute.
Carol: Fourth strategy, again, these are not in sequence but things you want in place in the right flow and timing. I have already mentioned it but want to point it out as a specific strategy. Work with Living Systems framework thinking to draw from how we think and systems work within a reciprocal engaging process. These are radically different than mental models which provide best practice answers. The steps, or number of actions that are repeatedly used. Frameworks require us to wake up to the moment; they point to relationships within a domain or system and where to ask questions in each new situation. There are no best practices because each event, decisions, beneficiary is unique. Living Systems Frameworks give a shared language but also a way to know where we are in a conversation.
Zac: And Carol, for our newer listeners let me speak to “what is a framework” for a second? A framework example is like a set of windows on a house. They offer different perspectives on the same whole. Frameworks are used to help us pull apart ideas to see how they work individually but simultaneously together. So if we look at frameworks vs steps to take, frameworks are about building a capacity to see different worlds in an idea. The value of this is that it allows new thinking to enter for all involved. Contrast that to a list or set of rules where, I know for me, I design lists to get through things as fast as possible to get back to what I actually want to do, and rules are often things to be avoided.
Carol: The first four strategies are all missing from the article and they are instead introducing artificial constructs to try to make up from them. For example, the number of people attending. Procedures like collect from each individual. Frameworks missing is the most profound gap alongside poor capability to think. There are a few core values and uses that frameworks have.
Zac: Right, they disrupt mental models while making us examine borrowed ideas that we never thought to question. Secondly, they have us all on the same point of the framework at the same time versus having dissenters which fragment ideas, and really are just artificial anyways.
Carol: We are building a new set of thinking, not just “sharing points of view”. A framework makes that possible. It drives connection to wholes based on reality not preformed social constructs. We also are looking internally at our own thinking and have the framework on a board on the wall, with a scribe at the framework and not looking at one another. Zac, give an example of you with one of your partners using a framework and what it does for you and the decision making process
Zac: It’s funny I just did this the other day with my wife. She and I have a bit of a competitive streak in us when it is not always helpful and that shows up at inopportune times like around decisions she and I need to make as a family. Using a framework allowed us to approach the topic from a more neutral place, where we were thinking more together than as two people with differing agendas. We ended up leaving the conversation with a new understanding of one another – while also creating a path forward.
Carol: Fifth strategy, work from a connection to greater wholes who are beneficiaries ultimately or immediately of our decision. Customers, clients, communities. Use improvement in their capacity in their lives to set a direction based on what they are counting on you for as the guidepost. We are in product and service organizations, right! That is what creates safety, not us protecting one other from retribution for our comments. All is reconciled by the beneficiary we exist for. That is part of pre-planning with the leader of the event, the resource and the scribe role whose work we will come back to.
Zac, What does this add/offer that is missing from the 7 strategies of our HBR piece
Zac: When I think about the hiring process I need to embark on, my business partner and I now have a reconciler for how we come to this decision – our customers. They are the ones who ultimately will benefit from this hire so it behooves us to think from their perspective and benefit rather than being locked into our own.
Carol: Sixth strategy; set up roles that cover a longer set of meetings, maybe divided by the subject, or just windows of time, rotating who leads. The three roles are task leader who guides the agreed on process and is paying attention to quality of thinking and progress toward the products/decisions needed and how they are unfolding. The scribe is stewarding the use of frameworks and keeping the thinking on the board, showing co-generated ideas available for all to see. Not individual notes. The scribe only writes something when agreement is reached even if overturned later. The resource is watching the level of mental energy, pointing to opportunities for reflection, asking questions to invite deeper thoughts and restraining ideas that are old and repeat with framework questions and managing principles of the group.
Zac: The resource is ensuring that capability development, at the personal and group level, is foregrounded to using the process to grow both the team and organization. They often are more connected to frameworks so they can be using the framework to help bring structure to the conversation. This is used in tandem with the need to get the decisions made. They are not the judge of the group, but the servant of conscious thinking.
Carol: Seventh strategy—They design for and work to keep the group sensitive to “the quality of decision”, which is directly linked to the quality of mental energy, modes of behavior and level of paradigm being used. Keep this strategy overtly present. Keep it foreground. It may seem annoying at first, but it will build capability to make great decisions, will become fast and ubiquitous over time for all decisions. The use of reflection based on a shared framework will move all six of the previous strategies forward.
Zac, how does this apply to your example and experience?
Zac: I can definitely attest to that and I think most people can. When I make a rushed decision that comes out of fear and trying to control a situation, what I come up with will generally not last, takes not enough into account, and is more about me than a larger, more meaningful subject. With this hire, I definitely see how my business partner and I need to be deliberate about how we approach this from a regenerative frame.
Carol: Yeah, great. I’m going to get us started on reviewing those seven:
First, intend to and design for the development of people, ideas and decisions simultaneously.
Zac: Second, use the Core Team members to make the decision
Carol: Then engage in reflection at any transition point
Zac: Work with Living Systems framework thinking
Carol: Work from a connection to greater wholes who are beneficiaries ultimately or immediately of our decision
Zac: Set up roles that cover a longer set of meetings, maybe divided by the subject, or just windows of time, rotating who leads.
Carol: Then design for and work to keep the group sensitive to “the quality of decision” is directly linked to the quality of mental energy, modes of behavior and level of paradigm being used
Zac: We have openings for many of our communities to do this kind of thinking starting in January. For profit, not for profits and hybrid boards of directors or advisory. Educators in all domains, women entrepreneurs, oor business teams working on Regenerative approach to strategy, leadership and management. Email us if you are interested. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Zac: This has been Business Second Opinion
Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to answer questions about business and business practice, you may not know you need to ask. But we believe you should be asking for the benefit of your understanding and your businesses ethics and practice. In the process of answering them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects.
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In today’s show, we examined:
This episode is helping us think about decision making in groups. What does a Regenerative practice look like. And particularly an Evolve Capacity Living Systems Thinking paradigm on how you gather people, who attends, how do they work. The practices of the humanist era have invaded groups and the regenerative mind is dropped out in this process. We substitute 7 regenerative strategies for decision making for the 7 strategies of group processes that have been outdated for decades, if they were ever any good. We look at how we grow people to be the fully functioning adults they desire to be, speed up and yet deepens decision-making that grows a business and its people.
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Carol Sanford and Zac Swartout, co-producers