Group decision-making tips and techniques

Group decision making

Design is a collaborative field and like it or not, you’ll often find yourself working in a group. As we all know from our college and high school days, a group project can be a tedious, annoying, and divisive experience when handled poorly. But we’re professionals now, and group decision-making can actually be beneficial, interesting, and even pleasant when it’s properly managed.

That’s why it’s important to know which group decision-making techniques to use, when it’s a good idea to use them, and how to prevent groupthink. Once you combine this knowledge with the communication techniques and supportive leadership that we discussed in previous articles, you’ll automatically start developing a culture of feedback, which increases morale and makes everyone around you feel valuable. This is the kind of work environment in which people grow, genuinely enjoy their job and create better, inspired design.

Ready? Let’s jump into group decision-making!

What is group decision-making?

While the phrase is fairly self-explanatory, let’s quickly define it so that we’re 100% on the same page. Group decision-making is a participatory decision-making process where multiple individuals collectively analyze and evaluate problems, come up with various ideas and solutions, and make the final decision together.

Group decision-making is generally most effective when there are 2 to 7 people involved. It can be either a relatively informal and unstructured process, or a strictly defined, structured, and formal procedure. In both cases, the group wants to achieve a specific goal – usually the generation of ideas, the evaluation of ideas, or both.

What are the pros and cons of group decision-making?

The old saying “Two heads are better than one,” would make you think that it’s always a good idea to decide as a team. But as you surely know by now, that’s not the case at all.

There are too many factors at play to simply say that group decision-making is always better or worse than individual decision-making. As is true for all methods, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s check them out and see when group decision-making is a good idea and when it’s not.

Group decision-making pros:

  • It promotes information sharing among team members and eliminates the problem information silos.
  •  Information sharing leads to a greater collective understanding of the problem and potential solutions.
  • It promotes a ‘sense of ownership’ of the decision, as all group members have contributed to it. This usually leads to an overall acceptance of the decision and a greater commitment and motivation to make it successful.
  • Having different group members working together who have diverse backgrounds and expertise often leads to a greater number of ideas, allowing them to look at the challenge from different perspectives. That’s why it’s likely that the synergy between such members will eventually lead to a superior solution.
  •  If you have a diverse group, it’s unlikely that an important aspect of the problem or solution will be overlooked.

Group decision-making cons:

  • Group decision-making is slower than individual decision-making, so it’s unsuitable when you are in a hurry or when something needs to be done really quickly.
  • It can lead to a lower level of responsibility and accountability, as it’s easier to blame others for the poor results – especially if someone doesn’t fully agree with the chosen path of action. It’s important to ensure that all team members are on board with the decision, or that people who are known to be individualistic and problematic are not involved at all.
  • Less personal responsibility can lead to the ‘risky shift’ phenomenon, which occurs when the group decision is a riskier one than any of the group members would have chosen individually. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can be a problem if you’re looking for a solid and reliable solution.
  • It can be influenced by interpersonal conflicts. You should avoid placing people who dislike each other into the same group, as they are less likely to agree on a solution and can drag the whole group down.
  • A diverse group may have a hard time agreeing on a solution because every member may have their own preferences. This creates additional work for the team leader and takes even more time to work through.
  • On the other hand, group members may feel pressured to conform to a majority point of view, which leads to groupthink. This is when most of the group decision-making advantages are lost, as alternative solutions are not fully explored and members simply agree with the majority or with a dominant leader.

Groupthink is a fairly common problem that really harms the group decision-making process. The good news is that it can be avoided. Even better, the steps that you can take to avoid it will also increase the effectiveness of group decision-making in general. Let’s take a look at some tips.

How to avoid groupthink and enhance group decision-making

Groupthink happens when a group of people prioritizes conformity and seeks to avoid any judgment or conflict. It can lead to an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. The desire for cohesiveness leads some group members to agree at all costs. This minimizes conflict but also makes the group reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation, which makes the whole group decision-making process pretty meaningless.

Here’s what you can do to avoid groupthink:

Keep the groups small. Up to 7 people are ideal, as research shows that groups with more than 7 members are more susceptible to confirmation bias. Imagine the group sitting at a dinner table – you don’t want it to be too crowded. 😉

Try to choose a cross-functional group by involving people from development, marketing, UX design, graphic design, etc. Homogenous groups have a greater tendency toward biased decision-making, which is usually bad when solving complex problems

E.g. A team of designers might quickly agree on a great design that’s nearly impossible to properly implement from the developer’s perspective.

Appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ who is tasked with constantly questioning the group’s consensus. This should ideally be a rotating role, as different people can have different arguments and the responsibility can also be quite exhausting. The devil’s advocate pushes the other group members to think more deeply about the various advantages and disadvantages of proposed solutions before reaching a decision and implementing it. Some people might find it annoying, but it’s worth it, especially if you have a homogenous group.

Collect opinions and ideas individually or anonymously in a shared document. This is a possible solution if your group members really dislike conflict, or if there’s a really strong personality in your group who tends to swing everyone else’s opinions

Alternatively, you can provide a safe space to speak up without the fear of retribution or disagreement. It’s not ideal, as it means that people are hesitant to speak up in the first place, but it can help when it seems like someone is becoming a victim of groupthink.

You should also encourage a discussion of divergent opinions, doubts, and experiences in a respectful manner.

Focus feedback on the decision or discussed strategy, not on the individual.

Express comments as a suggestion, not as a mandate.

Express feedback in a way that shows how much you empathize with and appreciate the individuals working towards your joint goal.

These are some ways that should help you to deal with groupthink and better evaluate possible solutions. Now let’s explore group decision-making techniques.

Group decision-making methods and when to use them

Different situations call for different group decision-making techniques. Which one your group picks will depend on the importance of the decision, its complexity, the resources available, and the timeline.

You should always ask yourself the following questions before you decide which group decision technique to use – it allows you to determine whether a group decision-making process is really a good idea:

  • Are you trying to generate ideas or reach a specific conclusion?
  • How many people will be involved in the group?
  • Can the group meet in person or will it collaborate online?
  • Are any members likely to dominate others? Are participants going to be hesitant when it comes to voicing their opinions
  • Does everyone need to agree with the decision?
  • Is the decision time-sensitive?

Answering these questions is enough to let you choose from the techniques that are at your disposal. Here are some of the most common ones:

Brainstorming

It’s only right that we start with good ol’ brainstorming. Brainstorming is used to generate ideas. The problem at hand should be described in enough detail so that the group members really understand it.

A brainstorming session is relatively unstructured and its defining characteristic is its ‘anything goes’ attitude. It encourages free-flowing thoughts and the sharing of any suggestions that people might have. Judging proposed ideas is actively discouraged and scheduled for a later stage.

Some people can still be reluctant to propose ideas that they don’t think are good enough. Writing them down on a piece of paper or sending them anonymously via email or in a shared document can solve this problem.

Once the ideas of the group members have been exhausted and written down, they are ready to be evaluated. That’s as far as brainstorming goes, as it has no evaluation system in place.

In general, brainstorming is useful for generating lots of unique and creative ideas without the fear of judgement, but it doesn’t offer much when it comes to evaluation or decision-making.

Nominal group technique

Nominal group technique takes brainstorming a step further by being a more structured decision-making method. It also includes a voting process.

First, group members write down their ideas and solutions. Once everybody has done this, they take it in turns to present one idea from their list at a time. At this point, the ideas aren’t being evaluated (yet) and no criticism is allowed. Other group members can only ask for clarification.

Once all of the ideas have been presented and recorded, the group can begin discussing and evaluating the options.

At the end of the process, each group member chooses their favorite idea and gives an explanation as to why they feel that it’s the right choice.

If there’s an authority figure in the group or if you are talking about something controversial, you may want to ask every team member to share their opinion in a confidential email and then present the final results and explanations without using names. This will help you to avoid groupthink.

When compared to brainstorming, nominal group technique takes a bit more time but also offers a clear method of choosing a solution.

Put it to a vote

Speaking of voting, putting something to a vote is often the simplest and most effective solution. When you need a straightforward yes/no answer or when you’re resolving smaller issues, a simple vote can often do the job.

It still requires your team members’ input and you don’t even need to schedule a meeting, as you can request a vote via email or through one of many online tools.

If you have any strong personalities or people with authority that could influence other group members, opt for anonymous voting. If you want your process to be transparent, suggest that these individuals vote last.

Putting something to a vote is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s good to remember that simple voting might save time and still resolve your issue.

Rank the possibilities

Ranking the possibilities is a great decision-making option when you have a few chosen viable solutions. You can either have a brief meeting to talk through the options, or you can do it online via email or other tools.

Have everyone rank the possible solutions and scenarios, combine the rankings, and determine the average position for each option.

It’s a good way of prioritizing various features that your team has to design, or seeing which of the proposed solutions generally appeals to most team members. It can also be a means of narrowing down the options if you only want to discuss and evaluate the top three solutions.

Delphi technique

This is a good process to use when the team leader knows that it’s going to be hard to reach a consensus for an important decision, especially if experts from different fields are involved.

The Delphi method goes like this:

  1. The team leader asks individuals to propose the first round of solutions and perhaps answer some problem-related questions. This is usually done in writing and independently. It can be done one-on-one, or in a Slack group or an email thread where members can see each other’s ideas. The first round can even be carried out via questionnaires.
  2. The leader compiles the gathered solutions and information and narrows it down. They present it to the group and ask for their opinions, as well as asking them some further questions.
  3. The leader once again compiles the information that they receive and condenses the list of possible solutions. Again, they ask for the group members’ opinions, ask further questions, or ask them to rank the solutions.
  4. This cycle continues until the group reaches a collective decision on the best course of action.

This method is a good choice when you’re working with experts in different locations or when reaching an agreement in a meeting could be problematic. It requires a bit more coordination, but if the group leader is good at steering the discussion and combining various options into a solution aligned with business goals, the Delphi technique can yield great results.

Dialectical inquiry

This technique is only applicable in certain situations, but it can be an excellent choice when the time is right. It’s the best way to solve a yes/no question (e.g. is this design really a good solution for this target group?) or the issue of deciding between two options.

The simplest form of dialectical inquiry is writing down all of the pros and cons of a solution on a whiteboard and seeing which column ends up longer and more impactful.

But the traditional dialectical inquiry method is more interesting…

The leader divides the team into two opposing groups who debate the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed solutions – these pros and cons can be written down beforehand. After an extensive discussion, the groups switch sides. The ‘Pro group’ becomes the ‘Con group’, and vice versa.

This technique ensures that the issue is talked about at length. It allows all members to truly understand various viewpoints and weaknesses of the proposed solution, meaning that they can make an informed decision. It’s a good way of dealing with personal biases.

However, it’s crucial that group members understand that they are working together towards the same goal, even if they may feel like adversaries during the exercise. It can be a tiring method, but if you want to really consider every aspect of a certain solution, then it’s a good choice.

Whichever technique you decide to use, there are some general guidelines that you should always strive to follow:

  • Be clear about what kind of decision is being made. What is the problem that needs to be solved or the choice that needs to be made? Who will be making the decision at the end? How will the group influence and be influenced by the decision? As always, clarity is crucial for success.
  • Respect the participants’ time. Minimize the amount of time required in meetings and start and end these sessions as scheduled. Keep any discussions focused on the topic. Don’t involve people who have no interest in the group decision-making process.
  • Be mindful of deadlines. Stay aware of deadlines that must be met and structure the decision-making accordingly.
  • Ensure that all opinions are respected. When facilitating group interactions, do not allow participants to be dismissed, disregarded, or dissed.
  • Don’t allow one or two people to dominate the whole discussion. If some participants can’t be reined in, consider a decision-making method that forces equal participation or anonymous interactions.

When working in design, you’re bound to encounter plenty of group decision-making opportunities. I hope that this article will help you to pay attention to the most important aspects of it. Even if you’re not the leader of the group, you can still contribute to effective group decision-making by knowing its advantages and pitfalls.

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Romina Kavcic small photo

👋
Oh hey, I’m Romina.

Design strategy consultant. Founder of DesignStrategy.guide – strategic design studio.

I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.

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