The delicate balancing act of collective decision-making, between transparency and trust


Any group of people – and by extension any organisation, network or more complex form of such groups – needs to have a clear decision-making process – a ‘decision rule’ – in order to attain agreements that people genuinely subscribe to and that lead to effective implementation.

Decision-making, no simple matter (Credits: Nguyen Hung Vu/FlickR)

Decision-making, no simple matter (Credits: Nguyen Hung Vu/FlickR)

Good learning and knowledge management depends on it just as well as anything else.

Any group wishing to establish a clear decision rule is however confronted with a dilemma:

  • Establishing a transparent decision-making process that guarantees that all people OR…
  • Not really establishing a full proof decision-making system and rather relying on the trust that exists between people, or the trust that people bestow upon a decision-maker.

The second option is tempting: Not many people establish clear decision-making processes to start with (and clearly leaders could innovate in this respect); it feels like an overkill for many of them; and if people know each other what is there to fear, right? Besides, if there is that trust – whether in the group or in the leader – why bother having a transparent procedure?

Well, trust certainly helps and eases decisions in, but is it enough when:

  • Turnover means new people could always come in and not guarantee the same level of trust among the decision-makers?
  • External actors are (legitimately) wondering how decisions are being made?
  • Any specific dispute could actually throw the trust off balance?
  • People outside the decision-makers are also involved and concerned but they may not know about the tacit agreement to making decisions?
  • There might be a risk in relying too much on a good and trusted leader?

For all these reasons, while trust is the truth and it’s an excellent basis for any group to move ahead with its decisions, defining a transparent decision rule is a guarantee that the group can crawl out of misunderstandings and disagreements in a fair and commonly accepted way.

WRAP - a model for better decision-making (Credits: JamJar/FlickR)

WRAP – a model for better decision-making (Credits: JamJar/FlickR)

Trust is the soil that lets the tree of cooperation grow, but a good decision rule or decision-making process is the tree support that lets it flourish until it has such strong roots that it doesn’t need support any longer.

What are you waiting for to install your decision rule?

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2 thoughts on “The delicate balancing act of collective decision-making, between transparency and trust

  1. Hello Adam,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and challenge!

    The link you shared doesn’t work for me unfortunately so I haven’t been able to check it. However, what I can say about your case is that the organizational structure might hold some of the answers, but there’s also something to do with setting clear decision-making procedures in a way that makes it:
    – Clear to all involved how a decision is being made and who takes it;
    – Clear to all involved when they’re a) just presented with information (and the decision has already been made), b) presented with information to provide feedback on (for the decision-maker(s) to take the decision afterwards) and c) being asked to all contribute to making a decision together.
    – Helpful for people to be involved in decision-making when they really are. In this case, there are useful ways to go beyond the all too simple language of YES and NO (as in: “so this is what it seems we’re agreeing on, is everyone ok? Yes, then let’s do it” – which is a very big leap of faith about the quality of the decision made)…

    So there’s some homework to be done on setting that decision-making ‘framework’ in the first place.

    Btw, if you are based in the US you could do worse than enrolling for a training on group facilitation skills (see: http://www.communityatwork.com/groupfac.html). That training is fabulous and provides you with all you need to set effective group decision-making. It’s one of the main sources of inspiration for this post too.

    Hope this helps,

    Ewen

  2. How do we make effective decisions as a group? I’ve been trying to let my team members contribute to the decision-making process and have been struggling with figuring out how to best-use their experiences to help inform broader decisions. I think that maybe part of my problem is related to not having a well-defined organizational structure for my business.

    I’ve been thinking about the organizational structure of my business and how we can improve it through explicitly defining our roles and assets. In doing some research, I came across business architecture as a framework from the Business Architecture Center of Excellence. I am still in the process of defining what specific roles we need in our IT firm, but feel like frameworks like this one really help. Any thoughts?

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