How to make decisions as a group is an important question. Who decides on what and which form of decision makes sense for which subject area? Whether early or in the middle of a joint project, it can always help to question one’s own decision-making mechanisms and, if necessary, to try out new ones.
Discussing problems, developing solutions and making decisions in groups is a complex matter – even in a small group. How a discussion and the associated decision making proceeds depends on many different factors:
At a meeting people come together with their different character traits and experiences. It should also be noted that people prefer different attention spans and certain ways of conducting conversations. Are there perhaps even certain roles or hierarchies or are people meeting for the first time?
Ideally, a common horizon of experience and a structure grown in a group will enable decisions to be made more routinely. However, the opposite can happen and decisions are only made by a few group members. Therefore it can help to discuss the own decision mechanisms not only at the beginning of an enterprise. The following describes basic aspects of decision-making and examples of possible decision-making processes.
Discussion & Moderation
Most group decisions are preceded by discussion. Therefore, the better the discussion, the easier it is to make a decision that can be supported by as many people as possible. Good moderation is essential for a constructive discussion. Moderation is a complex topic. Therefore, only a few central aspects can be discussed here. Further information for a successful presentation and working materials can be found below under the links.
A good moderation ensures that the general conditions of a meeting are clear. I.e., a moderator presents the agenda for a meeting, explains and leads the discussion, collects speeches and keeps track of the time frame of a meeting. If desired by the group, he/she will also ensure that the rules of the game agreed within the group are observed. Then it can also include shortening or breaking off speeches and encouraging previously unheard participants to speak.
In general, it is helpful if the moderator records the agenda, the time frame, but also the arguments mentioned in a discussion and visualizes them visibly for all on a flipchart or a poster. The visualization has two positive side effects. It shows what has been achieved in the meeting and helps to avoid digressions or repetitions.
If the moderator is part of the group, he/she should make it clear when he/she gives a personal opinion and when he/she moderates the group.
Ideally, the vote should take place after the discussion. There are a number of popular decision-making procedures for this:
Authority decision: One person makes the decisions for the group without consulting the group beforehand.
Minority decision: A small sub-group (less than half), e.g. the Finance Group makes decisions for all.
Simple majority: A vote is taken and the result with the most votes is adopted.
Double Vote Procedure: Each person has two equal votes, which he/she gives to his/her two preferred options. The decision with the most votes is elected.
Consensus: The discussion and search for ideas continues until everyone involved can live with the solution.
Cooperative consensus: This decision-making mechanism enables differentiated coordination. There are always at least two options to choose from. So there is always the option: “We don’t act.” All decision options are evaluated on a five-step scale from -2 (rejection) to +2 (good solution). Further information can be found here.
Nick Osburn suggests an exercise to better assess the advantages and disadvantages of various decision mechanisms. This can be found here: Acceleration of the decision-making process
Not every decision mode is equally suitable for every topic. The more often the different decision methods are practiced in a group, the easier it is for the group to select them independently.
Focus: Systemic Consensus
Systemic Consensus (SK) is another decision-making principle that has been spreading more and more since 2005. The SK principle should help to increase the solution competences and decision-making abilities of a group and to solve conflicts in a simple way. The aim of the principle is to find the most viable solution – without splitting the groups into different camps, as is often the case under the classic majority decision. SK can be used regardless of group size, organizational form or group constellation.
Systemic Consensus is not about finding a decision based on a majority. The latter has the disadvantage that it can lead to decisions that may be the preferred solution for the majority, but may produce extremely undesirable results for some in the group. This leaves not only some winners but also many losers behind. SK is committed to developing many proposals for solutions and to uncovering and measuring the resistance to them. The aim is to identify the solution with the least potential for conflict – i.e. the one that comes closest to consensus. SK is a systematic way of asking all those involved “Can you live with this solution?
Very briefly: The SK introduces an assessment scale for the subjective resistance of a person. This traditionally ranges from 0 to 10 resistance votes (“W votes”).
- 0 W-votes = no resistors
- 10 W-votes = the proposal is unacceptable to me
- Intermediate values are assigned according to feeling.
The total group resistance shows which are the least popular suggestions. The voices of resistance make it possible to present the problems of the different people with the individual proposals for solutions and not just to be for a proposal. The central point is that there is always the zero solution (“Nothing is done.”) for which the vote is taken.
SK is a decision system that can also be used for complex questions. A special methodology has been developed for this purpose.
More information about Systemic Consensus can be found at http://www.sk-prinzip.eu/ (German) and below in the links.
Important aspects of group decisions
In more open decision-making processes, such as Systemic Consensus or Consensus, it helps to consider some aspects or to agree as a group on another decision-making process.
How much energy does the group want to devote to the decision-making process?
Open forms of decision-making, in particular the principle of consensus, require the commitment of all those involved in order to function. Every individual has to ask himself/herself here: What are his/her own needs? Which goal do I pursue? What are my needs? Everyone must communicate the answers to these questions honestly. This means that mutual trust is very important.
It also means listening carefully to others in the group. It should be a dialogue among equals. This also includes proactively looking for solutions that include all of them. All this takes a lot of energy. However, joint decision-making also has a group-building effect and creates acceptance for the work that has to be done to implement the decision.
Is the process of how to come to a decision as a group understandable to everyone?
It is essential that all group members understand the structure of how a decision is made. There may also be group-specific group agreements or hand signals that have to be explained to newcomers in addition to the decision-making process.
Is there a common overarching goal?
At the beginning of a joint venture, it is advisable to take the time to work out common visions. These can guide or motivate the group in difficult discussions.
Who should make the decision?
Ideally, all persons who will bear the consequences of the decision are present in the decision-making process. Especially if not all members can or want to come to all group meetings, then one should consider in advance who is affected by which decision and if necessary find flexible ways of participation. However, involving absent group members can complicate the decision-making process.
Is the question clear to everyone?
The question of a problem may already exclude certain solutions or may prefer others. Therefore, the common question should be agreed at the beginning of a discussion. If necessary, can the moderator also formulate the question?
Is there enough time to make a decision?
It can help in the decision making process to limit the discussion of topics in terms of time. If you do this, you should talk in advance about what happens if no decision can be made. Is it simply a matter for further discussion? Can the decision be postponed? For whom does it have negative effects if no decision is made? These questions can of course also be asked when the time limit is reached.
What happens when a decision is made?
Every decision should be recorded in a protocol, so that in the future it will be possible to understand the decision again.
- Overview of different moderation methods (German)
- Detailed information on group moderation
- On consensus as a decision-making process
- What to look out for when a group wants to make decisions in a consensus decision-making process (English)
- The online tool for systemic consensus
- Webinars on Systemic Consensus by Markus Castro (German)
- Basics of Systemic Consensus by Bettina Kollwinger (German)
The group TransitionHaus Bayreuth decided soon after its foundation to make its decisions with the help of the Systemic Consensus. After a first test it soon became clear that this mechanism is very promising. Everyday practice has shown, however, that the SK principle sometimes feels counterintuitive and somewhat bulky in its application. The group felt that Systemic Consensus places high demands on the moderator and is a very technical way of conducting discussions. It is also difficult to convey the systemic consensus to newcomers.
Therefore, the group organised a Systemic Consensus Seminar, inviting experienced SK trainers Marcus Castro and Adela Mahling to train decision-making in a group with them. This seminar was financed by the nationwide support program Democracy Life. The group realized very early on that decision-making in a group of equals is an unfamiliar task and that one should not be afraid to seek outside support.