The Building Blocks of Decision

If we care about making a good strategic decision, then we need a capable process to get us there. In my last article, I made the argument that if we try to move normal meeting structures online, we are likely to fail. Partly that’s a product of attention span and inadequacies in online meeting technologies. It is also partly because in-person meeting practices often aren’t all that they are cracked up to be, either.

We accept as given the value of face-to-face communication. We recognize that meeting in person has the opportunity to give greater nuance and understanding, particularly in complex, high-stakes or controversial discussions. At the same time, when we are together, we often squander the opportunity for meaningful engagement. We are distracted, we disengage, we avoid conflict and we resist pursuing awkward truths that might cause resistance. The opportunity for genuine connection often results instead in compromise and lowest-common-denominator commitments.

Ineffective meetings happen because we are human. We are subject to biases, complexities and foibles that influence how we engage, how we interpret our experiences and when we disengage. Each of us has different appetites for discussion, for debate and for disagreement. But we also have hardwired tendencies for how we work and decide in groups. Very often, we short-circuit process for answers. We leap to decision, and view the speed with which we do so as a virtue rather than a fault.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Productive meetings are attainable, both in-person and on-line. The challenge is designing them to be as effective as possible. Success requires designing approaches that take advantage of the specific medium we are using. Rather than seeing meetings as universally exchangeable interactions, we need to consider them in the environment that they will be held. We need to design interactions to take best advantage of how they will be conducted.

Designing for environment means putting everything up for grabs. Structure, process, participation and pace are all open for consideration and challenge. We need to desconstruct the building blocks of meetings, so that we can put them back together in a way that works appropriately.

The first block that I want to challenge is the one that contains the meeting: the block that we put on the calendar. We have a tendency to think of meetings as single, cohesive structures—and we schedule them that way. That may be a three-hour discussion or a two-day workshop or a four-day retreat. We assume that meetings are contiguous blocks of time, and we hunt for space in our calendars accordingly.

We tend to see meetings as coherent and contiguous for a couple of reasons. For starters, because they have always been that way. This gets reinforced by the human drive to get results quickly (so not only are we scheduling a single block, but there will be pressure to make it the shortest timeframe possible). The final reason is a pragmatic one: in-person meetings often have people travelling to participate—whether across town or across country—and so logistically, it is efficient and cost-effective to do one single meeting, rather than breaking it up.

That one simple choice—the block of time reserved for a meeting—has a surprising influence on the structure and approach of the meeting. Very often, facilitators design the process to fit the meeting block, rather than the other way around. Meal breaks and coffee breaks dictate the pace. The emotional flow of the meeting is shaped to fit between interruptions. The overall meeting you get is quite literally shaped by the time it is given.

Move to an online environment, however, and the opportunity exists to fundamentally reshape this assumption, and the interactions that result. As we reinforced last week, the focus is not the meeting; the focus is the decision. If the challenge is to design the interactions to get the best decision possible, then the opportunity is to frame the encounters and discussions that occur in order to lead to that outcome.

That means you might not have a meeting, per se. You might, in fact, have several. A two-day workshop crammed into an unforgiving calendar in real life might devolve into a progressive series of interactions that span days, or even weeks. Participation in those interactions may shift and scale, based upon the specific question in play at the time and who needs to be involved in its exploration. The activities may range from personal work and reflection to small group discussions and explorations to all-hands-on-deck reviews and reiterations.

The interesting consequence is that breaking free of the constraint of a block on the calendar creates the opportunity to design meetings for meaning. As a facilitator, you are presented with the opportunity to structure the interactions in favour of the best outcome, not to fit to the time you have been given. The process of strategic decision making starts to focus on the activities that are required, not lurching to an answer.

This means that we need to deconstruct meetings further, to understand the building blocks at play inside the meeting, and how we might think about assembling them in ways that are useful and meaningful. What these building blocks explore is the way that we interact and for what purpose. They reflect how we engage with information and each other in making decisions, and the types of processing—individually and in groups—is necessary to have that engagement be meaningful and productive.

  • Sharing information we know. The first part of any decision is acknowledging what we already understand. This may involve reiterating the information that is already familiar to the group. It may also take the shape of sharing individual perspectives—based upon expertise, experience, role or responsibility—to build a larger and more diverse collective understanding.
  • Expanding understanding and awareness. It’s rare that we make strategic decisions solely based on our existing understanding. We need to actively search and explore, expanding what we know and bringing new information and insight to the table. This may be self-directed research or it may involve input from subject matter experts.
  • Exploring the relevance of information. While information is necessary to strategic decisions, we need to explore and examine that information to find meaning. We need to understand what the information holds and offers as insight, examine its significance for the decision that we are currently exploring. We may also find that the insights we gain triggers a need for yet more information, and more exploration.
  • Identifying ideas and possibilities. From information comes insight. Insights hopefully lead to opportunities. We are still expanding what we know, and we are growing awareness of what we might do. Brainstorming, benchmarking and borrowing from other perspectives and situations are all ways of identifying what actions are possible and what ideas are promising.
  • Exploring implication of ideas. Ideas are just that: things that we might do and actions that we might take. Which ideas we pursue further depends upon sifting and choosing. We need to test the ideas against the problem we need to solve. We need some understanding of criteria, and we need to apply those to the ideas we have generated to see which ones hold the most promise.
  • Synthesizing ideas and opportunities. Part of what makes strategic decisions complex is that there are competing interests and perspectives. Different ideas will have different implications; there will be advantages and consequences to each. Integrating potential ideas together is where opportunities for innovation lie. Finding common ground between opportunities and building on discrete suggestions starts to form the basis of a potential answer.
  • Evaluating impacts and possible outcomes. Once we move from testing multiple possible ideas to examining a handful of potential approaches, a different form of testing takes place. Now we examine what would happen if we were to take an action we are considering. We examine how it might play out and the potential consequences. We evaluate the degree to which those consequences are acceptable and the choices involved move us to an outcome we value.
  • Designing implementation approaches. As we work towards landing on a solution, a subsequent question—and possible basis for working through the cycle all over—is “How do we make this work?” Thinking through implementation questions before making a decision can be an important final test as to whether the right choice is being made, and the implications of making that choice are workable and reasonable.
  • Identifying communication and awareness strategies. Strategic decisions have impacts and consequences. Clearly identifying who needs to be communicated with, as well as who, when and how often, should also be a fundamental part of the decision making exercise. Taking the decision for granted—or not giving due consideration to presenting the choice and why—has undermined many otherwise reasonable choices.
  • Testing for agreement and acceptance. An important consideration that is often overlooked before decisions are made is whether there is broad support for the decision. This asks whether the group is satisfied with the process, and whether they are ready to make a decision. Testing for an agreement can be an important activity in identifying whether concerns have been resolved and if there are lingering issues that should be addressed before the decision is finalized.
  • Resolving and coming to agreement. Presuming the rest of the process has been done well, formalizing the decision should be straightforward. It is still important to actually acknowledge. The act of coming to agreement signals a transition from consideration to actual making of choice. It is a conscious “yes” rather than a sustained “perhaps.” While the formality may vary, there should be absolute clarity that the decision has been made, and the specifics of what was agreed to in making the choice.

Breaking out building blocks like this might seem pedantic and unnecessary. Each interaction, though, takes a different form and exists for a different purpose. Each interaction could also have different participants. There could also be different levels of participation within an interaction. We might start an exploration of ideas and options as a personal exercise, then explore those ideas in smaller groups before bringing the results to the overall group. Or we might manage the interaction in a single group from the outset.

What’s been explicated and explained here are the stepping stones that implicitly shape many decision-making discussions. They are not necessarily linear, although they are presented that way here. They surface to greater or lesser degrees, and with varying amounts of awareness and intent, in most conversations. In this discussion, we have made them clear and specific. This means that it is now possible to design a discussion using them, and in doing so to explore the best way of facilitating that discussion.

Knowing the types of interactions that we need allows us to think about how to bring them to life in a meaningful and effective way. We can think about who needs to be involved, and how to present information or guide discussion in a way that positively moves towards a decision. We can think about how to leverage the tools that are available to support that interaction effectively. Most importantly, we can start thinking about strategic decisions as processes and actions to progress towards, not just answers to be identified as quickly as possible.

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