Decision-making ability – the success factor of teams

Guest contribution by | 15.05.2023

Actively create decision-making ability through conscious team development steps

Stable, interdisciplinary teams have a number of advantages over cooperation between different departments organised on the basis of division of labour. Among them is the ability to solve dynamic and non-transparent problems where a classical approach with clearly separated phases of planning, execution and evaluation would fail. We can call this traditional approach the engineering style. A problem is studied in advance, the necessary steps to solve it are identified, sequenced as a project plan and then executed along this plan. Project participants know in advance what contributions are expected of them and plan for them in the long term. Surprises can rarely be well mapped out with this approach and are therefore avoided as much as possible. For problems that can be analysed in detail in advance and behave predictably during execution, this approach is excellent.

Unfortunately, not all problems fall into this category. Complex problems, for example, cannot be analysed in advance because important information is still uncertain at the beginning of the project. In addition, the parameters change over time, partly on their own, partly in response to our actions. The original goal to be solved may be in motion or have to be abandoned along the way. The more complex the problem, the harder it is to come up with a plan, and the more likely the plan will turn out to be wrong during execution. Instead of the engineering style of classic project management, what is needed here is more of an agile expedition style – a team of carefully selected experts works its way into the problem piece by piece, reassessing the situation every day and constantly adapting its approach to changing conditions.

What is decision-making ability?

Even though collaboration in agile, interdisciplinary teams places higher demands on their members and stakeholders, they are the tool of choice in complex situations. When the problems to be solved along the way cannot be identified in advance, a form of collaboration is needed that can quickly gather different perspectives, evaluate options and make decisions. A team that brings together the essential skills and competencies in one place is able to respond flexibly to change, overcome obstacles independently and seek a new path to the goal even in the face of unexpected difficulties. For it to be able to do this, it needs an essential quality that we can call decision-making ability.

Decision-making ability means being able to derive a common course of action quickly and routinely as a group from different perceptions. Every day, team members bring observations, ideas and individual perceptions to the team that are often not initially agreed upon. Based on these different perspectives, the team has to establish a common direction again and again. The more decision-making ability it has, the faster and more effectively it can make decisions, and the more focused and purposeful it is in solving the problem.

Even though the team can have an “expedition leader” who has the last word in case of doubt, the active engagement of its members is critical to success. Often the situation is too complicated and confusing for a single person to keep track of it all. Decisions thus inevitably become a group task, and the group’s decision-making ability becomes a prerequisite for joint success: if the team can derive a common course of action from the different goals and perspectives, it will achieve its goals – if not, it will fail.

Decision-making ability is a collective, not an individual quality, and is only loosely related to the personalities of the team members. People with decision-making ability do not automatically form a decision-making team. A group of “strong characters” can get as bogged down in discussions as any other. This means that the team must actively take steps to become and remain decision-making able as a group.

How does a team improve its decision-making ability?

There are a number of measures the team can take to improve its own decision-making processes. These include:

Clearly define the team’s scope of action

For the team to make decisions effectively, it needs to know and understand its scope of responsibility. Uncertainty about one’s own options drags out discussions and creates frustration. It is particularly important that the team establishes this understanding together with its stakeholders so that misunderstandings or irritations do not arise. To support this dialogue, we at Chili and Change have developed and published the Shared Leadership Compass1 as a freely accessible tool. My colleague Leonie Heiß introduced it on this blog last year.3

Develop a shared understanding of goals and priorities

Without a shared vision of goals, the team’s decisions are always hampered by fundamental debates about direction. Jointly developed team or product visions, strategies and goals are the basis for quick and effective decisions on a day-to-day basis. It is important that the team members deal intensively with the team’s priorities and also actively shape them. A PowerPoint slide presented in monologue by the team leader will not establish this shared understanding and will not improve decision-making ability in the team.

Learn and apply team decision-making methods

Decisions made in a group need a little more structure and methodology than decisions made individually. However, many teams do not know what options they have here, or have not practised them sufficiently to be able to use them routinely in meetings. Out of ignorance, they then resort to lengthy consensus decisions, group-dynamically problematic majority voting or the classic – discuss until no one wants to anymore.

Successful teams consciously deal with approaches such as objection integration, consultative individual decision-making or resistance polling.3 They jointly determine which decisions they want to make as a group with which methodology and regularly practise their application in order to be able to use them confidently, especially in the event of surprises and moments of crisis.

Define and distribute roles and areas of responsibility

Roles and areas of responsibility define within the team who can make decisions on which issues and set a common direction that is binding for all. Beware, they are a double-edged sword: within the team they create clarity of expectations and enable faster and better-informed decisions. However, they also create risks of failure, for example when the role holder is ill, and make it more difficult for the group to take joint responsibility for results. I looked at this issue in an article for t2informatik last year.4

Set decision-making rules of collaboration

In its collaboration, the team can consciously set rules that facilitate decision-making and encourage the assumption of responsibility. Examples of such rules might be that the hosts of a meeting are allowed to decide at their own discretion on the goals and course of the meeting, that the group is allowed to make decisions even in the case of individual absences, or that proposals in the team chat against which there are no justified objections are automatically accepted after a certain period of time (e.g. 48 hours).

Regularly reflect on cooperation

Improving decision-making ability also involves regularly reflecting on one’s own cooperation, for example in retrospectives. The team can look at decision-making situations from the recent past and discuss how easy or difficult it was to set a common direction, what the possible causes of difficulties might have been, and decide on measures to improve its decision-making capacity for the future.

Conclusion

The ability to make decisions quickly and effectively as a group is absolutely critical to the success of teams in complex situations. We must not make the mistake of confusing good (or bad) decision-making ability of a team with character traits of its members. Deciding on a common course of action as a group is a social process with social prerequisites – potential problems are therefore also to be sought in social, not individual and psychological causes.

The encouraging finding is that decision-making ability can be actively established through conscious team development steps. A common understanding of the desired goals and the team’s own framework for action provides the foundation on which the team can work on its own decision-making ability through skilfully chosen decision-making methods, rules and areas of responsibility. It is clear that a complex and dynamic problem will always require changes to these working structures of the team. Regular retrospectives in which these can be reviewed and developed are therefore essential rituals for decision-making ability teams. A team that understands its own decision-making processes as a developable, collective ability thus takes an important step overall towards its own success.

 

Notes:

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[1] Shared Leadership Compass
[2] How does a radically self-organised team work?
[3] For an overview see for example Pukall, Kai-Marian (2023). Selbstorganisation im Team. Vahlen, p.98ff or Oestereich, Bernd & Schröder, Claudia (2016). Das kollegial geführte Unternehmen. Vahlen, p.149ff.
[4] Clarifying roles in a team

Kai-Marian Pukall has been working with agile and self-organised teams for over ten years. For three years he accompanied one of the largest transformations in the German-speaking world as an Agile Coaches at DB Systel. His work focuses on the realisation that particularly successful teams are often characterised by aspects such as voluntary membership, high commitment and clear internal structures. How to achieve this state as a team is the subject of his book Selbstorganisation im Team. Very much worth reading!

Selbstorganisation im Team - Blog - t2informatik

Kai-Marian Pukall has published other articles in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Modern Agile Principles: Agile work made easy

Modern Agile Principles: Agile work made easy

t2informatik Blog: Agile risk management - do we need it?

Agile risk management – do we need it?

t2informatik Blog: Clarifying roles in the team

Clarifying roles in a team

Kai-Marian Pukall
Kai-Marian Pukall

Kai-Marian Pukall works as a senior agile coach for Chili and Change GmbH. He has been accompanying agile teams for many years, always with the aim of making collaboration valuable and professional, simple and people-friendly. He prefers to apply the Lean principle “Eliminate Waste” to everything that smells like method and business theatre.