Effective decision making: avoid confusing discussions with decisions

A key to effective decision-making is to avoid confusing discussions with decisions. Discussions are important for ensuring that the widest range of information is available to make a decision, but treating a discussion as a decision is likely to lead to confusion, frustration and ineffective actions.

Group sessions

Open discussions are important, but they’re not the same as making a decision

Open discussions are important because they allow everyone to understand the problem, the possible approaches and the concrete proposals for moving forward.

A pattern I’ve seen with teams that struggle to make effective decision is assuming that just because a difficult topic has been discussed there is a shared understanding of what has been decided and a commitment to act consistently with the decision.

Often these assumptions are not stated explicitly, leading to statements like “we decided a lot of things in that meeting” when in fact there weren’t any decisions. This can be followed up later by frustration over “how come we are discussing this again? I thought we decided on this in a previous meeting!”

It is important to be explicit about any decisions made during a meeting. One approach is to highlight them visually, which I’ve used when using a simple kanban approach to meetings.

Some basic characteristics of effective decision making include:

  • Being clear about the process used to make the decision
  • Allowing people to raise any concerns or interests
  • Explicitly stating what the decision is

Have you been in situations where you or someone else has confused discussions from decision making? Tell me about your experiences in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

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2 responses to “Effective decision making: avoid confusing discussions with decisions”

  1. Tom Akehurst Avatar
    Tom Akehurst

    This is certainly a situation I’m familiar with. I particularly agree with the importance of explicitly stating decisions that arise from a discussion, and I always attempt to do this (verbally and via email) at the end of a session. A problem I often encounter is that, having apparently agreed to a course of action, the group reconvenes later and it becomes apparent that they’ve taken different things away.

    This also somewhat reminds me of what Roy Osherove has been saying about the language of commitment. It’s all too easy to spend a meeting saying “We should do X” (which is fine when you’re just proposing something) and believing that this will result in action, when actually you need “I will do X by Wednesday”. I guess it’s important to make sure your choice of language reflects whether you’re discussing or deciding.

    1. Benjamin Mitchell Avatar

      I’ve seen the situation where a group that agreed a course of action later realises that they took different things away. Detecting that situation seems like an excellent point to try and uncover what contributed to the difference in understanding and how people might thing or act differently in future. Were you able to achieve this in your situation? What were the outcomes like?
      One thing I keep in mind is that we often agree on things before we understand the full implications of what implementing them might be. I notice that I have a pattern of buying exercise equipment without really understanding what it means to actually use it (even though I’m mentally psyched up for it!)
      I agree that being specific on the exact behaviours is more likely to lead to an effective completion of the action than a generic “we should do X”
      Thanks again for the comment and examples!

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