How to Help Groups Make Meaningful Decisions

Sections of this topic

    Group Decision-Making and Problem Solving

    Sections of This Topic Include

    Guidelines to Successful Group Decision-Making and Problem

    Additional Perspectives on Group Decision-Making and Problem

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    Guidelines for Successful Group Decision-Making
    and Problem Solving

    © Copyright Carter McNamara,
    MBA, PhD

    There are many techniques that can be used with groups to help them make decisions
    and solve problems, for example, voting, consensus, reference-to-authority, and
    nominal group technique. The guidelines in this document refer to the voting
    and consensus techniques.

    Voting (to Make a Selection from Among Alternatives)

    The purpose of the voting technique is to make a selection from various alternatives,
    for example:

    • Select the most important or desired item from a list of items (by ranking)
    • Select a range of the most important or desired items from a list of items
      (by rating)

    There are a variety of approaches to the voting technique.

    Show of Hands

    The most common approach to the technique is simply to ask for a show of hands
    about each item on a list, one at a time, and the item that gets the most votes
    in a show of hands is the item selected from the list.


    The ranking is assigning one distinct value to each item to select the single,
    most important item from a list. For example, a ranked list would have one item
    ranked as 1, another as 2, another as 3, etc.


    Rating is associating a value with each item in order to identify ranges of
    items from a list. Several items can have the same value associated with them.
    For example, a rated list might have several items rated as high, medium, or
    low or as 1, 2, or 3.


    A common approach to using the technique is as follows.

    1. Each member gets a certain number of dots (votes) that he or she can use
      to vote for items on a list. The number of dots that they get is usually equal
      to the number of choices that are to be made from a list. For example, if
      three items are to be selected, each member gets three dots.
    2. Each member walks up to the overall list of items and places their dots
      next to the items that the member recommends be selected from the list.
    3. After all, members have cast their votes, the items that received the most
      votes get selected from the list.

    The dot-voting technique has variations. Different colored dots can represent
    more than one vote or even a negative vote. Sometimes, each participant is
    given one vote of each weight and required to apply each vote to a different
    item. In other cases, a member is allowed to cast multiple votes for one item.

    Consensus Process (to Ensure Collaborative Decision-Making)

    The purpose of this particular consensus technique is to make a group decision
    in a highly participative, egalitarian fashion, and get a result that everyone
    can “live with.” You might:

    • Select the most important or desired item from a list of items (by ranking)
    • Select a range of the most important or desired items from a list of items
      (by rating)

    Often, there is confusion around the term “consensus.” Consensus
    means that every member of the group can live with the group’s final decision.
    It does not mean that every member completely agrees with the decision. Consensus
    is often the means by which highly participative groups members reach their
    decisions, especially if they favor a highly egalitarian approach to decision

    There are several approaches to the technique of reaching consensus. One quick
    approach to consensus is to just ask for a quick conclusion from the group by
    1) suggesting a specific answer to the decision that must be made by the group
    and 2) asking if everyone in the group can live with that suggestion. Although
    that approach might save a lot of time, it certainly does not support the kind
    of strategic discussion and thinking so important in strategic planning. Therefore,
    planners might consider the following, more thoughtful approach to reaching
    a consensus.

    Before the Meeting

    Members receive information that:

    1. Clarifies the decision to be made. It is often best if the decision is
      written in the form of a “yes/no” question or a choice from among
      alternatives, for example, “Should we approve ___?” or “Should
      we hire ____?”.
    2. Is sufficient for each member to come to some conclusion on their own.

    Ground Rules During Consensus Activities

    The facilitator explains ground rules to other members of the group, for example:

    1. Members do not interrupt each other.
    2. Members can disagree with each other.
    3. Members do not engage in side discussions.
    4. Silence is considered an agreement with the decision to be made.
    5. When a decision is reached by consensus, all members act as a united front
      to support the decision.

    Consensus Process

    The facilitator guides the procedure.

    1. The facilitator specifies a deadline by which to reach a consensus in the
    2. In a roundtable fashion, each member:
      a) Gets equal time to voice their preferences and their reasons regarding
      the question.
      b) Focuses their perspectives on what is doable.
      c) Does not mention other members’ names.
      The senior leader or manager in the group voices his or her opinion last.
    3. At the end of each person’s time slot, all members take a quiet minute
      a) Collect their own thoughts in response to the last speaker’s preferences.
      b) Decide what they would be willing to compromise or have in common with
      the last speaker.
    4. At the deadline:
      a) The facilitator poses what seems to be the most common perspective voiced
      by members
      b) Asks all members if they can support that perspective.
    5. If no consensus is reached, members might choose one of the following options:a) Have a discussion, based on what was learned from the consensus activity
      so far. Then repeat steps 2-4 to see if a consensus has been achieved.
      b) Consider further research until a specified future time. Decide what additional
      information is needed and maybe appoint a committee to do research. The committee
      researches and provides recommendations, preferably in writing to each member
      of the group before the next meeting. At the next meeting, members hear the
      committee’s recommendations and initiate the consensus process again.

      c) Consider using a vote to decide (via rating or ranking). Some people would
      assert that voting is not consensus, but it sure is handy if the consensus
      the process has not reached a conclusion by an absolute deadline.

    Additional Perspectives on Group Decision-Making
    and Problem Solving

    Facilitation Library
    Problem-Solving Techniques for Project Managers
    Cindy Tananis and Cara Ciminillo on Round Robins
    Fishbowls (for groups to learn by watching modeled behaviors)
    Problem-Solving Solving Complex Business Problems

    Eight Creative Problem-Solving Techniques

    Also, consider
    The following are group-based methods, except for Decision Making and Problem
    Action Learning
    Communities of Practice

    Decision Making
    Focus Groups
    Group Coaching
    Group Conflict Management
    Group Dynamics
    (about the nature of groups, stages of group development, etc)

    Group Learning

    Meeting Management
    Open Space

    Solving (includes tools for problem-solving)

    and Self-Managed Work Teams

    Team Building
    Training and Development
    Virtual Teams

    For the Category of Facilitation and Teams:

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