Decision Traps: Common Decision-Making Problems and Easy-To-Implement Solutions

Predicting all the potential challenges and pitfalls of an upcoming facilitation is an onerous task, even for the most seasoned facilitator. During one of my recent facilitation training sessions, stories of decision-making events gone wrong were the pervasive theme among participants. As a result of these discussions, I decided to reflect on my own personal experiences to create a matrix that identifies decision-making pitfalls or ‘traps’ and suggestions that might help facilitators avoid such errors.

My sense is that what makes decision-making effective lies mostly in the initial context setting before even entering into the decision-making discussion. My experience has shown me that the more we educate participants in the decision-making process, the more cooperative they end up being with one another during the discussion.

Below I’ve outlined ten potential ‘decision traps’ (there’s many more!) that you may encounter during a decision-making discussion. I’ve also added some ‘remedies’ as to what could be done to avoid these problems. As usual, the techniques used are dependent on the facilitator’s ability to convey these ideas/activities as simply as possible. Always test the group for understanding to ensure your ideas/activities have been understood. Good luck with your meeting!

1. People not clear about their level of decision-making authority regarding the decision. This leaves participants unsure as to how committed they should be in the decision-making process.

Remedy:  Determine and express up front their level of decision-making authority. They need to know where they fall on the continuum of empowerment. Let them know up front what will happen with their decision(s), which:

  • may or may not be used as input/feedback by management in making a final decision.
  • most likely will be accepted by management who reserves the right to have the group tweak areas of concern.
  • will be accepted as the final decision.

2. The wrong or inappropriate people are sitting at the table.

Remedy: At times I have facilitated meetings where the key stakeholders have sent directs or representatives in their place. This makes for a difficult discussion as the key people who will own the decision are not present. The likelihood of the follow-through by these missing people is negligible – to say the least.

As the facilitator you need to acknowledge if people have decision-making authority and, if not, what needs to happen to ensure that any recommendations that flow from the meeting have a strong likelihood of being followed through. Members who do attend that have decision-making authority should help formulate how they can support the decision maker’s representatives in getting buy-in for the decision.

If any resistance to this is present, then the meeting should not be focused on making a decision but, rather, “what do we all need to do to ensure the right people are at the table during the next meeting?”

3. People lack the right information to engage in thorough discussion of the decision options.

Remedy: Ensure information that will place all participants on the same page is distributed before the session for their perusal. Ensure they understand the implications of having not read the information (i.e. those more informed may sway others; everyone will have to live with the results; more knowledge of decision options = better quality decision(s), etc.)

4. People walk into the decision-making meeting already biased on a position (personal agenda).

Remedy: One of the first activities is to set some targeted meeting norms to address “how will we ensure that all ideas are heard without personal agendas getting in the way?” Flipchart these ideas and make sure that you actively referee this.

If I know ahead of time that people are walking in biased, I have them all engage in stating their personal agendas or ‘wants’ up front so everyone knows where everyone is coming from. This takes courage on the part of the participants and I challenge them to do so. Once the agendas are disclosed, we then engage in a discussion to discern each person’s ‘needs’ or ‘underlying interests’ rather than ‘wants.’ We then determine what needs are held in common. Needs that do not overlap are the points that we engage in during the negotiation of a final decision.

5. Unclear ‘criteria’ for determining the best decision.

Remedy: Quite often, especially during priority setting, we have the group determine key criteria to rank priorities against. Ensure that the group engages in a good debate as to what makes some criteria more important than others. It’s important that the criteria chosen supports and falls within the organizational strategy as well as the group’s particular needs. Test all participants’ knowledge of what the criteria means. Before ranking items against the criteria, ensure the group discusses thoroughly how each possible decision meets or fails the criteria.

6. Level of status or influence amongst different members is unbalanced. Direct reports or junior management defer from ‘speaking up’ or contradicting upper management for fear of reprisal.

Remedy: Engage in a discussion with the ‘power(s) that be’ preceding the discussion as to how they see their role(s) during the decision-making meeting. Roles could include:

  • objective observer
  • feedback coach
  • equal team member
  • critic
  • SME, etc.

Have the senior manager declare his/her role upfront and acknowledge what that role entails (e.g. an objective observer sits back and observes. A feedback coach, at a designated time, asks stimulating questions that will provoke and expand discussion, etc.)

7. An assumption on the part of the facilitator that asking, ‘does everyone agree?’ will evoke valid feedback. Yet, a few days later, word gets around that one of the participants is bad-mouthing the decision. Or, worse, little follow-through or commitment is demonstrated.

Remedy: I learned early on in my career as a meeting facilitator that looking for ‘nods’ of agreement was an unreliable and, at times, invalid method for testing for agreement. I learned quickly that the use of a quantitative approach or the ‘4 finger approach’ proved to be more useful in indicating the ‘degree’ of agreement with each participant. People are shown and asked to show their degree of agreement using the respective number of fingers (or call out verbally). This looks like:

  • 1 finger = hate the decision (veto). Which finger is shown here is always of great interest!
  • 2 fingers = like the decision, but some changes have to be made (compromise). The peace symbol always gives room for hope that all participants will at least feel like they won something!
  • 3 fingers = can live with it (consensus). This tends to be good enough for most people
  • 4 fingers = love it! When this happens, it’s a bonus!

If anyone displays 2 or less fingers, then a discussion focused on how to raise their level of agreement to at least a ‘3’ should ensue. Ask, “what will it take to move your level of agreement to at least a 3?” Remember to ratify changes with the rest of the group as one person’s changes may lower the level of buy-in from the others.

8. Lack of sufficient time for a comprehensive discussion

Remedy: It’s quite evident that as you increase certain factors in a decision-making process, more time will be required to build a consensus. These factors typically include:

  • the number of people involved in the discussion
  • the complexity of the decision
  • the degree of agreement required by all
  • the degree of impact the decision will have on everyone (and beyond this group)

Therefore, trying to facilitate a decision that is highly impactful and complex in 1.5 hours with 18 people is probably a recipe for failure. Now, don’t get me wrong, you might arrive at a decision, but I question its quality.

Having facilitated countless numbers of consensus-driven sessions over the years, I’ve found that the quality of a decision increases by:

  • the amount of time taken to analyze all the relevant facts, opinions
  • and, equally important, tapping into underlying emotions to determine each player’s degree of passion towards the decision.

9. Lack of logical, relevant process/methodology that structures the steps of the decision-making discussion

Remedy: Every facilitator must understand the five different options available to any group for making decision, such as:

  • collaborative decision-making (e.g. win/win or principle-based negotiation, systematic problem-solving, etc.)
  • positional negotiation
  • delegation
  • majority voting
  • prioritization

Sure there are some others like ‘tossing a coin’ or ‘leave it to fate’, but these usually don’t allow for rational decision-making.

10. The facilitator rarely asks for feedback from the group in terms of how well the process is working.

Remedy: During any decision-making discussion the facilitator is responsible for checking the five P’s. These are:

  1. Purpose: “are we on purpose here? Are we on target with our discussion?”
  2. Process: “are these discussion steps/tools effective in helping us reach our goal?”
  3. Pace: “are we moving fast enough?
  4. Pulse: “are people still alive?”
  5. Progress: ” are people seeing us making movement?”