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Collaborative Decision Making

Meditation teacher Tejaniya advised, “Never try to force an issue. Just acknowledge, accept, and keep observing until things unfold naturally.”

 

This might be fine when there is all the time in the world for the issue to be resolved, but from a project management perspective, it sounds far too passive an approach.

However, when you consider what happens when you force an issue by using your power as a manager or a majority in a decision-making group, there may be some wisdom in acknowledging, accepting, and observing things unfold naturally.

 

Scenario

In a program to improve the way a complex organization operated, a narrow majority of the Program Steering Group that was responsible for making decisions regarding which of several projects was to be done and in what order decided by a slim majority to authorize a project to renovate a process in one department.

They hired a design consultant and created a Design Team to provide feedback regarding the design. The Design Team reflected on the decision and was influenced by some of the minority members of the program steering group. They came back to the steering group with their unanimous opinion that the chosen project was not the best one to take on first, provided their reasoning, and called for the steering group to provide an overall plan that identified all the projects that would be part of the program, a capital financial plan, and an overall architecture before deciding on which project would be done first.

 

The steering group pushed back using their authority. They said that the Design Team was asked to give feedback on the design and not question the steering group’s decision. The steering group forced the issue.

The Design Team grumbled, but since they reported to the members of the Program Steering Group were left with no choice but to quit or comply, so they chose to comply.

 

The result was, as the Design Team predicted, a well-designed process with supporting systems that within a few years needed to be significantly changed, at great cost to fit with the other processes and systems that emerged as part of the overall renovation program. The resulting architecture resembled a patchwork – “something composed of miscellaneous parts; hodgepodge.”[1]

Over time, system maintenance was a nightmare. Further, some useful renovations were not included in the program because avoidable costs of initial projects used up the program’s budget.

 

The Consequences of Forcing an Issue

Here we see that forcing a decision led to the postponement of due diligence. Not doing capital planning and architectural design led to avoidable consequences, as pointed out in my article The Karma of Postponing Due Diligence[2]. And there are other consequences of forcing an issue, for example, disgruntled staff, and loss of respect for the decision-makers.

 

A Path Forward

So what can we do? As leaders in positions of power, we can step back and assess our decisions in the light of feedback and conflicting ideas. We can apply emotional and social intelligence along with wise decision-making, and servant leadership concepts.

Emotional intelligence comes into play when the decision-makers apply self-awareness to see why they find it necessary to force an issue. Is it because they are emotionally attached to their decision or to their power? With social intelligence, they can assess the impact of their use of authority on their staff, superiors, and peers.

As wise decision-makers, they recognize the need to look at the issue from multiple perspectives – long and short-term impacts, financial and quality consequences, and more. Servant leadership involves respect for others and their opinions and the positive impact of helping followers become wise decision-makers.

 

In a recent article[3] the author points out “the value of working with those with whom we disagree.” The author relates how Dr. Daniel Kahneman, who explored judgment and decision-making and how easily people become less than rational when making decisions, “experienced real joy working with others to discover the truth, even if he learned that he was wrong (something that often delighted him).” Kahneman favored “adversarial collaboration.”

When adversaries work together, they face the issue rather than each other. This requires acknowledging that one can be all wrong or half wrong and that the other party or parties may be right or half right, whether they are peers, superiors, or subordinates.

 

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Don’t Force an Issue

Let’s return to Tejaniya’s advice, “Never try to force an issue. Just acknowledge, accept, and keep observing until things unfold naturally.”

 

I try never to say never. There are times as a manager that we will choose to use authority to force a decision. But that is a last resort, for example when faced with a tight deadline leaving no time for further dialogue. Acknowledging, accepting, and observing until things unfold naturally is a superior way of operating. But only when we have a clear sense of what that means.

Acknowledging, accepting, and observing are active, not passive. Acknowledge and accept that there are differences of opinion and different positions. Observe your own and the other parties’ positions and behavior. Listening to content and tone is part of observing as is seeing others’ body language and facial expressions and observing your own.

Open your mind to the possibility that your position is not the best or only effective alternative. This is part of accepting. You let go of your attachment to having it your way (even if your way is not the best way).

 

Then clarify, present your view, and consider that to be part of what is unfolding naturally. You are letting go of your position and allowing the right expression of your knowledge and experience for the situation. You seek to understand the needs and wants, facts and opinions.

In the example from the article cited above, Professor Kahneman and his adversary found through a collaborative effort that they were both partially right and partially wrong. They came to a resolution that they could not have reached working on their own.

 

Never say Never

What if your opponent is closed to a collaborative approach? Then you acknowledge and accept the reality that collaboration is no longer possible and naturally force the issue (if you have the power to do so.) When you do, if you have been open-minded, asked the right questions, and objectively considered the answers, your decision might not be the same one you made before you tried to collaborate.

 

[1] Merriam Webster https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/patchwork.
[2] https://www.projecttimes.com/articles/the-karma-of-postponing-due-diligence/
[3] The Nobel Winner Who Liked to Collaborate With His Adversaries https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/01/opinion/nobel-daniel-kahneman-collaboration.html