Making decisions well

NESTA’s new report on how to make good group decisions is particularly important as we navigate working online without the body language that helps us navigate the dynamics of a group, and as we face more systemic issues of representation and ever more complex issues to tackle.

It outlines the key factors that influence group decision making. As a leader of a team and of cross-cutting projects, this influences how you develop a team, how you design in collaboration, how you develop strategy, where you design in rhythms and rituals and where you need more structured rules, all while you navigate uncertainty.

  1. Diversity leads to better problem solving and decision
    making in groups

We’ve seen in the discussions around diversity and inclusion how some people will criticise the agenda to tackle lack of representation will do so on the basis it’s at a tick box exercise or even pandering to an illusionary “woke” agenda.

In fact, beyond the fact that it’s healthy for the cohesion of a society to be represented in an inclusive and equal way at all levels of leadership, evidence shows that diversity does lead to better problem solving and decision making in groups.

I have always sensed this through being a bi-national and being exposed to people from different backgrounds and witnessing through my career the visible and invisible inequalities that people face. As well as innovative ways to fund collaboration and deliver it across cities.

But it was only recently, in the wake of the Black Lives Matters events, when I spoke to friends and colleagues about what it felt like for them, that I witnessed the visceral impact that lack of diversity in decision making has on people’s daily lives — from the colour of plasters to the fears of providing personal data to the state.

Better representation needs to translate into cultivating different styles of leadership, otherwise, you’ll need up with a diverse group of leaders all acting in the same traditional way.

In terms of policymaking, I’d recommend the Old & New Power work to:

  • Build inclusive & diverse sources of power
  • Show how power can be created at a human scale
  • Develop social contracts that bind the people that make the place
  • Create new policy levers that expand the possibilities

In terms of organisational development, I’ve learnt a lot from Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed to:

  • Recruit for diversity
  • Experience different roles, organisations or sectors
  • Create team development with people from other teams or sectors
  • Create space for people from different services to shape how your team works
  • Reverse your assumptions!

I’d recommend looking at the different roles you can develop within a team that Enrol Yourself has developed.

2. A quick win for decision-makers is to focus on developing cross-cutting skills within teams

In teams and services for whom the main value is building strong relationships to help an organisation embody its values — be that through its strategy, service design, organisational development, its insights, etc — the skills you develop within the team are crucial, even more so in an era of constant change.

Think about:

  • Who are the people your team or service wants to serve
  • What needs you to help each of those groups of people meet
  • What ways of working, skills and partners you use to meet those needs
  • What impact you have on the groups of people as a result of the above

NESTA recommends cultivating open-minded thinking, probabilistic reasoning, and perspective-taking — where you prompt group members to think about how others in their social circle would feel about the decision.

It’s important to align people’s individual personal development with the skills you want to develop as a team and using tools like the Team Canvas help towards that.

3. It’s not always efficient for groups to find the optimal solution or group consensus, and in many cases, they don’t need to

As challenges for our societies become ever-increasingly complex, and the decline in deference to hierarchy means decisions are ever more contested, there’s been a desire to strive for perfect consensus where everyone agrees.

Many organisations struggle to make good decisions and there are some excellent ways to arrive at a consensus decision making that aren’t used sufficiently — be it citizen’s assemblies, holocracy or liberating structures. There are a variety of online tools that can help you do that and I’d recommend learning from our ancestors and indigenous communities on coming to a consensus.

However, we should also focus on developing skills and tools to help us disagree better and some of the most radical change in history hasn’t come about through consensus but disagreement and struggle. I remember this not through my experience working in local government but as a student campaigner organising to improve employment rights for young people.

In Mary Gregory’s book Ego, she recommends ways to manage conflict productively, being vulnerable, unrelenting, courageous and assertive (VUCA).

  • Become aware of the visible & invisible dynamics
  • Start from purpose and curiosity (tell me my you’re choosing that route)
  • Be OK with putting your view across and taking a stand
  • Share your direction of travel and what you can bring to the table
  • Identify how you can collaborate with others
  • Don’t be worried about restating your case even after rejection
  • Identify what is ok to give on, push back and what are the negotiables

You can also act as the curious challenger:

  • “I’ve noticed that we’ve discussed a few solutions and none of them appears to work for you. What’s the best way for me to support you?”
  • “I’m wondering what’s going on that has resulted in your targets being missed?”
  • “I need us as a team to step up and be more strategic. What is getting in the way that stops us progressing?”

4. Increasing the size of the decision making group can help to increase diversity, skills and creativity

How many people you bring in to solve problems and make decisions is more important than people imagine and yet it differs depending on what you want to use the group for.

If you want to build team cohesion, actually have a smaller team is better or getting people within your team to lead on supporting smaller groups

If you want to get deliberation from a representative group, then citizen’s assemblies can be very effective.

If you want people to take action as a group, then having smaller groups, like the community assemblies or neighbourhood assemblies works better.

If you want to crowdsource ideas, map resources or forecast future scenarios, then you could start with a larger group of people.

Areas that NESTA describes which I’ve seen people (including myself!) not use enough include: encourage people to submit ideas anonymously, creating teams whose unique goal is to challenge assumptions, carrying out pre-mortems, introducing dissenting views gradually, or pursuing no-regret options.

NESTA highlights The Decider App which I’m definitely going to use in future.

5. Introducing intermittent breaks where group members work independently is known to improve problem-solving for complex tasks

During the pandemic, we’ve seen how much we took for granted the invisible breaks we had during the day.

It’s something I learnt when designing festivals and workshops, that you need those transitions to enable people to come up for air, digest what they’ve learnt and connect with others more informally and organically. In festivals, you create these transitions in terms of time — between sessions and in space — a garden yard, a coffee area, etc.

In the workplace, you have these transitions in walking up or down the stairs to a next meeting where you bump into someone or around the watercooler. You even have those transitions in terms of design, moving from quieter individual desks to more open and collaborative spaces.

As we think about how we work in the near future be it going back to office workplaces, repurposing home workspaces or third spaces in the community, there’s an opportunity to be even more intentional in designing in those transitions.

In the meantime, you can design new ways of working into your diary and that of your team — meetings that end 5 minutes before the next one, half an hour diary reflection, silent brainwriting, having informal team lunches or the new trend of social audio, creating “offternoons” where there are no meetings, through to more radical policy solutions like four day weeks.

6. When the external world is unstable, like during a financial crisis or political elections, traditional sources of expertise often fail due to overconfidence.

I’ve written about how you can use data & other insights in a variety of ways. As part of this, I’ve found how important it is to avoid taking a linear approach and instead

Do check out NESTA’s report and you can find their practical checklist to help you work out the best approach to making decisions depending on the situation.

Head of Strategy (Communities) @camdencouncil #localgov Director @euroalter Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese