How to Decide How to Decide

As promised in an earlier post, here I will work through the steps of a group criteria-setting exercise. This is the how-to of “deciding how to decide before deciding.”

I’m starting with a few assumptions:

  • The group has a decision to make. (Sounds obvious, but don’t use this technique if you are at the ideation stage — brainstorming would be better. Align your technique with your purpose).
  • The group has identified possible options and is on the brink of choosing between them.

The temptation is just to pick. Make a decision. But first, walk through one of the variations of criteria setting exercises below.

  1. Ask the group, “Before we choose which option to proceed with, let’s talk about what makes an option truly a great option. What needs to be true about the option in order for you to consider it a good one?” This is where you are encouraging people to pay closer attention to the voice in their head that responds whenever anyone makes a suggestion. The one that says, “What??! Why would we do that?” or “Hey, good idea!” You are inviting them to think about what’s underneath those internal reactions. Make a list of the criteria they suggest, visible to everyone. (I usually use a flip chart, but am showing a digital example here for clarity).

For example:

In order for our idea to be a great idea, it needs to be:

  • Realistic
  • Exciting
  • Affordable
  • Aligned with the rest of the project
  • Consistent with our brand
  • Something we have the expertise to do etc.

Often this exercise alone leads to fruitful discussion about the relative merits, contradictions, varied understandings etc. of these possible filters.

  1. If the list of criteria is longer than about five items, you need to insert a process for choosing the preferred criteria. I usually just invite folks to come to the flip chart and write two check marks beside the two criteria they think are most important to consider when choosing the path forward. This yields a short list of preferred criteria.

Perhaps that exercise leads to output that looks like this, resulting in a choice to settle on four criteria:

  1. Create a matrix that is visible to all participants. Include the possible options across the top and the preferred criteria down the side:

  1. Here’s where you have some choices to make. Three possible processes are described here in increasing order of complexity:
  1. Invite people to rate the options according to each criteria, by placing a checkmark in each row under the option that they feel ranks the strongest on that criterion. The example below assumes just five participants for clarity, but this exercise is feasible with well more than that.

  2. Tell people they have 10 “points” to spend on each criterion. They then write a number under each option based on how many points they would give that option on that criterion. Their numbers should total 10 when added together horizontally.

  3. Before anything gets rated, ask the group whether any of the criteria should be weighted more heavily than the others from the start. If so, agree on a weighting multiplier. For example, perhaps “affordable” is seen as doubly important and “exciting” is seen as 50% more important than the other criteria. If so, those multipliers get applied when adding up the scores.
  1. Determining the ‘results’ of the scoring happens as follows:
  1. Read the columns vertically. Whichever option has the most check marks wins.
  2. Add up the scores vertically. Whichever option scores the highest wins.
  3. Apply the multiplier to the relevant criteria. In the case of our example, add 100% to the scores of “affordable” and 50% to “exciting.” Then add them vertically as above. You will see that in this example, adding the multiplier changed the results.
  1. In the case of a tie? You have some options. One is to repeat the exercise using one of the other approaches described here, thereby adding additional nuance to people’s feedback. Another is to discuss how the group would like to break the tie.
  1. There is one more step: the “gut check.” Once you have identified the criteria and applied them using your selected methodology, give the group one more opportunity to review the results. I once had a group say, “Using those criteria, it’s true that Options A and B should win out. But we played it safe. Those aren’t the options that will yield us the most impact.” So, we added a couple of new criteria (“courage” and “impact”) and ranked the options again.

This way, instead of people debating the merits of the options using different and implicit weighting scales, they have made their assessment system both explicit and shared. Energy gets directed into the criteria first, which tends to surface differences in a more constructive way than if you dive into decision making too soon.

12 Replies to “How to Decide How to Decide”

  1. Great idea to have the group give lots of thought to the criteria they’ll use for their decision-making process. Too often, groups will rate and rank options based on a compilation of factors, each unique to the participant. Rating each criterion independently also allows the group to revisit the option/ idea and see if it can be modified/tweaked to be a more desirable option. Thanks for walking us through these processes Rebecca!

  2. Great advice again rebecca.
    Step “6, in case there is a tie…”
    Expect there to be a tie! Plan for it. Embrace it!
    Because now the group has revealed to itself what they really need to come to terms with.
    It might open up a space for a deeper dialogue… a bit of yin to all this yang, so to speak.

  3. Thank you for this post! Very helpful. We have worked with you when you used this approach and it was a great approach to decision making as a group.

  4. Great options for a decision process ( for a group or an individual ). After approaching a decision with this much intention, it will be likely that there will be greater allignnent, and focus for all.

  5. I like the idea that you can revisit the decision in the moment, but how do you deal with a group that chooses an option and then a week, or month, later wants to revisit the decision made?

    We can spend a lot of time making decisions, but without a culture of staying with a decision made (unless there is new information available that should impact the decision), we can also spend a lot of time revisiting decisions we have already made.

    1. Yes! Documentation helps – of the decision and both the process and reasons behind it. But more than that, we need to build systems, then habits, then cultures of accountability. Reliable follow-through is a sign of strong personal and organizational integrity..,

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