Hook & Bait

Team decisions

Lisa asks

How are team decisions made?

Marten Mickos

Equality is great principle for teamwork, and teamwork is present in nearly all professional organizations. But with full equality, there is no chairperson or leader who has the ultimate decision-making power. So how do you then arrive at decisions? The answer is complicated.

In some teams, decision-making is a key activity and you need to set the rules for it when the team is established. Other teams are ad-hoc or they exist only for the purpose of collaboration. In such teams, decision-making plays a subservient role. Collaboration and interaction are more important.

There are teams in which you agree to be equal members all the way up to the point in which a decision has to be made. Once there, if a decision does not emerge by consensus, there is a person who you previously have agreed will have the deciding vote. This role can be specific to the type of decision – for example “Anne has the ultimate say on design, and Bill has the ultimate say on who in the team gets to do what”. The person with the decision-making right may be a member of a team, or in some instances a more senior person outside the team.

Some teams are meritocracies, meaning that the one doing is the one deciding. The more you do, and the more results you produce, the more say you have in decisions. The problem with meritocracies is that people may disagree on who has the greatest merit in a particular topic. As a result, some people will spend time promoting their own accomplishments. They think that this will give them more decision-making power when in reality it negatively affects team cohesion and collaboration.

Some teams are democratic, meaning that in a difficult decision-making situation, they vote for the best alternative.

In many teams, there is an undisputed authority – a founder, a senior employee or a manager of some sort. Although the team may claim that it is egalitarian or a meritocracy, in reality the key decisions are made or heavily influenced by the authority. In some open source software projects, this character is publicly and somewhat humorously acknowledged as a Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL).

A way to think about decision-making authority is to think about who will suffer and pay the price if the decision turns out to be incorrect. That person or group should be the ultimate decision-maker. When you combine responsibility for the outcome with a mandate to make decisions, you are on the right track. As you set up a team to do some work, think about who will suffer if the team makes bad decisions. That person (or those persons) should have the mandate to make decisions.

Ideally you establish the decision-making procedures when you establish the team. But many times teams emerge as if by themselves, without a formal charter. In such situations, as soon as you start seeing that a decision-making point is approaching, sit down with the team and agree on the best way to make decisions going forward.

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