How Great Decisions Get Made: 10 Easy Steps for Reaching Agreement on Even the Toughest Issues

How Great Decisions Get Made: 10 Easy Steps for Reaching Agreement on Even the Toughest Issues



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"All too often, solving tough work issues can become a tug of war as clashing departments, priorities, personality styles, and other concerns threaten to destroy any possibility of a successful conclusion. But by sharing hopes, and focusing on information rather than debate, the path to agreement can become wonderfully clear.

How Great Decisions Get Made. shows how to bring out the best in people, so that the process of decision making cements groups together rather than pulling them apart. The book gives readers a simple 10-step process to help their people overcome seemingly intractable differences, paving the way for groups to:

* Embrace a world view filled with the possibility of creating better results together
* Shift their attention from the stale ""What should we do?"" to a fresh ""How can we achieve what we really want?"" attitude
* Tap into who they are to define and articulate their hopes

Readers looking for quick, exciting ways to energize their often contentious decision-making process will find all the help they need, from real-life scenarios showing the process in action to a self-assessment checklist. How Great Decisions Get Made provides the key to overcoming barriers, making people feel great about the work they do, and achieving extraordinary results."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814473986
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 03/19/2006
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 716,708
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Don Maruska (Morro Bay, CA) writes the Business Success column that appears in more than 200 Knight-Ridder papers. He was a founder of three Silicon Valley companies and marketing VP of the company that became E*Trade. He is now a Master Certified Coach with Fortune 500 clients, a much in-demand motivational speaker, and has lectured at Stanford business and law schools.

Read an Excerpt

How Great Decisions Get Made

By Don Maruska

AMACOM/American Management Association

Copyright © 2006 Don Maruska
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780814473986

Chapter One

Step 6

Get Everything on the Table 100 Percent Information, Zero Percent Debate

This same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension. -William Shakespeare

If debates are raging in your business or organization, you are wasting time and money. You're also destroying the goodwill needed to make great decisions and realize outstanding results.

Western culture has mistakenly elevated debating to a high art form. We have debate clubs, debating societies, and even debates to help select among political candidates. But debate is a dead end for getting things done.

Staking out positions and squaring off in verbal duels have high costs:

1. Debate polarizes positions. Rather than having everyone search for the best option together, debate forces each side to advocate its own case. This resembles the ancient gladiator battles. The emphasis is on making points and winning rather than on finding the best solution.

Remember how the operations and maintenance groups at the industrial plant bickered before they began the ten-step process? (See the example in Step #2.) When problems arose, the finger-pointing began. The operators complained that the maintenancedepartment didn't keep the unit in good repair. Maintenance charged that the operators pushed the equipment too far. As the debates ensued, the ego stakes rose. Who was right? Who was wrong? Whose career would advance? Whose would suffer? Meanwhile, problems festered without the benefit of the best thinking that could come about only when both groups worked together.

2. Debate hides rather than discloses important information. Were you ever part of a high school debate team? I remember preparing for my high school debates by filling index cards with the key points supporting my position. I also anticipated opposing points of view and had facts, figures, and expert opinions to rebut them. The game was to make the best case for my position and hope that the other person didn't score on my areas of vulnerability. In fact, I often knew the weaknesses of my position better than my opponent. But it wasn't my role to disclose all of the facts. My role was to win.

The same is true in many organizations. It's not that people can't see the bigger picture. Rather, it's that the process people use to decide issues doesn't encourage it. Advocates know the dark underside of their positions, but because they fear losing, they don't disclose all that they know, even though it would help find superior solutions.

3. Even the "winners" lose. With the passage of time and some perspective, it's clear that most gladiator-style victories are short-lived. The losers in corporate power struggles or public elections regroup and continue their battles to regain "face." The victories are fragile because they lack commitment to shared success. Meanwhile, organizations and communities suffer from suboptimal decisions or decision gridlock.

Winners and losers do not make good learners.

Debating is a good game but a bad model for sorting out issues with other people. In business, the highest purpose isn't to see who wins but to build the best results together. We need to separate egos from issues in order to get great results.

It's time to recognize debate for the fear-driven dynamic that it is and adopt a better process for resolving tough issues. It's time to say no to debate.

Step #6 in Action

Tough Issue: Future Products for a Billion-Dollar Company

Tim, an R&D manager at a Fortune 500 company, worried that the discussion of alternatives for his company's next generation of products would be like walking into the full force of a storm. (See the description of Tim's group in Part 1.) "This is where we could fall back into the old dynamics of debate and one-upmanship," he feared. "I don't want another meeting in which participants feud endlessly with no results. We need to be able to get our perspectives out on the table in a respectful and constructive way."

A Great Decision Solution

When it came time to discuss the company's alternatives, the members of Tim's team began by reading the shared hopes they had developed earlier, recalling the larger purpose of their efforts. Next, they examined the option of the current software platform by going from person to person to hear everyone's negatives or perceived product limitations. Each person stated only one negative at a time to avoid the kind of dynamics that had reigned in the past, in which members had gone off on extended diatribes. The new procedure also gave each person an opportunity to express a perspective and maintain a personal balance about the option. All members understood that stating a negative didn't mean they necessarily opposed the option under consideration. It simply acknowledged the reality that the option had shortcomings.

Group members didn't repeat a negative that someone had already stated. Had they done so, they would have been providing redundant information, creating the impression that the momentum was swinging in a particular direction.

The guidelines also precluded debate about whether what someone stated was truly a negative. A few participants bridled at this constraint. They prided themselves on letting nothing slip by their critical review. But it was exactly this combative behavior that had put people on edge in their group and stymied decision making and the collective results that they needed.

If someone stated a negative but someone else thought it was a positive, the second person was expected to wait to mention it until it was time to state the positives, which was the next part of this step. This approach doesn't preclude any input but simply structures it so that everyone can receive information more constructively. Debate tactics put the speaker on the defensive, but this approach allows everyone to absorb information without the distortion of ego attachments or defenses. Then, when it comes time to choose an option in Step #7, they can change their minds without losing face.

After cycling through the team members a couple of times, they exhausted all of the negatives about the status quo option. The team then went through the same process for the positives about the status quo, enumerating how the current software supported their shared hopes. Several positive attributes emerged, and participants kept those in mind as they considered subsequent options.

Why present the negatives about an option before the positives? The simple answer is that it works better. The shortcomings of an option or plan typically carry more force than its positives. Perhaps our fears or worries are more dominant than our hopes. When participants get the negatives out on the table, it's easier for them to think of the positives.

The software researchers proceeded to explore two new options in less than an hour, following the same process as they did for the status quo option. How did it go? Here are some of their comments:

"I like how each option received a fair hearing."

"I felt we each acknowledged the benefits and shortcomings for our choices."

"What a relief to get everything on the table without divisive debates."

The process was a success.

As it has with dozens of groups, Step #6 redirected the participants' competitive instincts from debating to providing information about the negatives and positives of each option. The process didn't sublimate the urge to score points. Instead, it scored them for the team's benefit rather than at the expense of other members.

Tough Issue: Developing an Organizational Growth Plan with Many Players

"We're growing fast, starting new initiatives, and need to plan how we're going to organize ourselves for the future," explained Alex, the leader of nationally recognized firm. "I want to bring all of the field staff from our various sites together, along with the central office staff and members of our board. We're blessed with a creative and talkative group. The concern is how to hear from each of the thirty-five participants, avoid having a few long-winded members dominate the conversation, and reach some preliminary conclusions in the course of an afternoon meeting."

A Great Decision Solution

Alex had lots of insights and experience. He was a veteran of McKinsey & Company, the elite international consulting firm, and an organizational expert before starting up his new business. Nonetheless, he faced the realities of finding ways to involve team members and make timely decisions, just like everyone else.

Following Step #6 brought Alex the results he wanted. Similar to the R&D team previously described, Alex's team went through the process of defining the negatives and the positives of all the options they identified. The members examined the alternatives of centralizing and decentralizing key responsibilities as they explored how to grow and retain their innovative culture. Since the organization relied heavily upon personal initiative as well as a shared direction, each participant had important perspectives to share about the choices.

This step gave them a double win. "The team members not only laid out the negatives and positives of all of the initial options," Alex raved, "but also came up with some promising new approaches that no one had thought of before. And we didn't even have to work hard at it. Listening openly to the strengths and weaknesses of each option prompted even better ideas for how to organize ourselves. This step is both efficient and effective!"

The Keys to Step #6

Focus on a 100 Percent Information Exchange

To get the most out of Step #6, flip the standard debating approach on its head. Don't even let a debate begin. If you follow this guideline, each person will be able to express negatives as well as positives about each option under consideration. No one will be able to dominate the discussion to favor his or her point of view. Everyone's best thinking will have a chance to air without needless repetition or debate.

However, in order to accomplish a successful information exchange, you must follow Step #6 carefully. It can be difficult for people to listen to something negative about an idea they favor. It can be even more difficult for them to say something positive about ideas they don't like. Group members must agree to adhere to the established structure so that they can feel confident that everyone is playing by the same rules and not taking advantage of the open-minded atmosphere.

Using this step for information exchange enabled a regional government agency to turn around a difficult budget confrontation. Its board of directors needed to slash millions of dollars from its already lean operating budget. "If we approach this like a typical issue, with each member making speeches and advocating and debating positions, we'll be at each other's throats," the board president commented. "We need a way to work through this issue that gets results and also demonstrates to community members that we've all heard their concerns, assessed the relevant considerations, and reached thoughtful conclusions."

The board applied Step #6 in their process of addressing the budget issue. Board members exchanged information about more than a dozen potential budget cuts in a cable-broadcast public meeting. The seven-member board completed the work in a little over an hour.

"If it hadn't been for this process, we would have been here for days," the board president reported. "What's more, both the public and the press have seen us at our best-thoughtfully sharing information. The cuts won't be popular, but at least everyone knows we each considered all the information openly."

Because the process for information exchange incorporated into this step is so open, it self-corrects for bias. It would be immediately apparent if someone close-mindedly advocated only one particular position. The other participants would recognize that the person had only positive things to say for his or her favored option and negative statements about the others. Because such bias manifests itself so obviously and runs counter to the group's shared hopes, participants restrain themselves from exhibiting such behavior, thereby avoiding the posturing that is typical of debate-oriented decision processes.

A particular advantage of Step #6 is that it helps even large groups address a broad range of options in a focused amount of time. This makes it feasible to include a large group of representative stakeholders and information providers, as outlined in Step #1, and still get the job done.

Develop New Options from What You've Learned

The hallmark of a learning organization and a successful decision-making process is that new and more effective options arise from the discussion. When Alex's team laid out the negatives and the positives of all their potential solutions, they not only considered all of them equally but also came up with several new options that no one had thought of previously. By thoroughly exploring all sides of every possibility and really listening to what others have to say, participants often generate new and exciting ideas.

Take Advantage of the Huge Improvement Potential

If your organization hasn't employed Step #6 yet, you're not alone. In a survey of middle managers from three dozen organizations representing a wide range of industries and small to large employee groups, few knew about or regularly applied this approach (see Appendix A). In fact, less than one-third regularly use a structured approach to air the pros and cons on major issues. However, when survey respondents were introduced to the ten steps, Step #6 was one of the most frequently cited ways to significantly improve their organizations.

Putting Step #6 into Practice

1. Use your shared hopes as the basis for evaluation. Before evaluating the first of your options, reflect on the hopes you share as a group for resolving the issue you face. When participants look at the bigger picture and consider the desired outcome for the group, they provide deeper and more useful insights.

2. Begin with the status quo option before proceeding to the more adventuresome options. Work through the list of options you developed in Step #4, but evaluate the status quo option first-this will be your benchmark for considering your other options. The process of exchanging statements about the negatives and positives of participants' current experience, and the level of understanding that results, can be a springboard for new directions.

3. Start with the option's negative points. Ask each person to express a different negative statement about the option under consideration. Proceed around the group in this way until all possible negatives have been stated for the option. Anyone who doesn't come up with a statement that hasn't already been mentioned should pass. Repetition of information allows cliques to form, which lead to adversarial dynamics.

Be sure to start with the negatives about an option, because most people are better able to consider positives after stating the negatives. Encourage people who favor a particular option to participate in expressing its negatives. Often, they know its shortcomings better than anyone else.

4. Instruct everyone to listen to what the others say without questioning or debating. Even if there is disagreement about someone's negative statement, participants should acknowledge and accept it as that person's point of view. After hearing differing points of view, people are apt to revise their thinking. You don't need to agree with someone else's specific reasons to reach agreement on a shared course of action.

The more contentious the issue, the more important it is to avoid debate. Remember that winners and losers make poor learners. Be alert for the wisdom that can be shared by means of this sort of information exchange.

5. Then state the positives about the option. Follow the same guidelines and procedures you followed for expressing negatives, but have each person express a different positive about the option. Encourage naysayers to identify something positive.

Sometimes one participant will mention a positive that someone else stated as a negative. For example, an option for a new school facility required that transportation be available to reach the school-which some might consider a negative. On the flip side, the location offered safety advantages-a positive-because no one would walk to it along unsafe streets. It's acceptable if the same point shows up in both the negatives and the positives.


Excerpted from How Great Decisions Get Made by Don Maruska Copyright © 2006 by Don Maruska. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part One Making Great Decisions

Part Two 10 Easy Steps for Reaching Agreement

1. Enlist Everyone—Invite Hidden Talent as Well as Visible Talent and Avoid Creating Enemies

2. Discover Shared Hopes—Multiply Your Prospects for Success

3. Uncover the Real Issues—Listen to Thoughts and Feelings

4. Identify All Options—See the Whole Tree Before You Go Out on a Limb

5. Gather the Right Information—Look Through the Lens of Your Hopes

6. Get Everything on the Table—100% Information, 0% Debate

7. Write Down Choices that Support Shared Hopes—Take the Guesswork Out of Decisions

8. Map Solutions—See Clear Results

9. Look Ahead—Be Prepared with Alternatives

10. Stay Charged Up—Celebrate Results

Part Three Six Strategies for Overcoming Obstacles

1. Don't Have Time? Try the 30-Minute Miracle

2. Not in Charge? Employ Persuasive Techniques

3. No Guide? Follow the Self-Directed Process

4. Very Large Group? Resolve Issues the Way You Play the Accordion

5. Can't Get Everyone Together? Be an E-Team

6. Stuck? Dissolve Old Differences

Epilogue: Be an Agent of Hope in a Fearful World

Appendix A: The 10-Step Assessment Index

Appendix B: Helpful Books

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

BookPage: "A blessing for anyone who hates meetings (who doesn’t), How Great Decisions Get Made has simplified one of the biggest managerial challenges —the art of team decision making."

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