On Collective Decision Making

Harnessing the power of groups when the stakes are high


I was with a senior management team recently that expressed ongoing frustration over its inability to make progress on several important issues. When I asked what was causing such upset, the more vocal among them started in on the topic of collective decision making and, specifically, their view that it leads only to the lowest common denominator. 

It is so interesting to watch groups continue to engage in activities and behaviors they believe will lead to worse outcomes than they'd actually like to achieve. But not surprising. We all do this.

What’s more, the unsatisfactory practice is often so ingrained we can't imagine another way to get what we want. "We're stuck with this." Or, "We've always done it this way." Or, "The only other option is to have the boss decide, and we like that even less." 

However, with the shift of an underlying assumption, collective decision making has the potential to create something that never existed before in a way that few other things can. 

Those of you who have studied economics are no doubt familiar with the possibility frontier. For those less well acquainted with the dismal science, here is a super-simplified explanation of the concept:

Also known by its more complete label as the Production-Possibility Boundary [Wikipedia link], it compares the production rates of two commodities using the same fixed total of the factors of production. It shows the most you can get of each of the commodities for a given set of conditions. The classic example is guns and butter: producing more of one means sacrificing the production of the other.

Moving away from economics to human interaction, in most instances a similar dynamic is at play: we enter a situation believing that the more you get, the more I have to give up. 

In the graphic at the top of this post this notion is represented by the dashed diagonal line where the midpoint is the optimal solution for us: we each give up a like amount of what we really want and walk away equally dissatisfied.

This is the "lowest common denominator" that many of us experience. 

That we can work only along this straight line is nothing more than an assumption we hold and one that doesn't serve us very well at that. 

If we change our assumption that the outer edge of our agreement, the place where we maximize the use of our inputs, is instead the possibility frontier, where does that take us? 

It shows us that there is a space where we can both get more of what we want and wind up better off than the pure compromise. This is the graphical representation of that overused and despised (by me) expression, "win-win".

The challenge in all this is that the solution set that exists in that shaded area between compromise and the possibility frontier is unknown at the time we start our conversation. It requires a not yet discovered combination of what we both want, unlike the horse trading that is typically part of reaching for a compromise.

If it offers solutions that are so much better, why don’t we usually head for the frontier? Mostly because there is fear involved, and this fear gets in the way. What might we be afraid of? We might be afraid of being pushed aside. Of not getting credit. I might have misperceptions about what is possible and where that might leave me. Perhaps I don’t trust you or this process. Or, I have too much self-interest wrapped up in what I want the outcome to be. I may be unwilling to let go of what I believe I know and other preconceived ideas.