How to Help a Group Make Decisions

Imagine a group that has come up with five really solid campaign proposals. Even the most optimistic member of the group knows the group didn’t really have the capacity to run all of them. So how does a group move from a number of different proposals to making a decision? Here are some tips that can help your group make decisions.

Tips to making tough strategy decisions:

1. Don’t allow groups a long time to generate proposals separately

Many groups give small groups large chunks of time to develop campaign proposals and then come back and present them, after they have refined and finalized the proposal. For example, during a strategy retreat groups split for a half-day to refine their plans. That’s often a mistake because by that point, people have invested huge amounts into “their” proposal.

The goal of reaching a decision is that people have to let go of “their” proposal and allow it to be the group’s. That means detaching from their ego.

You can help people detach by giving them shorter times for working on a proposal. Then have them come back and present their findings, and share feedback with the large group––and only then go back and do more refinement.


2. Avoid too much large group discussion; use lots of small groups

This is especially true early on in the process. Most decision-making processes are more effective with lots of small groups. Small groups allow more people to talk, express themselves and really listen to each other. This is very useful when the group is making a decision.

Alternatives to large groups include:

  • Break into small groups with a task
  • Use the mingle to get reflection and feedback (see The Mingle)
  • Try having people create skits to show, rather than just talk about, actions they might do (see Skits)
  • Use planning tools like the Paper Plate challenge or Spectrum of Allies to get everyone on the same page (see the Paper Plate Challenge and Spectrum of Allies).


3. Make other, less important decisions, before the big decisions

Decision-making is a habit. Groups who get used to making small decisions will get into a routine of good decision-making habits: accommodation, deferring, listening, asserting, and respecting each other. Making smaller and lower-stake decisions first will make the job of making big decisions easier.

In a strategy session, for example, the facilitator may consciously create many “decision-making” moments for the new group because even little things can make a difference, for instance:

  • Asking the group to decide on how long the next break should be: 15 minutes? 20 minutes? 30 minutes?
  • Having the group do a physical activity that involved decision-making, like Blanket Game or Menu of Tasks (see The Blanket Tool and How to Get Others Involved: Using the Menu of Tasks).
  • Having the group decide on the five key criteria for choosing the next campaign or the top three issues they want to focus on for the next campaign.


4. Affirm areas of agreement whenever possible

Facilitators should note whenever the group is close to agreement. For example, while presenting vastly different plans, workshop groups may come back with the same target and at least two similar tactics. That deserves immediate affirmation from the facilitator. This allows the group to be energized by shared ideas and values. Showing similar ways of thinking allows the group to stay connected.


5. “Test” the decision before making it

Decision-making is not a moment. It is a series of steps that each group takes in its own way. One step requires people getting a sense of what others are thinking. Large group discussion does this, but one of the quickest ways to do this is an exercise called dotocracy:

To lead dotocracy:

Put the name of each different campaign on the wall. Then give everyone three stickers (often small round dot-shaped stickers are used for this exercise, so that’s why it is called “dotocracy”) or a marker (for making dots). People put stickers or make dots next to the choice they want—a kind of voting or straw poll system. You can vote on the same campaign many times, spread the dots among several campaigns, or not use any at all.

This process is helpful for most groups because it is a way for individuals to reflect on their own priorities and see how the group as a whole is thinking. It’s not a decision, because it shows the group how individuals are thinking: it allows the group to “test” a decision before trying to making it.


6. If this is about another issue, deal with that first

Making a decision about a campaign is difficult enough, but if the group is really having a fight about something else—maybe some infighting, interpersonal conflict, or power dynamics—then it’s much harder. If at all possible, resolve those issues before making the decision about the campaign. If you can’t, do your best to separate that from this decision. If you don’t, the entire campaign may be affected by those other issues. If necessary, consider alternative conflict measures:

  • Speak-outs, allow individuals to express themselves publicly about issues important to them that the whole group needs to hear.
  • If it’s just high tension, use team types or other tools that allow people to use humor and lightness to express difference in the group (see Team Types).
  • Create a fishbowl where a couple of people (who may seem hopelessly divided) come to the center of the room and sit together. Have them communicate and try to figure things out, with the loving attention of the group. This allows everyone a chance to hear different opinions in the whole group and often reveals hidden solutions.
  • Talk to people outside of the room, including mediators or communication outside of the space and with other appropriate people.

Using these tips, here’s an example of a 2-hour session to make a decision on campaign proposals (assuming the proposals have already been generated):

  • Large group presentation of each campaign proposal (15 minutes)
  • Small groups rotate to spend some time at each campaign proposal, reviewing each proposal, asking questions, and offering feedback (30 minutes)
  • Dotocracy: what campaign do you want? (10 minutes)
  • Break (10-20 minutes? ask the group to decide length)
  • Large group: review the results of dotocracy, ask for reactions? (10 minutes)
  • Small group: now what do you think the group should do? (15 minutes)
  • Large group: final decision (20 minutes)
  • Closing with a group appreciation

See more tips on how to facilitate meetings at How to Facilitate Meetings: The No-Magic Method.