Remote work: facilitate decision- making in decentralized teams
Every company, every team, and every product – it all happens when a big decision is made. And each big decision is preceded by numerous smaller decisions. But how do you make sound decisions in times of remote work, when teams are spread out across various locations?
Why is it so difficult to make decisions?
We make most decisions on our own and very automatically. Without this mechanism, we humans would simply go crazy. Just imagine, you go to a supermarket with 20,000 items and rationally weigh every decision to buy an item. Although there are theoretically thousands of decision possibilities, time and again we are faced with the challenge of limiting the possibilities to retain the ability to act. The autopilot in our head protects us from overload.
If decisions are made in a team, the autopilot does not work in this way though. Group decisions are difficult because of this. Always bear in mind: Every person has their own truth, based on their experiences, knowledge, and values. And that is perfectly alright. But if this is ignored, conflicts are sure to arise. So leave space for differing points of view.
Team decisions makes sense. But, in the end, it is usually one person who bears the responsibility for these decisions. This results in certain difficulties:
- Some decisions are scary: Major decisions command respect, because we challenge ourselves to make “the right” decision. We feel small and build up enormous pressure, which can have a paralyzing effect. So in case of doubt, we prefer not to make a decision at all, rather than to make a “wrong” one, and that does not necessarily result in better reality.
- Nobody wants to assume responsibility: Each decision is a bet on the future, but we do not know what this future will look like. To take on the responsibility for this can be a challenge. Who wants to be responsible for a negative outcome? A positive outcome, on the other hand, is often taken for granted. We rarely get recognition for these decisions.
- People are not included: If people who are affected by a decision are not consulted or included in the decision-making process, this can lead to defensive reactions. Necessary changes are then made only half-heartedly or, in extreme cases, boycotted. Those affected usually want to participate in decisions or at least be included.
- Decision-makers feel isolated: If we are given the responsibility of making a decision, this decision is not easy. We have to decide something, although we might not even have the knowledge, competence, and information we need.
- Lack of personal exchange: If decisions are made solely by means of written information, an important part of human nature is lacking: the emotion. This can only be included if we get together. In decentralized teams, this is not always possible. Here, we need to build bridges that come as close as possible to the ideal of the personal conversation.
Be careful of pseudo-decisions
Sometimes we are just led to believe that there is something to be decided. Actually, the decision has already been made. The “decision show” is put on to get legitimation for this decision. This strategy can backfire. So be open, honest, and transparent. If you just want to get feedback on your suggestion from the team, then state this clearly. It should always be clear who will actually be making the decision in the end.
Along with pseudo-decisions, there are also pseudo-decision-makers. For example, a department manager is part of a working group that is supposed to work on a joint concept. In the end, all department managers decide for a common line. So it looks like the decision was up to the department managers, until the Board gets involved and throws the entire concept out the window, maybe based on a gut feeling. This is irritating and harms the work atmosphere.
How do you make good decisions in remote teams?
Decisions can be made jointly and exciting projects launched even across distances. Remote work and modern technology make it possible. Communication takes place through various channels, such as chat, e-mail, telephone, video conference, VR conference, etc. What helps is a joint set of rules – for example, vision boards, golden rules, values or guidelines – that the remote employees can be guided by.
Preparation of decisions is important in order to establish information transparency for all those involved. The topic should be clearly presented in a meeting and discussed, and the decision options summarized if possible. Choose the appropriate channel for this. All those directly affected by the decision should receive a decision proposal. Make it transparent who will have the final say in the end. If many decisions are to be discussed and made in one meeting, the meeting should take place in the morning, when everyone is rested and still has the capacity to process the details.
Choose the channel (in-person, telephone, video, VR)
What is needed for the decision? Will a few phone calls be enough to agree, does a video conference make sense, or is the decision so far-reaching that it has to be made in person? Bigger decision meetings usually start with a presentation. If this is a simple PowerPoint presentation, the screen-sharing functions in Skype, Webex, GoToMeeting, or other web conferences can be considered. If this is a more complex topic, a virtual reality conference might make sense. This way, not only slides can be presented, but also interactive whiteboards and own 3D CAD data.
Prepare decision proposals
Do you know the black storyboards the advertising agencies used to present their marketing campaigns? There are agencies that still use them today. The reason is simple: the feel and the visual experience make things tangible and clear. In most companies, PowerPoint presentations are used though. You can use both. Virtual reality makes it possible to experience media. Images and texts can be placed on blackboards. 3D objects can be imported in form of CAD data and presented three-dimensionally. This results in dramatic effect that could optimally prepare people for a decision.
Who will make the decision? The answer to this question should be clear to all those involved. Because as much as we wish for democratic decisions, business reality is often very different. In most cases, one person has the final say. This can be extremely appropriate, so that there are no misunderstandings or diffusion of responsibility. A good decider will consider the team’s opinion, but since he is responsible for this decision, he must also have the option to decide against the team’s vote.
Forms of decisions
In group decisions, agreement of those involved is usually needed so that the team members back a decision. If this step is left out in important decisions, this can lead to (hidden) rejection and hinder motivation. The best known form of group decision is the majority decision, but there is a whole series of other decision possibilities that make be more appropriate in specific cases.
Individual decision (notification about a decision)
The individual decision is the most common form of decision. In the best case, the person with the greatest expertise or the one who is most affected by the decision makes the decision. Depending on the extent of the decision, the person should get advice from someone else, especially if this someone else is affected by the decision.
Majority decision (show of hands or dot score)
Sometimes is makes sense to include everyone and decide together. If speed is a must, a simple vote can be used. In a simple majority, more than 50% of those involved agree to a proposal. But there are other rules, such as the three-quarters majority, in which 75% of the votes are needed. Along with voting by a show of hands, dot-voting has become common in workshops. In this form of voting, all participants get a certain number of points (votes) that they distribute among the existing options. By the way: in a VR conference, you can either raise your hand or paint dots.
Consensus (all vote in favor)
In consensus decisions, all those involved must approve the decision. Consensus decisions are often tedious, but sometimes indispensable. Caution is needed when certain people want to get in the spotlight through this or misuse their power of veto. If this happens, a clear discussion about the motives is a top priority. If no solution is needed, mediation can be helpful.
Consent (veto possible)
Consent decisions, contrary to consensus decisions, do not require approval. They are considered accepted if none of the participants express an objection or reservation about the decision. All participants have the right of veto if they have serious reservations. In this case, the reservations have to be heard and addressed. If no final agreement is reached, the decision can be postponed and, if necessary, a neutral person consulted for clarification.
Systemic consensus (measuring resistance)
Differently from the majority decision, in systemic consensus it is not agreement, but resistance that is measured, provided there are several suggestions to choose from. Each participant gives a score of between 0 and 10 per suggestion, where 0 points means “no resistance” and 10 points “very big resistance”. In the end, the points are added up. The suggestion with the lowest number of points wins. This would at least come very close to a consensus. However, if anyone gave this suggestion 10 points, it would be conceivable to discuss the reasons once more before making the decision.
Record decisions (Who will do what by when?)
It is best to record the decisions in writing and plan the next steps right away. Create a to-do matrix with the following information. What needs to be done? Who will take on the task? Until when will it be done?
Clear obstacles out of the way
A far-reaching decision is always associated with uncertainty. If the uncertainty is too strong, it may be due to a lack of knowledge. Gaps in knowledge can be cleared out of the way. Talk to competent people to close these gaps in knowledge. Do research yourself or instruct someone else to do it for you and prepare the information in a comprehensible way. And: Have the courage to make a “wrong” decision sometimes. Because, of course, you will only find out whether a decision was right or wrong after it was made. Sitting it out may be a strategy, but not a solution.
These tips help improve the climate for decisions:
- Question your own ego: It is all about making the best decision for your team and the company, and not about making you look good in the short-term. In the long-term, you will be rewarded for this.
- Nothing is without alternatives: We often think we have to choose “between plague and cholera”. We succumb to this mistaken belief if we get tunnel vision. If you have the feeling that you have to choose between two bad alternatives, then look for other alternatives.
- Change perspective: Try to see things from the perspective of other people. Sometimes it can be helpful to play devil’s advocate to get new perspectives.
- Do not decide everything yourself: Do not just delegate tasks, but also decisions. Leave them to people who are best equipped to make these decisions or hand the decision over to a team.
- Promote team autonomy: If you delegate a decision to a team, give them also the full autonomy for this decision. Then, acknowledge the decision even if you would not have decided this way yourself.
- Establish a culture of mistakes: If wrong decisions are seen as failure and result in negative consequences for the decision-maker, this creates fear. People are then no longer ready to make decisions. So establish a culture of mistakes, in which wrong decisions are seen as the basis for learning, and reward those who assume responsibility.
The final appeal
Decisions are neither right, nor wrong. Decisions are neutral, a tool that helps us move forward. Include people and enable them to have a direct influence. Nothing brings us forward more in a business context than a motivated team. And do not forget: no decision is so serious that you cannot counteract it if it does not produce the desired effect. Nothing makes us learn faster than supposed “wrong” decisions. People learn through trial and error. So nurture a culture of mistakes, believe in yourself and your team.