Taking decisions – developing shared criteria for decision-making

In the final post of our series about decision-making, we illustrate the importance of developing  shared criteria upon which the decision is made. Let us know about your experiences of decision-making in practice, or share your views in the comments below.

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This is illustrated by the ‘mutual gains’ approach, which comes from Harvard University in the USA. The example below is imaginary, and concerns the fictional town of Blaine in the USA’s Mid-Atlantic region (so on the east coast, south of New England). Blaine is approaching the two-hundredth anniversary of its founding. The town meeting has voted to mount a bicentennial celebration, but the town’s finance committee has only allocated $5,000 for the event.

Members of the committee created to plan the event differ in what they want. Traditionalists want a positive and upbeat celebration. Modernists want an unvarnished, warts and all, educational event. Connie, the facilitator, identifies four criteria shared by everyone:

a simple mindmap with questions (what, when, where, why, how, who) to solve a problem posted with colorful sticky notes on blackboard
  1. Achieving a big turnout;
  2. People will feel historically connected to the celebration;
  3. Combining as many elements as possible, to get the biggest ‘bang for their buck’; and
  4. Ensuring that whatever happens is of the highest quality

Two subcommittees are set up, one for outdoor, one for Indoor. Both are asked to combine celebration and education, to satisfy both traditionalists and modernists. This, after many meetings, leads to the following unified proposal:

  • An evening with a dramatic presentation in the high school auditorium, with the programme providing extra historical background. Written materials would also go on the website;
  • The following day, there would be a parade from the town hall to the fairground;
  • The fairground would offer nearly a full day’s worth of educational and fun activities, mostly with an “old-fashioned” theme; and
  • A panel discussion and quiz show originally proposed would be dropped as not contributing to the criteria.

Two features encouraged the reaching of agreement in Blaine. First, there was a set of ground rules: one of them stated “each person reserves the right to disagree with any proposal and accepts responsibility for offering alternatives that accommodate her interests as well as the interests of others”. The facilitator maintained a single text, whose proposals eventually evolved into those above. This separated the proposal from the proposer, which minimised two possible difficulties.. The first was that the proposer would hold on to their proposal for dear life, simply because it was theirs. The other was that someone would oppose a proposal, simply because of who proposed it.