How to Make Decisions as a Group

Local Organizing | April 29, 2017

With vibrant, diverse, and passionate members but limited time, we know that it can sometimes be tough to make decisions efficiently. Learn four different ways your group can employ to make decisions, as well as options for electing leaders and ideas for promoting diversity in leadership.

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With vibrant, diverse, and passionate members but limited time, we know that it can sometimes be tough to make decisions efficiently. This guide covers four ways that your group could use to help reach decisions:

  • Robert's Rules of Order (simplified)
  • Group
  • Consultative
  • Autocratic

This resource also discusses electing leaders and promoting diversity in leadership, as well as digital communication tools. However, it’s worthwhile to highlight here that our number one tip is not to rely too much on digital communications to make decisions: if you can, meet in person or pick up the phone. Decisions are a lot easier if you can talk.

Regardless of what tools you use, remember to record the decisions as you make them—check out our How to Run a Meeting guide for a sample action item and decision tracker. It’s also good practice to review the list of actions and decisions that you have recorded at the end of the meeting.

When to Use Each Method of Decision-Making

Robert's Rules of Order/Parliamentary Procedure: A democratic, non-hierarchical system of making decisions. This is especially useful if you have a large group and you believe everyone should have an equal voice. For example, your group might use this to agree to an organizational structure and big picture priorities, before empowering individuals and committees to lead on implementation. The full Robert’s Rules are quite detailed, so this guide will present a highly simplified version.

Group: everyone participates and the decision is not attributed to a single person. This method should be used when a decision is important, no one person should control it, and you have a small group (ideally less than a dozen, and no more than 25).

Consultative: an individual is responsible for the decision but they are expected to consult a stakeholder group. This should be used when your group is comfortable with a leader making the decision, but it’s an important enough decision that the leader should seek advice and information to carefully evaluate the best course of action.

Autocratic: a single individual makes the decision. This is used when a decision is not that important, one person has the information to make it, and/or conflict among your group is unlikely. For example, if your group has agreed to print a flier and has the budget, one person should to make the decision about what printer to use. Don’t let the name scare you: the more decisions that can be handled this way, the better to conserve your group’s time and energy!

Robert’s Rules of Order... Simplified a lot
Motion Participant says 2nd Debatable Amendable Vote need
Introduce Motion "I move that..." Yes Yes Yes Majority
Amend a motion "I move that this motion be amended by..." Yes Yes Yes Majority
Voice vote/actual count "I call for a division of the house" No No No No

Tools for Group and Collaborative Decision-Making

Even if you have a small group and you don’t need the formality of Robert’s Rules, you can still take some lessons from it:

  • Set guidelines. For example, will a majority vote decide or do you want consensus?
  • Ask participants for specific, actionable proposals. If you have a concern with someone’s solution to a problem, you should be offering ways to improve it rather than tearing it down without proposing an alternative.
  • Encourage participants who haven’t yet spoken to weigh in before anyone speaks twice.
  • When everyone has had their say, vote!

Tools for Unstructured Problems

What if your problem is too unstructured or undefined for participants to be able to offer reasonable proposals or reach a conclusion?

  • Use affinity grouping to generate ideas and get participants speaking the same language. Ask participants to write as many ideas or priorities as they can onto sticky notes and then, as a group, sort them into 4-10 themes.
  • Create a pros and cons list to dig into the benefits and downsides of a decision. A variant for when you want to compare many options is to have one column for each option and list both pros and cons together. Give each item +1 if it’s pro and -1 if it’s a con. You can also weight the scores by importance (e.g., a small problem is -1 and a big one is -5) and then add up the numbers for each option. The highest positive score wins, but don’t feel chained to the outcome if the group expresses discomfort with the winner. It’s easy to miss a key factor or not weigh quite right, so use it as a conversation tool rather than anything binding.
  • Use a multi-voting model to narrow down a large number of options through multiple rounds of voting. In the first round, give each participant a number of votes to distribute among the available options. A good rule of thumb is that each participant gets a number of votes equal to about a third of the options (e.g., 21 options means 7 votes each). After everyone has voted in the first round, eliminate the lowest scoring two-thirds of options. You can repeat the voting process as necessary to narrow it down to the desired number of options.

Electing Leaders

Genuinely collaborative decision-making is hard and time-consuming. At the same time, every person in your group deserves to be represented.

To balance these needs, elect leadership! Remember to set the length of terms, protocol for replacing someone if they want to step down, and (potentially) protocol for removal.

Diversity in Leadership

The Indivisible Guide states that “It is critical that our resistance reflect and center the voices of those who are most directly threatened by the Trump agenda.”

Take concrete steps to support those who are most directly threatened by the Trump agenda as leaders (if they feel safe doing so—they face greater risks than someone from a more privileged background, so trust them if they say no).

  • Many job postings say "diverse candidates welcome." Ask your group to affirm that about leadership positions!
  • Do you identify as an immigrant, Muslim, person of color, LGBTQ, person with disabilities, poor or working class, female and/or any community targeted by the Trump administration’s noxious agenda? We hope you will consider running. We need leaders like you.
  • Have you noticed individuals from these communities who have contributed to your group but aren't running for a leadership position? Tell them that they would have your support if they did.
  • Consider setting a standard for the minimum number of leadership positions that must be filled by people who represent marginalized communities.

Digital Decision Tools

Remember when we suggested meeting in person was the best way to make decisions? We stand by it! However, there are some ways that sharing and gathering information online can support effective group decision-making.

Get people thinking before the meeting. 

Send participants as much as you can before a meeting to get them thinking, such as an agenda, draft documents, and a list of desired meeting outcomes.

Reviewing a document by Email. 

Although most decisions are easier if you can talk, you may want to review documents by email. If you do send out a document for review by email, give a specific deadline and ask for edits or objections by that date, rather than asking for every single person’s affirmative statement of approval.

Send out a survey to get a representative view of opinions. 

Surveys can help you quickly get information from a lot of people. People may be more comfortable expressing certain kinds of opinions (such as a negative opinion about a proposal) in polls. However, there is a risk of people “gaming” surveys by responding multiple times in order to vote down an idea they don’t like. It also takes a lot of work to write good, clear questions. If you do try surveys, here are some tips:

  • Google Forms is a good, simple, free tool.
  • Think carefully about each question. Think about the different scenarios for how responses could break down. Do they move you closer to a decision?
  • Ask someone to review the questions and tell you what they think you are asking before sending it out to the group.

A Final Word: Stay Positive

Give people the benefit of the doubt and look for what’s good in their ideas. You may be saying the same things with different words. You’re all there because you care about each other, you care about your neighbors, and you are willing to fight Trump’s racist, authoritarian agenda.