When Teams Can’t Decide

Bringing cross functional teams together can introduce new problems. When teams can’t decide the team dynamics break down. It is easy for the leaders to blame a lack of trust or poor communication. However the problem is not the team’s ability to work together it is a reflection of the decision making process.

In a cross functional team, each member represents their own faction of the organisation. Ultimately this sees the prioritisation of resources and all critical decisions delegated up to the leader. The team are unable to break an impasse and agree on a preferred outcome. The result – team members are frustrated because they perceive the leader is dictating all decisions.

The CEO blames the executives for indecisiveness; they resent the CEO for acting like a dictator. If this sounds familiar, you’ve experienced what I call the dictator-by-default syndrome.

Bob Frisch HBR November 2008

Putting The Idea Into Practice

Frisch proposes some ways to help the team develop a better decision making process.

Don’t leave the end goal an unspoken assumption. Establish clear guidelines what good looks like and what is expected of the team. If necessary help the team frame the decision making process with exposing and agreeing the assumptions.

Make sure that the final deliverable is not a binary decision but recommendation with a range options that acknowledge the associated costs and benefits.

The concept of fences and walls as project boundaries providing guidelines. Walls are fixed and firm boundaries for the initiative but fences are more flexible and can be moved.

By surveying the team members in the early phases of the project, the leader can identify individual preferences and understand the factions and drivers that may influence decisions.

Establish a process of testing decisions with a series of “thorough and dispassionate counterarguments”. When you ask people to make the case for the opposition (much like in a college debate) you depersonalise the discussion and get to the a greater level of strategy nuance.

There are two other factors that Frish believes are critical to the success of this approach.

  1. Deliberate Confidentially – let the team have a safe place to discuss all of the ideas and options. Remain open to all of the alternatives during the consideration.
  2. Set an Appropriate Timeframe – don’t assume that you can effectively debate and consider a strategy in too short a timeframe. If you only allow enough time for the content to be presented rather than discussed and debated it will be perceived as ‘fait accompli‘ leading to frustration.

Key Takeaways

  • Cross functional teams represent different constituents. Leaders need to set guide rails to ensure that decisions can be debated efficiently and effectively.
  • Ensure that enough time is allocated to properly debate the issues and impacts.
  • When teams can’t decide – don’t take on all the decisions revisit the framework.
DIGEST of an article from Harvard Business Review
When Teams Can't Decide
By Bob Frisch
Published: November 2008

Bob Frisch is very experienced in leadership strategy. He was a former consultant at Boston Consulting Group and Managing Partner at Accenture. He wrote a number of articles for Harvard Business Review including "When Teams Can't Decide".

Leave a Reply