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This year’s pandemic has accelerated the natural trend towards remote work. The group decision-making process, which in many organizations was already cumbersome, now has a new dimension of complexity. While certain professional categories such as software developers were long accustomed to asynchronous collaboration tools, in most companies group decisions are made using a method inherited from the ancient Greeks: the meeting. And now that the whole organization works from home, decisions are made in online meetings.

I asked several top managers from various industries what are the pros and cons of the remote decision-making process. The fact that they identified several disadvantages and talked more about each can be a sign that the process is neither optimal nor qualitative.

+ All the advantages they mentioned relate to the effectiveness of the meeting. Remote meetings are “shorter, because you have them set in your calendar; the meetings come one after the other, so you have to start and finish on time.” In addition, “no more time is wasted on all sorts of jokes”, they have a better information structure, because “people go straight to the point on Zoom” and because “we have learned to talk one at a time, to listen and to wait our turn to talk.” Among the best practices, a country manager identifies “the follow-up minutes, done immediately after the call (the boss usually does this, to keep conclusions in line with his purpose for the meeting).”

Among the disadvantages, the most often mentioned is the lack of informal meetings, which makes “certain type of information that people might have learned by chance be less shared or not at all.”. In addition, “in the real office life, many decisions are made during the coffee break, with people exploring possibilities and seeking compromise.” Some managers have tried to fill this gap by “adding 15 minutes for small talk at the end of each Zoom meeting.” Another disadvantage is the “lack of engagement: face to face, you see when people want to say something and you have a chance to involve them in the conversation; you cannot do that if, on Zoom, the person turns off the camera.”

I was saying earlier that, in most companies, group decisions are made during meetings, which are now online. The exception is the IT industry, where cooperation was already (and obviously continues to be) done much more efficiently, on dedicated platforms. This efficiency is mainly caused by asynchronous decision-making and the prevalence of written communication. You could say that software engineers invented this style of work because they are more introverted, but it is not the cause that matters, it is the effect. And the effect, which non-tech organizations have also replicated, is deciding faster, in a more democratic and more transparent way.

What principles can we borrow from this system? What would such a process look like in a non-technological company? Let’s take an example, a company where the reward system used for the sales department (salary, commission, bonus) is totally outdated, it does not reflect differences in productivity, it does not motivate enough, and it does not encourage cooperation. How would you design a group decision-making process aimed to change this reward system? We can try to sketch such a process in 4 simple steps and sometimes zero meetings:

  1. Roles. I recently wrote about the importance of clarity of roles in group decisions. While working remotely, this issue is even more important. Several frameworks (RAPID, DACI, RACI) can guide you through this process. A common feature is a small decision-making team with clearly assigned roles, one of the most important being the decision driver, a person who guides the whole process. (Do not confuse this role with the person in charge of the final decision, usually the big boss; the decision driver is just the project manager of the decision). In our case, for example, the decision-making team includes the CEO, the Head of HR, the COO, and the Head of Sales (who can also be the decision driver).
  • Preparation. The decision driver (in our example the Head of Sales) starts by choosing a communication channel (a collaboration platform, a Google Docs document, even an email thread) where she shares the initial proposal. For example, at Amazon they use a written document of two to six pages, informally called a 6-pager, because a written document is considered more eloquent than a presentation. The proposal should define the problem, list 2 or 3 options, provide data about those options (pros and cons, financial projections, risks), and give a recommendation. It should also communicate the rules of the decision-making process: roles, deadlines, decision-making procedure (Vote? Consensus? Tacit approval if there are no more objections?).  
    This proposal sometimes has weeks of analysis behind it, so when the team gathers (virtually and asynchronous) to discuss the decision, all data is available. The proposal is not the exclusive work of the decision driver, it is also based on the opinions of others, who have been consulted individually beforehand. Input is demanded primarily from those directly involved – in our case, the sales agents, with whom their boss had a series of 1-to-1 discussions.
  • Silent asynchronous debate. The collaboration continues, again without meetings. Let’s say the proposal contains two options for changing the reward system. The Head of the Sales department recommends the second option, but documents both scenarios in her proposal. The process continues by giving access to these two documents (with the two options) to the members of the decision-making team and to the most important stakeholders. Of all the stakeholders, the most important are, obviously, the sales agents themselves. All stakeholders have the possibility to comment, suggest, or object (all in writing and visible to others) to aspects of the two documents.
  • Decision. On the day of the decision, the four members analyze these contributions and decide. If, for example, after incorporating many suggestions, there are no more objections for the recommended option, the solution can be adopted by tacit agreement, with zero meetings during the whole process. If there are differences of opinion, a first meeting is established, in which the person with the greatest responsibility (in our case, the CEO) leads the discussion towards an agreed solution. The final decision is then communicated transparently, through another detailed document written by the decision driver, to all interested parties.

Can you apply this process for an upcoming group decision? Try it! And please let me know how it went. Good luck!

This article first appeared in Romanian, in Biz magazine.

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