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Decision Making: Why Consensus Is Important (Especially When You’re Choosing Software)

Written By: Jane Affleck
Published On: May 20 2009

Two Brains—or Three or Four or More—Make Better Decisions than One…
Anyone working in today’s office or business environment has no doubt participated at least once in the ubiquitous group brainstorming session. Some may enjoy these sessions as a respite from cheerless, lonely cubicle life. Others, however, may just as soon remain ensconced in front of their monitors and keyboards, solitary workaday soldiers trudging through without distraction until five o’clock.

Unfortunately for the latter category of office worker, the results of a study about group decision making may be cause for more than the usual number of sighs. Summarized back in April 2009 on both the BNET1 blog and The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, the study (conducted by Jessica Mesmer-Magnus and Leslie DeChurch) found that group decision making “will nearly always outperform the ability of any one of its members working on their [sic] own. This is especially the case if the group is formed of diverse members.” However, the caveat: group decision making is rarely efficient.

…But Many Brains Aren’t as Efficient
The reason for this inefficiency? The researchers found that groups “tend to spend most of their time discussing the information shared by members, which is therefore redundant, rather than discussing information known only to one or a minority of members.” So, information already known by all members of the group should not be the focus of discussions; a way to encourage group members to share information that they alone may know should be found and used. As both summaries note, what is important is what groups are talking about, not how much they are talking.

Many companies facing complex decisions may be happy to hear that group decision making is often more effective (especially those companies that seem to uphold brainstorming as “the” way to make a decision). However, they will no doubt also want to reduce the inefficiency that goes along with group decision making. And, they might also want to consider a side effect that stems from this inefficiency: that by talking only about what they already know, these groups—whether they realize it or not—are creating a bias that can affect the outcome of the decision and forming what amounts to a false consensus.

The report essentially says just that. “Groups,” the report details, “were also found to perform better when they engaged in so-called ‘intellective tasks’—that is, when they attempted to solve a problem where a correct answer exists, rather than seeking a consensus opinion or judgment.”

The above points support the idea that groups involved in making complex decisions that appear not to have one correct answer (such as software evaluation and selection) could use a helping hand from an outside professional. Because although there may be one “correct answer” to the question “which software solution would best fit our company’s needs?” that answer may lie at the end of a bumpy road obstructed by inefficient and redundant discussion, bias, and misinformation.

Agree? Agree to Disagree? Agree to Compromise?
And no matter the number of people (provided there are at least two) involved in making the decision, consensus is a key component. Consensus, according to Paul A. Keller and Thomas Pyzdek in their book, Six Sigma Demystified, “does not mean that everyone is in absolute agreement, nor that everyone thinks the proposal is the preferred approach. Rather, consensus implies that the parties are willing to accept the proposal in spite of the differences of opinion that may exist.” And, that the parties are willing to accept that their opinion may not be the one ultimately chosen.

So how can you avoid the pitfalls of group decision making, and ensure that your decision-making process is free of bias and is as efficient as possible—and that consensus is achieved?

Software Selection: The Importance of Achieving Consensus and User Buy-in
Let’s focus on the decision-making process as it applies to software selection. There are a number of things you need to consider, including who exactly needs to be involved in that group decision-making process—whether all of them are present in the same room at the same time or not.

For one thing, you need to make sure you involve all of your stakeholders in the software selection decision-making process. This includes anybody who is normally in a decision-making or management role (either internally or externally), and anyone who will be directly impacted by the new system. Stakeholders can include (but are not limited to):

•    business users
•    C-level executives
•    infrastructure support staff
•    managers
•    investors
•    suppliers
•    customers

Involving all your stakeholders from the beginning of the software selection process will facilitate buy-in. Stakeholder buy-in is a major contributor to how well the decision is accepted by all parties once the decision has been made—and, in the case of software selection, helps ensure that the decision is accepted by everyone during and after implementation. It’s not enough to tell stakeholders merely that the software selection project is happening; they will need to know how the project will affect them and what they will need to contribute. Achieving stakeholder buy-in means that “they believe in and are committed to the change process”—and it is critical to any major change that is to take place within an organization (see second reference below).

Achieving Consensus Is More Complex Than Taking a Vote
Another key factor in driving consensus is the development of an initial list of the requirements you have for a new software solution. It is essential that you conduct some form of business process modeling (BPM), of which the list of requirements is a strong component. BPM is a method of documenting your business processes, and it helps you define your software requirements. And toward consensus, you must get the input of all business units, departments, or functional areas, and have each of them define their own processes. In this way, no process or activity is overlooked.

How does BPM help drive consensus when choosing software or making other complex decisions? Partly, BPM contributes to achieving consensus because everyone in the organization has input and feels involved in the software selection (or decision-making) process.

The other part: that’s where selection methodology comes in. The selection methodology must be structured and unbiased, and preferably provide documentable data that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt which option is the best. The last point, in fact, removes the need to labor over consensus (at least if everyone agrees that the methodology is effective).

Back to the report discussed above: as the researchers found, “groups particularly benefited from sharing unique information when they employed a highly structured, more focused method of discussion.” TEC can help your company with its software selection project by providing a proven methodology that includes a structured timeline to help speed up the process. And, TEC encourages consensus by removing subjectivity, providing the information about enterprise software that decision makers need to properly evaluate and compare solutions.

To find out more about TEC’s software evaluation and selection methodology, visit http://www.technologyevaluation.com/selection-services/

Other references:

“Information Sharing and Team Performance: A Meta-analysis.” By Jessica Mesmer-Magnus and Leslie DeChurch. http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/apl942535.pdf

Getting Buy-in: The Role of Stakeholders.” Adapted from McCulloch, Hewitt, Larson, Laliberte, and Sauer.
 
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