By Frank J. Rich
Making decisions within a group can often be challenging. When things go well, they can go very well. However, when things go wrong, groups can end up mired in conflict. Some group members may fight for recognition and position, others may be over-critical or disruptive, while still others may sit quietly and not contribute anything to the overall effort. Because of this, groups can often spin out of control and make poor decisions, suggesting that decisions by individuals working on their own is a better approach.
When this happens, it’s easy to see why some throw up their hands in frustration and give up. But when a group works in effective ways, it really works. Groups that function effectively together can outperform individuals and make much better decisions.
But how do you make your group effective? How do you get all members to contribute and inspire one another to great ideas and solutions? One way is to “prepare” the group for success. This is a “tried and true” method, and is applied across the board in most decision-making. Good preparation makes good practice, and good results.
- Set an agenda that requires interaction. Ask group members to speak of their experience with the meeting topic and how it might contribute to an understanding of the issues and the expected outcomes. Alerting them to the interactive exercise ahead will stir their creative juices.
- Assemble those who would carry the initiative forward — that is, those who have both the skills and the inclination to contribute to the venture going forward. You’ll begin to see the workings of the team you’ve assembled and form a view of the cohesiveness of the group and any missing links.
- Ask group members to recommend the talents of those in the room for assignment. Each ought to be given the opportunity to elucidate the special talents of group members. This prepares people for the selfless dedication to the other’s success that best informs teamwork.
The Stepladder Technique
The Stepladder Technique is another useful method for encouraging individual participation in “group decision-making.” This simple tool manages how members enter the decision-making group. It encourages all members to contribute on an individual level before being influenced by others. It results in a wider variety of ideas, prevents people from “hiding” within the group, and it helps people avoid being “stepped on” or overpowered by stronger, louder group members.
How to Use the Tool
The Stepladder Technique has five basic steps:
Step 1: Before getting together as a group, present the task or problem to all members. Give everyone sufficient time to think about what needs to be done and to form their own opinions on how to best accomplish the task or solve the problem.
Step 2: Form a core group of two members. Have them discuss the problem.
Step 3: Add a third group member to the core group. The third member presents ideas to the first two members BEFORE hearing the ideas that have already been discussed. After all three members have laid out their solutions and ideas, they discuss their options together.
Step 4: Repeat the same process by adding a fourth member, and so on, to the group. Allow time for discussion after each additional member has presented his or her ideas.
Step 5: Reach a final decision only after all members have been brought in and presented their ideas.
The Stepladder Technique is similar to the Delphi Method, another tool that’s often used in groups to prevent Groupthink* and to encourage participation. While both tools have the same objective, they differ in a few key ways:
- In the Delphi Method, an objective facilitator or leader manages the group. In the Stepladder Technique, all members are equal.
- The Delphi Method keeps members anonymous. The facilitator manages the flow of information, and members may have no idea who else is in the group. The Stepladder Technique involves face-to-face meetings, so everyone knows who the other members are.
- The Delphi Method is a lengthy process, while the Stepladder Technique is much quicker.
- The Delphi Method is often used for major decisions that need input from a large number of people. The Stepladder Technique works best with smaller groups that make a wide range of decisions.
Some groups can begin to lose their effectiveness and ability to make quality decisions if they have too many members. Keep your group small — four to six team members — to maximize effectiveness.
The Stepladder Technique is a step-by-step approach to help ensure that all members of a group participate and are heard. The technique allows shy, quiet people to present their ideas before other group members can influence them, and it allows everyone to hear many different viewpoints before reaching a final decision. All of this helps the group make better decisions. The techniques help curb worker ferment and eliminate fainéant members who fear engagement.
*Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people’s commonsense desire to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion. This is what happens in the legislatures of most nations, where the unique view of parties divides people in the decision-making process into membership of a common view.