A collection of gears.
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At its core, a union is a shared understanding between peers. Each member knows that their strength comes from every other member in the union and the union understands that it is nothing without its members. This shared understanding is key to forming a healthy union that can serve the needs of its members. Over time, this dynamic builds trust and strengthens the bonds between each group member, making cooperation a self-rewarding pattern.

But a healthy group dynamic doesn’t just happen; it takes attention and effort just like any other skill. In this article, we’ll take a look at what tools and practices you can use to build an effective collaborative decision-making process.

Business As Usual

A business person holding a megaphone that obscures their face.
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We’ve probably all experienced group decision-making at some time in our past. In most companies (but not all!), group decision-making is strictly handled by “the top.” Someone with “authority” will make a decision. That decision is passed down through the hierarchy to those who it ultimately impacts (for instance, the workers that have to do whatever's actually necessary to implement the decision).

In other contexts, this type of system is called “authoritarianism,” and sadly it's pretty much the default decision-making method enacted by today’s corporations. This is particularly harmful because even with “the right” people in charge, any authoritarian system can:

  • Find it difficult for relevant information to make its way “up the chain” (or be able to dismiss it if it’s “inconvenient”)
  • Prioritize the concerns of those with power over those without (because it inherently establishes a power imbalance)
  • Over-represent those with social privilege
  • Cause burnout among the decision-makers because of disproportionate responsibility
  • Cause fear and confusion because decision-making is “behind closed doors”

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? The good news is: it’s not the only way.

Making decisions together

What if instead of thinking of a decision as an action performed by authority, we thought of it as a goal for a team to work towards? What if instead of trying to “win” an argument, we worked together to address all reasonable concerns and not just those from the side that “won?”

These what-ifs aren’t just fantasy, they’re the basis for reshaping how we work together. When we make room for everyone’s voice, we can start making decisions that:

  • Always draw from the most relevant information
  • Eliminate organizational blind spots since priorities can come from the whole team
  • Value and encourage participation from all members
  • Reduce organizational “churn” by keeping members engaged and satisfied
  • Prevent burnout by sharing responsibility and stress equally
  • Prevent confusion and fear by being visible and open to all
A team collaborates on a decision in a modern office.
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But wait, there’s more...

By focusing on how we make decisions we can make the team stronger, even if circumstances don’t go the way we’d like. Any decision-making method can produce “wrong” decisions, but a team that’s made a mistake together is more likely to survive than one that simply relies on authority.

Now, are you ready for the best part? You can use these ideas anywhere in your life. Try keeping these goals in mind the next time you’re trying to plan a trip, set a household budget, or even deciding what restaurant to order delivery from. Next, let’s cover some practices and tools you can use to start making better decisions.

Praxis: turning theory into practice

If you’re ready to start trying this out yourself, an easy way to start is by emulating an already existing model. The general assembly model was used extensively by the Occupy movement of 2011, though it can be traced all the way back to ancient Athenian democracy. No matter which decision-making process you choose (or build) there are a few common elements that you’ll need to consider:

  • Agenda setting - Distributing a preset agenda for any decision-making meeting is a great way to make sure everyone knows what to expect. Just be sure that all members are empowered to propose topics, and that each topic is permitted enough time for it to be discussed.
  • When and where to collaborate - If it’s in person, you should find a neutral space to meet. Avoid locations like businesses or personal offices that could skew participation by alienating some members. For example, friends may be comfortable meeting at a bar, but you’ll likely keep away members who don’t drink. Instead seek out public spaces, like asking if your local library has meeting rooms available. Also, consider a rotating schedule to ensure all members have equal access to discussions. And if collaborating online, consider using a tool like Loomio. Just be sure to guarantee all members can access and use such tools before adopting them.
  • Feedback during the discussion - The Occupy movement used hand signals to allow non-verbal feedback that didn’t interrupt a member’s speech. Cards with colors and symbols are another simple option, though one way or another, you’ll need to set expectations regarding how group members should participate in discourse.
  • Iteration - It’s rare that groups will agree after the first pass on a topic (and when they do, it’s not necessarily a good thing). By allowing for a decision to build over time, you create a system where a disagreement is not an end to the decision-making process. In his book “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next),” Dean Spade suggests six steps that begin with a proposal and repeat until a decision is reached. The process "loops" through collecting concerns and collaboratively addressing them until the group agrees.
  • Decision rule & blocking - There are many ways to define when a group has reached a decision. Unanimity, majority, and supermajority, are a few, but one key choice is if you’ll allow blocking or not. Blocking is the ability for a member to refuse to consent to a decision that ultimately blocks the group's decision. Two contrasting examples of this are strict unanimity (100% agreement; every member has the ability to block) and a simple majority (51% agreement; no single member has the ability to block). A group may decide to limit blocking; often by limiting the number of blocks per member, or requiring a number of members to agree to block. Whether you allow blocking or not, you should absolutely make it a conscientious decision and be sure to clearly communicate that decision to all members.
  • Quick Decisions - Sometimes there are decisions that require a faster reaction than a large group can manage. In these cases, you might consider forming smaller working teams with limited decision-making authority of their own to respond to immediate requirements. When defining these working teams, be sure to explicitly define the scope of their authority and agree on how that authority can be revoked if the larger group deems it necessary.

Don’t forget the fun

A rainbow made from pieces of sidewalk chalk.
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It would be hard to blame anyone for not wanting to bother participating in any group that was constantly joyless. Sharing positive experiences is a great way to begin communicating together and rewarding it at the same time. Not to mention that a little levity can go a long way in putting people at ease and welcomed - especially when they’re trying something new for the first time.

And if you’re having a hard time thinking of ideas, try turning your problem into a solution and propose “how can we have fun?” as an early agenda item for your group. With some time, practice, and patience, you might find that decisions become easier as more members feel free to participate authentically.

When we stop worrying so much about making “the right” decision, we begin to create the space necessary to make decisions the right way. But never forget that it’s up to us to make sure that all are welcome in that space.