Expert Teams Make Great Decisions That Stick!

 In Decision Making, Teams In Motion

Expert Teams MUST be able to make great decisions.  And, many teams ARE able to make great decisions, but, here is what I often hear:

  • Our decisions get over-turned by ‘upper management’ all the time!
  • We get stuck in debate… for a long time!
  • We are never really sure who ‘owns’ the decision.
  • I don’t know if my opinion really counts in decision-making on my team.

Do any of these sound familiar? Many teams of very smart people struggle with decision-making.  But having all the right people in the room is not enough.  In fact, the research says the decision-making PROCESS matters more than the expertise on the team by a factor of 6 (Heath and Heath, Decisive)!  That is a big deal and not enough teams pay attention to the research and, therefore, the process of how they make decisions.  Experts are very confident in their own decision-making ability, and for good reason — they have tons of experience and expertise to lean on.  However, in a team environment, when everyone is an expert in their own function or field, a clear decision-making PROCESS becomes an imperative if a team is to optimize the integration of all of that  expertise.

This is where our model of a decision-making conversation comes in — we affectionately refer to it as our ‘fish diagram’.

big fish diagram

The visual of the structure of the conversation ‘looks like’ the outline of a fish.  It is a simple diagram, but represents a complex series of conversations, or parts of one conversation, that all fit together and lead to a solid decision by the team that is accepted and implemented.  Each phase of the fish model has its own definition, a set of tools and techniques that can be used to optimize the phase, and clearly defined ‘good behaviors’ and ‘bad behaviors’ that contribute positively or negatively to the conversation.

At the end of this blog, you will find a link to a downloadable set of job aids designed to support teams through this process.

Frame the Decision

In the first phase of the decision-making process, a solid, clear frame is critical.  The team must be 100% aligned on WHAT decision is being made, HOW the decision will be made (consensus, collaborative, consultative or independent), and WHO is going to make the final decision. Even if the team attempts to get to consensus, there must be a final arbiter assigned, who holds ultimate accountability for the decision.  Before any dialog about potential solutions, the team needs to understand the frame of the decision.  This is the point at which critical stakeholders should be identified, any pre-conceived notions by the ultimate decision-maker should be un-covered, and all of the right people should be identified and invited to the process.  The visual of the “Frame the Decision” step shows the conversation starting very tight and pointed, and gradually opening-up to prepare for the next phase.

Explore and Debate

Once the frame is set, it is time to explore and debate.  This is the stage at which the team will have open discussions and rigorous debates about the decision alternatives, the pros and cons, generate innovative possibilities, and explore many options.  The conversations should be lively, constructive, and should avoid too much evaluation of alternatives that might lead to a shortened discussion.  The team might even look outside the team or the organization for other teams who have tackled similar challenges.  The visual of the “Explore and Debate” phase is clearly designed to reflect the wide open, inclusive nature of the conversation.  At some point, however, teams reach a point where discussion must end.  You will know it is time to end the Explore and Debate phase when you start hearing the same ideas over and over; or when you start hearing from the same few people over and over; or, of course, if the time has come.  Someone on the team needs to be aware and empowered to call ‘time to decide’.


When it is time to decide, you can see reflected in the visual, it is time to narrow our options.  It is time to compare alternatives, conduct scenario-planning or ‘what if?’ discussions.  It is time for the team to decide — and the team should be sure to honor the commitments made in the Frame step where the team identified the ultimate decision-owner and committed to a process by which the decision would be made.  Once the decision is made, clear and substantive documentation of the decision will help the team be successful in getting the decision approved and implemented.  The decision documentation is not just the final decision, but rationale for the decision, the alternatives that were considered, what makes the team confident in the decision made, and that data that makes the team confident.  You can see in the visual, that the Decide stage starts broad and ends very tightly around a team decision.

Align and Communicate

Possibly the most critical part of this step is the Align!  Within the team environment, once a decision has been made, it is absolutely critical that alignment of every single team member is confirmed.  Alignment does not necessarily mean agreement — I may not agree with the decision; I may have chosen another path; but as a team member, I can commit to ‘alignment’ with the team’s decision and commit to supporting the team’s decision outside of the team context.  Teams often experience ‘decision-churn’ at this point, if a team member has not been asked to align and commit to the decision — once that team member encounters resistance outside of the team, it is too easy to waffle.

Stakeholder engagement happens throughout the process of a complex decision-making journey.  In the Communicate phase, formal communication happens.  The shape of this stage (the tail of the fish) is like a megaphone, where broad communication occurs.  A strategic communication plan includes messaging to those outside of the team — it can be targeted at those who will approve the final plan, those who play a role in implementing the decision, those who we know will agree with the decision and those who we know will disagree with the decision.  All stakeholders are critical at this point and must be informed.

It Takes Practice

The “fish diagram” is a visual representation that can be used to orient team members to where the team is in the process.  We have client companies who have the fish diagram posted on the wall in their team rooms — to remind teams of the importance of the process.  (If the process matters more by a factor of 6, then it is critical team members are aware of the process!)  The decision-making process can be followed for decisions that happen within the context of a one-hour team meeting or across several months for more complex efforts.  In each one of the phases, team members and team leaders can exhibit behaviors that help make each phase go well or sabotage  a stage.  This is where education and practice comes in!  None of these concepts are difficult to understand, but there are behaviors and habits that we form – some of which take practice to build and others which take attention to break!

Please check out our Teams in Motion Decision-Making series plus other programs at Leadership-Link.  To get you started, we have created a two-page job aid for each one of the stages of our decision-making process that you can download for free below.  Provide your name and email and press submit.  You will receive a confirmation email and a link for the download.

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