How to make decisions as a distributed team

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The Coronavirus pandemic forced a lot of knowledge workers into a virtual working environment. At this point the organizations seem to have wholly embraced digital collaboration technologies, enabling a relatively smooth transition to a 100% remote work environment. Yet, we are still figuring out how to approach some situations in a remote environment – group decision-making is one of those situations. 

While newly remote teams might initially find it challenging to generate alignment around high-stakes decisions, the nature of remote work does present an opportunity to take a more intentional approach to this decision-making. Leveraging the right tools and frameworks to make these decisions can drive increased transparency, alignment and, ultimately, lead to better decisions. 

In this brief guide, we’ll tak a look at when and how distributed teams should make collaborative decisions. 

When should we make decisions collaboratively?

First, let’s take a look at a few situations when the larger group should get involved into the decision-making process. Here are the basic situations when you should involve others:

When the stakes are high

This one is probably obvious – when the stakes are high, you, as a decision-maker, need to be as confident as you possibly can be. Involving others can help you gain more confidence in the chosen course of actions and make the decision more defensible.

Big strategic decisions, for example, should involve a number of individuals with relevant expertise to provide a rounded perspective and reduce the risk of making a wrong choice. Using purpose-built tools, like Rationalize, can help in facilitating these types of high-impact decisions.

When the uncertainty is high

You, the decision-maker, might not have all the pieces of information and thus the problem might seem hazy. In these situations, when the uncertainty is high, involving a group of individuals with relevant expertise can help reduce this uncertainty. Identifying the specific areas of uncertainty and involving the individuals with the knowledge of that subject matter can help you reduce the uncertainty even further. 

For example, if you are a design-engineer deciding between different prototypes of a product, you might have a good understanding of technical pros and cons of the design but not a lot of insight into how the customer could view this product. In this situation it might be a good idea to bring in an end-user or at least a marketing person to represent that point of view when making that decision.

When others have a stake in the decision

When the outcome of your decision directly affects others, it might be a good idea to solicit their perspectives. Sometimes, of course, this might be the exact reason not to involve them – if their objective judgement can be swayed by their own self-interest. In general, however, it is beneficial to, at minimum, understand their perspective on the problem. Whether you take that perspective into your final calculus is up to you.

How to make collaborative decisions

Now let’s take a look at what you can do to get the most out of your group decision.

Involve a diverse group of people with relevant expertise

First of all, make sure that you are soliciting the expertise from individuals who understand the subject, yet have perspectives that are different. Soliciting a wide-ranging perspective can be quite useful in eliminating blind spots in your decision-making. 

For example, when trying to make a decision about which product strategy to pursue, an organization might want to bring in people with expertise in marketing and business development to provide a customer perspective; people from engineering to provide an insight into technical feasibility, and operational experts to understand potential issues when scaling. The important part here is the fact that everyone involved has an understanding of the basic subject matter, yet approaches it from their unique perspective. 

For a better insight into how you can leverage diverse expertise when making strategic decisions like entering a new market, take a look at our case study

Leverage an objective decision-making framework like weighted decision matrix or MCDA

Having a structured decision-making process is crucial for distributed teams. While “hashing it out” in a conference room might work (imperfectly) for on-site teams, when it comes to distributed teams you need some organizing framework to approach a decision. 

Using the MCDA framework (also known as weighted decision matrix and grid analysis) can help you ensure you are solving a problem in a systematic and proven way. If you need more background on these frameworks, feel free to check out our guide on evaluating ideas using grid analysis.

Use purpose-built tools

While spreadsheets and Slack might work for simple decisions, when you are looking to solicit the input from a lot of stakeholders and really analyze the response, leveraging grid analysis tools like Rationalize.io can save a lot of time while also providing built-in analytical features to really understand how people are thinking. 

To get an idea about how to segment and analyze group responses using Rationalize, feel free to check out our case study written with The Inovo Group.

In summary, you should involve others when the stakes and uncertainty are high and when the outcomes of the decision affect others. Once you do decide to involve a larger group, ensure that you are soliciting the perspective of a diverse group of people with relevant expertise. Use proven approaches like MCDA (also known as weighted decision matrix approach) and leverage purpose-built tools like Rationalize in order to set up your decision, solicit the perspective and analyze the outcomes. 

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