Strategic Planning: Deciding How to Decide

We've written elsewhere in THE BLOG about what's probably the major challenge inherent in conducting an effective strategic planning process with the kind of individuals that usually populate the C-suite. Planning teams are invariably composed of very high-achievers with significant egos who hold strong opinions about all aspects of the business, its operating environment and each other. It's also not at all unusual for these high-powered players to come to off sites well prepared to "lobby" for their functions, departments or pet strategies.

But in spite of all this, the object of the game remains coming up with strategies that your planners not only endorse as a group but also agree to execute as a team. The only way this can happen is for them to feel, when planning's over, that the decisions they made were arrived at via an open, impartial process. And we would argue the element of that process that's most critical is decision-making.

If you think of it, decision-making is really the "heart" of strategic planning. It's where you all agree, say, to launch a new business line, or "stick to your knitting"; to adopt an aggressive growth strategy or keep it "steady as she goes"; to shutter a plant or add a new one to the fleet, etc., etc. But if you're not careful, weaknesses in the way you go about deciding can and almost certainly will degrade the quality of your decisions, resulting in less "buy-in" for implementing them later.

Talking About Process "Up-Front"
That's why in working with strategic planning clients over some 25 years or so we've developed an iron-clad rule for all our sessions: talk about the process before getting into the content. And for us, the most important process element to talk about first is - you guessed it - decision-making.

Without fail, at the outset of every one of our planning engagements we begin by leading a discussion about "how we're going to decide." In other words we ensure that planners will be "intentional" about their decision-making process.

We've learned, sometimes the hard way, that if you wait until you're in the midst of a highly-charged, emotional debate before deciding how to decide, you run the risk, no matter what you do, of being suspected of "monkeying" with the process to suit someone's agenda. It's a "loaded" moment. Your objectivity is suspect, especially by those who are on the "other" side of the question. Instead, deciding how to decide "up-front" in the absence of any content issues precludes the suspicion that someone is manipulating the process to suit their own ends.

A Framework for Decision-Making
But how do you do it? First, you don't leave your planners on their own to decide how to decide. Instead, you offer a framework. Here it is:

Decision-Making Spectrum

Power Closely Held-----------Majority Rules----------------------Power Dispersed

1------------------ 2--------------------3------------------4----------------------5

Directive--- Consultative---- Democratic--- -Consensual----Unanimous Agreement

-- adapted from Vic Vroom, Leadership and Decision-Making

This model depicts the only options that exist for group or individual decision-making. (If you know of any others, we'd love to hear from you!)

First, we explain its elements as follows:

  • Directive: An individual leader decides unilaterally, using information available.
  • Consultative: An individual leader gets input from others individually or as a group, but then still makes the decision him- or herself.
  • Democratic: An individual leader shares a problem in a group setting, gets input, and the question is decided by a group vote. Majority vote carries the issue.
  • Consensual: Leader shares a problem in a group setting. Group attempts consensus, meaning that in the course of the discussion, the prevailing "weight" of the group's opinion becomes obvious to all, even to those for whom this might not be the preferred decision. This is never determined by vote.
  • Unanimous Agreement: Leader shares a problem with a group. Group discusses, debates and no decision is made until all agree.

Which to Choose?
We always advise our planning clients on the relative merits of these choices for a strategic planning exercise. We suggest that, since they've committed themselves to the time and calendar requirements necessary to make this a group process, it's unlikely that one individual alone, even the CEO, is expecting to make all the decisions. This disqualifies the "Directive" mode as well as, we suggest, the two "Consultative" modes. Again, the goal here, as much as possible, is to make "team" decisions.

We routinely advise planning teams to avoid the "Democratic" as a decision-making mode. "Democratic" it may be, but it creates "winners" and "losers." (Consider our polarized, national politics, for example!) You don't want "losers" to "walk-away" from decisions and, possibly, withhold their support later. That leaves the "Consensual" and "Unanimous Agreement" options.

Most planning groups can quickly see that, given the number of decisions required and the number of people involved, expecting everyone to agree on every decision is folly. That leaves "Consensual."

Consensus: What It Does and Doesn't Mean
It's worth noting here that we spend a good deal of time up-front in our planning engagements making sure that everyone understands what making decisions by "consensus" really means. That's because the word "consensus" is often used synonymously with "unanimous agreement." Problem is they are not the same.

Here's the difference: Consensus allows for the fact that the decision arrived at by a group may not have been everyone's favorite option at the outset of the discussion. What is critical, however, is that, first, in the course of the discussion, it becomes obvious that the opinions of the group are converging around one of the options. The second critical element to a healthy consensual discussion is that the process is so open and impartial that even those who begin to realize they are in the "minority" truly feel they've had the chance not only to speak their minds but also to be truly heard. This is what enables the "minority" to ultimately agree to support the group's "consensus" opinion.

This kind of open, even-handed process, then, is indispensable to consensus, and it points up the value of a neutral, third-party facilitator - something we've also written about elsewhere in THE BLOG. Suffice to say here that by this point in our strategic planning "kick-off" - playing our neutral, third-party facilitator role - we've helped our planning team understand and appreciate the appropriateness of consensus decision-making to the planning process they're about to launch into.

What About Exceptions?
But, you ask, "What about those circumstances when the group just can't come to consensus on a given issue?" Here again, the key is to talk about that in advance so that "in the moment" no one feels that anyone is "pulling a fast one." Consequently, as part of our up-front discussion about decision-making, we also get everyone's agreement to a "fall-back" option. Example: "In the event of a 'tie,' we 'fall-back' to the CEO or the CEO and the executive committee" or some other option. This (or these) individual(s) get to make the final decision - or "break the tie" - in light of the preceding in-depth conversation.

But, again, the value in proceeding this way is that everyone agrees to the "rules of the game" before the "game" actually begins. That means participants are far less likely to grudgingly withhold their support for the decisions that the group finally arrives at. And that means your final plan has a much better chance of actually moving from the proverbial "three-ring binder" to a living, impactful blue-print for the future of your company.

Ray Gagnon is principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in Strategic Planning, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.