Have you ever tried to make a decision with a group of people? It might something as simple as picking a movie to watch, or it might be something more costly and complicated like buying a house, or selecting a corporate proposal to accept. Whenever you get a group of people together, sometimes it seems almost impossible to make a decision.
Each person has their own preferred option and usually they are prepared to voice their opinion. Some people might be prepared to give ground but then you’ll get one or two stubborn people who are going to get grumpy if their preferred option is not picked. You argue/discuss thing back and forth but never seem to be any closer to making the decision.
In this article I am going to describe one simple mechanical decision making process and talk about some of the pros and cons of this process. Since the process is well defined and quite mechanical it’s easy to step through the process and you will get to a result at the end of it. Having a process also helps to short-circuit the arguments that occur along the way because you can point to the process and say that things need to be done this way.
There are many different decision making processes but the one I am are going to describe here, is called Multi Criteria Decision Making or MCDM.
These are the six steps that I am going to decribe in more detail below.
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- Gather Options
- Specify Criteria
- Score each option
- Weight the criteria
- Sum the results
This step pretty straightforward, gather the options and describe them in sufficient detail for your group and problem. It might take a little bit of iteration and feedback to describe the options in sufficient detail for your decision making group but at this stage there is not really anything contenious to worry about. If anything the problem tends to be gathering too many options and too much detail.
Ideally you want fewer options and a minimum amount of detail, but it depends on your problem and group. Something like three to seven options works well but the process will scale to twenty options if you need to.
At this point in the process you specify the different criteria that you will judge against each option. This might involve a mixture of objective and subjective criteria and it’s helpful to have both kinds.
You can be quite creative at this point but should aim for some sort of consensus across the decision making group about what criteria will be used. At this stage it’s better to be inclusive and if there’s some aspect that a sub-group of your decision makers wants then it’s better to include it.
Score Each Option
Some of the criteria will describe objective measurements for example cost, or web traffic so it should be easy to research and score these criteria.
Some criteria will involve a subjective measurement. Each person who is part of the decision making group gets to record their score against each subjective criteria for each option.
Weight the Criteria
For the next step you get the group to decide on a weighting to be assigned to each criteria. Typically this is expressed as a percentage or a number between zero and one. It doesn’t matter if all of the criteria are weighted at 100% since this is just saying that each of the criteria are equally important.
It’s helpful to do this after people have gone through the exercise of scoring the criteria against the option because then they have a better feel for how important they think each criteria should be weighted. At this point you are somewhat back into a group of people arguing in a room about what should be done which was kinda of the problem we were trying to avoid to start with. But at this point the discussion isn’t about “Option A” versus “Option B” and it’s more about whether “Cost” is more important than “Quality” or “Web Traffic”. Since these weightings are relative values it’s easier to negotiate among the group an arrive at some sort of consensus.
Sum the Results
Now that each option has a score for each criteria and each criteria has a weighted factor it’s simple to add everything up into a overall score for each option. The option with the highest score is the one that collectively your group has chosen as the best option.
- This is an inclusive process. It’s not just about who can make the loudest argument and allows the quiet members of a group a say in the decision.
- It’s voting but it’s not a direct vote. So with the exception of the extremists (see below) it doesn’t tend to create winners and losers. Since every person contributed something to the decsion at least if their most preferred option didn’t get picked then there’s a pretty good chance that their second choice got picked.
- It’s mostly mechanical. Since there’s a well defined process you can step forward through it and the group see progress at each step. It could still take weeks or a number of months to execute this process but each of the six steps has a tangible output.
- There’s a traceable, documented process. This can be invaluable if the decision making group needs to prove to some sort of external governance or auditing group why a decision was made in the way it was.
- It can produce an average result. Since the process combines numerical values from a range of people on a range of topics these can even out and so produce an “average” result. To avoid this problem it helps to keep the people who get to input a score on the subjective measurements small and it also helps to include a mixture of subjective and objective measurements.
- It can be sabotaged by extremists. If you have people who are going to say that everything about this option is a ten and everything about this other option is a zero then MCDM is not going to work for you.
So there you have it. A simple mechanical way to help you make a decision. You can find out more about this and other decision making techniques at The Decision Wall.