Hi I’m Richard D. Bartlett: I work at Loomio, a team building an online tool for group decision-making. We started building software to coordinate activists, and now we help teams and organisations of all kinds make better decisions.
We’re a horizontal organisation, so good coordination is totally critical for us—not having a formal management structure means we’d fall apart without it. But all workplaces—even those with more traditional management structure—benefit when decisions are made with group input. With the right processes, you can leverage your team’s collective wisdom to make better decisions.
I asked our team of facilitators and software developers for their top tips for making better decisions, and surprisingly enough they had lots of great ideas! Here’s my favourite five:
Decision-making is all about communication: your group can only make good decisions together if there’s a foundation of good communications in place first. This means being clear about what the purpose of a discussion or meeting is, who needs to be involved, what the time-frame is, and what people can expect.
Often, lack of engagement doesn’t mean people don’t care, it means something’s keeping them from real participation. Transparency isn’t about information not being secret, it means that the people closest to the information do the proactive work to make it accessible—physically and conceptually—to everyone who needs to understand it to participate in a decision effectively.
- Stand up!
Start the day with the team standing in a circle. Everyone answers 3 questions: what did you do yesterday? what are you doing today? is there anything blocking your way? Stand-up is only over once all the blocks are either solved, or people are assigned to resolve them. If you keep these meetings super short and strictly focussed on the process, you’ll find they’re like collaboration super-juice.
- Check in
We start many of our meetings with everyone ‘checking in’ before we get to the agenda. These check-ins are focused not on your work tasks, but on how you’re doing as a human being. If you’re going through a rough patch at home, or you’re sick, or you have exciting positive news, understanding your state of mind will help the entire group have the right context to interpret how you’re communicating.
- Leave the office
Periodically we’ll leave the office for an ‘Away Day’ or a weekend retreat. Getting out of the office means you leave the operational concerns behind so you have space for the deep strategic planning and culture-building that makes for a robust, agile organisation.
Sometimes having a designated facilitator makes sense; you can also distribute the role so that everyone’s keeping their eye on group process. An act of facilitation is action taken from the perspective of what’s best for the group, as opposed to only your individual perspective.
- noticing: “I’m sensing tension in this discussion, do we want to talk about where that’s coming from?”
- giving feedback: “I hear what you’re saying, but the way you’re saying it might not being landing well for some people”
- reflecting back to the group: “We seem to be bikeshedding on this—what if we left that aspect of the decision to the working group to determine, and we used our time now to focus on the core issues?”
These skills come from practice, and normalizing these kinds of statements through repetition and example. Acts of facilitation are not just for the manager, or the person who called the meeting—they are for everyone.
Good decisions come from diverse perspectives. Empowerment and innovation go hand in hand. If you want to innovate, you have to make space for different points of view—luckily, this is also what you need to do if you want a team where everyone is empowered. Whether you’re a software company building a product, or a community group organising for social change, you always need to be aware of who you’re listening to.
All kinds of cultural and technical factors conspire to privilege some voices at the expense of others. There are many practices you can implement to systematically challenge that bias, but just being aware of it is a good starting point.
A friend of mine named Charlie DeTar developed a neat little tool called the Progressive Clock, which is all about tracking how much speaking time in meetings is taken up by different demographic groups. Whether or not you use the software, the idea is super powerful—if everyone’s got the clock running in their head, you’re way less likely to only hear from the middle-aged white male contingent (don’t worry, I’m including myself in there) at the exclusion of everyone else.
Trying to make a group decision over email is like trying to tie a bunch of cats together with an eel while wearing oven mitts. Don’t bother! Email is great for one-to-one or one-to-many communication, but it just wasn’t designed for coming to clear outcomes. And neither was Facebook. Making decisions in a Facebook group is like trying to have a meeting in a shopping mall. You want to make sure you’re using the right tools for the job—when you need to bring an online group discussion to a clear decision, either use something purpose-built for decision-making (Loomio is obviously the one I’m pretty excited about) or get together in person.
When I had my first experience of a collective decision-making process that actually worked well, it totally changed my life. Since then I’ve been working with an amazing team to share this experience with as many people as possible.
Getting group input into a decision always makes it better—it doesn’t just make people feel good, it leads to more innovative ideas and more effective collaboration. But it can be really challenging if you don’t have the right technical and cultural tools.
We’re pretty excited about the prototype tool we’ve developed so far, which all kinds of teams are already using to distribute decision-making and collaborate more effectively. Right now we’re crowdfunding so we can build an amazing new platform and give it away to the world.