Try this Process for High-Stakes Decision-Making

Posted by Kristin Arnold on November 9, 2016

shutterstock_277372325At the recent Chief Executive Network Fall Leadership Conference at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Brent Adamson, principal executive advisor at CEB and co-author of The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer, shared his insights on the dynamics of large, complex purchases.

He said,

“The days of selling to one person are over…It’s now a purchase by committee where the average buying group size is 6.8 people.”

adamson-bio-pic-2015-1Why have we migrated from one decision maker to many? Adamson suggests that these broader solutions span across the organization, necessitating more involvement, especially when multiple functions are responsible for implementation. And since the modern organization is fairly “flat,” they can spread the risk among the leaders.

The problem is that this diversity of functional decision-makers all come with their own priorities, agendas and metrics. And when you put them in a room together, what can they agree on? Where’s the common ground? Adamson contends that it is “very little” and typically revolves around decreasing risk, minimizing disruption and saving money – which ultimately makes the group move more cautiously!

Furthermore, he suggests that there are all kinds of dysfunctions that occur:

  1. Stakeholders don’t have a fair say
  2. They avoid discussing key issues
  3. There are multiple disagreements that don’t get resolved.

While I agree that these things do happen, I don’t think it’s all that bleak! A high performing team will agree on the process to make the decision even before they start discussing the options – so they can avoid the dysfunctions and truly achieve the best decision for the company.

I suggest the following process when making an important, “high-stakes” decision:



1) Agree on the criteria for a successful outcome – and try to make it as specific and/or quantifiable as possible. For example, if you are trying to decide on which car to buy, the criterion of “must exceed 30 miles per gallon ” is better than “must have good gas mileage.” For more complex decisions, you may also want to rank the relative importance of the criteria such as high (must), medium (should), or low (optional).

2) Confirm the process you will use to discuss the various options. Make sure everyone understands and agrees with the process and the ground rules. Some ground rules I often use during decision-making meetings are:
– Candid, frank conversation
– All participate, no one dominates
– Listen intently
– Generate light and not heat

3) For each option, go around the room and list all of the options’ strengths and benefits FIRST. Then, go around the room and list the options’ areas for improvement. It’s helpful to have one person record the ideas on a flip chart for all to see. This step is hugely important to ensure that all ideas are put on the table, and each team member listens intently to understand each idea. Questions may be asked for clarification, but not to criticize or judge the idea or option.

4) This conversation, in essence, teases out what’s important to each stakeholder. You may even find that there are some “missing” criteria the team failed to consider OR that someone is lobbying for a “new” criterion that no one cares about! Be very careful about adding or amending the criteria. Make sure you have full team agreement before you do!

5) Take a “Straw Poll” – a first pass at which option is best for the company. For example, each stakeholder writes down the best choice on a piece of paper or stickie note, based on the conversation. One person (the group leader) tallies the results and shares the results by option and number of votes.

6) The group then discusses and comments. Just because an option got a majority vote doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk! Unless it’s a unanimous vote (where all agree), then there will be a majority who agrees and will support the decision and then there will also be a minority who does not agree and may sabotage the successful implementation of that decision.

7) Listen carefully to the minority opinion. Ask, “What makes you prefer this option(s) over the majority option?” or “What kept you from choosing the majority option?”

The tricky part to all of this, but particularly as the group is trying to narrow in on a decision, is for people to let go of their preconceived position and be open to the discussion and rationale – as to what’s best for the company rather than their own personal function. More often than not, the group will coalesce around one option and, because the process included these diverse stakeholders and opinions, will have a higher probability of a successful implementation.

In a subsequent conversation, Adamson agreed:

“There is much that teams can do to increase their chances of reaching bigger/better decisions with less pain and more productivity.  In fact, our CEB data demonstrates pretty emphatically the value of the kinds of actions you describe. In our work, we call it “Collective Learning.”

And we find that in those purchases where customers engage in collective learning, the supplier is 20% more likely to win a high-quality sale (which is a significant/meaningful jump). The specific customer behaviors that comprise collective learning in our research are:

  • Exploration of objections, concerns, and uncertainties amongst stakeholders
  • Surfacing disconnects and competing viewpoints
  • Mutual willingness to deepen their understanding of their challenge and solution
  • Active probing for missed interdependencies or unanticipated consequences
  • Joint resolution of objections, concerns, and uncertainties

So let’s have a little collective learning when making high-stakes decisions!

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KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

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