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Adapted from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook
Making Decisions within a Partnership
As anyone who has worked in a group can tell you, reaching agreement is not always easy; in fact, it can be quite frustrating. But effective decision-making is one the most important factors in the success of a collaborative effort.
Partnerships are often multi-layered, and involve many types of decisions. Within a typical partnership, for example, there can be advisory boards, workgroups, leadership groups, fiscal agents, staff and consultants—each with unique roles and responsibilities. If decision-making guidelines are not clearly understood by everyone in the partnership, misunderstandings and ineffectiveness will surely follow.
Given that reality, one of the first tasks of a partnership is reaching an understanding of how decisions will be made, and by whom. Communicating this understanding to all current and new members up front is crucial to building trust. Expectations around roles, responsibilities and decision-making thus must be clearly defined. When preparing agendas for partnership meetings, for instance, consider noting when –and by what method- decisions will be made.
The Tell-Sell Approach to Decision-making
The Tell-Sell model of organizational decision-making was developed in the 1950s by Tannenbaum and Schmidt. The model helps clarify who the group’s decision-makers will be and what will be expected of them in terms of behavior and contributions. It also provides guidelines for keeping the discussion and dialogue efficient and productive, enabling the group to reach agreement more quickly.
This model divides decision-making into five categories: Join, Consult, Test, Sell and Tell. Discussing all five as they pertain to your partnership may be helpful in clarifying expectations, allowing you to more easily reach an agreement when a difficult topic arises.
As the diagram indicates, moving toward the Join mode of decision-making is a more collaborative approach, while the Tell mode places decision-making in the hands of a delegated leader. While there is a time and place in collaborative partnerships for all types of decisions, you should strive to use the Join mode of decision-making as much as possible. Which mode you use, of course, will depend on how much time you have to make the decision and the amount of technical expertise and commitment that will be required carry it out.
Below are summaries of the five decision-making modes, including considerations about their use:
This mode is an excellent way to ensure that everyone is involved in the decision process and has an equal say. In short, the group is the “decision maker.” There is a group leader, but his or her role is more of a facilitator to keep everyone talking and contributing. Be clear about how decisions will be made (e.g., 51 percent agreement, 100 percent agreement, etc.). The Join mode devotes significant time to discussion, seeking dialogue and finding common ground from which to move forward.
Considerations: The Join mode is best used by groups whose members are building relationships. A great deal of time is spent in learning to work together. This mode can ensure diversity of thought while building momentum. At the same time, the Join mode is time-consuming and requires a significant amount of energy and patience from group members.
In the Consult mode there is a delegated leader (or leaders). The leader, alone, makes the ultimate decision—there is no vote. If, however, the leader does not have all the technical expertise or necessary information, the broader group can serve as consultants, providing information to help the leader arrive at a decision.
Considerations: The Consult mode is a powerful method to solicit significant participation from group members. It reinforces and builds relationships, recognizes interdependencies among stakeholders, and is a great way to get buy-in. Though the Consult mode requires less time than Join mode, it is still not a practical approach when time is short or you need a quick decision.
The Test mode is used when the decision-maker is largely sure of his or her decision but wants to give the group an opportunity to check the logic of the decision and test it for flaws or gaps. This mode also can be used when the leader has an idea of what to do, but has only a small amount of time to get feedback from a few people (rather than the whole group). The decision-maker will then use the feedback of the group to validate, refine or change the original decision.
Considerations: The Test mode relies on the group’s willingness to be honest and responsive because the decision-maker will base his or her decision, in part, on the group’s feedback. The decision-maker thus must be willing to accept and understand the challenges, and to change the decision if the group provides a compelling case. The Test mode requires time and patience on the part of the decision-maker, and honesty and commitment on the part of the group.
In some circumstances, the decision-maker has already determined the right decision, but needs the commitment of the group to implement it. During discussion, the decision-maker provides the rationale for the decision and seeks the group’s acceptance. The Sell mode is effective when there is time for a productive dialogue, when the decision does not require a great deal of technical expertise, and when the decision has special meaning for the group.
Considerations: If more commitment is required or the decision-maker lacks any needed expertise, the Test or Consult modes may be more appropriate.
This mode is for when the decision-maker has already made the decision and is going to tell the group what he or she has decided. The decision-maker is looking for understanding and acceptance from the group, but is not willing to accept feedback designed to change the outcome. The group, in turn, is seeking understanding of what the decision is, as well as its role in implementing the decision, if any.
Considerations: Use the Tell mode sparingly, i.e., when time is tight, the matter is not complex, or there is a crisis. It is important for the leader to be clear and honest in the presentation, and to define the parameters about what is—and is not—negotiable.
Community Partnerships for Older Adults has adapted this material from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, by Peter Senge, Richard Ross, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts and Bryan Smith, with permission.
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