Tag Archives: decision maker

2 Heads Are Better Than 1, Right?

Everybody knows that two heads are better than one. We’ve known it since kindergarten, where we were taught that cooperation, collaboration and teamwork are not just socially desirable behaviors-they also help produce better decisions. And while we all know that two or more people working together are more likely to solve a problem or identify an opportunity better than one person doing it alone, it turns out that’s only true sometimes.

Ideally, a group’s collective intelligence, its ability to aggregate and interpret information, has the potential to be greater than the sum of the intelligence of the individual group members. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle, in Book III of his political philosophy treatise Politics, described it this way: “When there are many who contribute to the process of deliberation, each can bring his share of goodness and moral prudence…Some appreciate one part, some another, and all together appreciate all.”

But that’s not necessarily how it works in all groups, as anyone who has ever served on a committee and witnessed groupthink in action can probably testify.

Groups are as prone to irrational biases as individuals are, and the idea that a group can somehow correct for or cure the individual biases is false, according to Cass Sunstein, Harvard Law School professor and author (with Reid Hastie) of Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Interviewed by Sarah Green on the HBR Ideacast in December 2014, Sunstein said that individual biases can lead to mistakes but that “groups are often just as bad as individuals, and sometimes they are even worse.”

Biases can get amplified in groups. According to Sunstein, as group members talk with each other “they make themselves more confident and clear-headed in the biases with which they started.” The result? Groups can quickly get to a place where they have more confidence and conviction about a position than the individuals within the group do. Groups often lock in on that position and resist contrary information or viewpoints.

Researcher Julie A. Minson, co-author (with Jennifer S. Mueller) of The Cost of Collaboration: Why Joint Decision Making Exacerbates Rejection of Outside Information, agrees, suggesting that people who make decisions by working with others are more confident in those decisions and that the process of making a judgment collaboratively rather than individually contributes to “myopic underweighting of external viewpoints.” And even though collaboration can be an expensive, time-consuming process, it is routinely over-utilized in business decision-making simply because many managers believe that if, two heads are better than one, 10 heads must be even better.

Minson disagrees: “Mathematically, you get the biggest bang from the buck going from one decision-maker to two. For each additional person, that benefit drops off in a downward sloping curve.”

Of course, group decision-making isn’t simply a business challenge–our political and judicial systems rely and depend on groups of people such as elected officials and jurors to deliberate and collaborate and make important decisions. Jack Soll and Richard Larrick, in their Scientific American article You Know More than You Think, observed that while crowds are not always wise, they are more likely to be wise when two principles are followed: “The first principle is that groups should be composed of people with knowledge relevant to a topic. The second principle is that the group needs to hold diverse perspectives and bring different knowledge to bear on a topic.”

Cass Sunstein takes it further, saying for a group to operate effectively as a decision-making body (a jury, for instance) it must consist of:

  • A diverse pool of people
  • Who have different life experiences
  • Who are willing to listen to the evidence
  • Who are willing to listen to each other
  • Who act independently
  • Who refuse to be silenced

Does that sound like a typical decision-making group to you? When I heard that description, I immediately thought of Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) in “12 Angry Men”–a principled and courageous character who single-handedly guided his fractious jury to a just verdict. It is much harder for me to imagine our elected officials, or jury pool members, or even the unfortunate folks dragooned into serving on a committee or task force at work, as sharing those same characteristics.

The good news is that two heads are definitely better than one when those heads are equally capable and they communicate freely, at least according to Dr. Bahador Bahrami of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, author of “Optically Interacting Minds.” He observed: “To come to an optimal joint decision, individuals must share information with each other and, importantly, weigh that information by its reliability.”

Think of your last group decision. Did the group consist of capable, knowledgeable, eager listeners with diverse viewpoints and life experiences, and a shared commitment to evidence-based decision-making and open communication? Probably not, but sub-optimal group behavior and decisions can occur even in the best of groups. In their Harvard Business Review article “Making Dumb Groups Smarter,” Sunstein and Hastie suggest that botched informational signals and reputational pressures are to blame: “Groups err for two main reasons. The first involves informational signals. Naturally enough, people learn from one another; the problem is that groups often go wrong when some members receive incorrect signals from other members. The second involves reputational pressures, which lead people to silence themselves or change their views in order to avoid some penalty-often, merely the disapproval of others. But if those others have special authority or wield power, their disapproval can produce serious personal consequences.”

On the topic of “special authority” interfering with optimal decision-making, I recently heard a clever term used to describe a form of influence that is often at work in a decision making group. The HiPPO (“Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”) effect refers to the unfortunate tendency for lower-paid employees to defer to higher-paid employees in group decision-making situations. Not too surprising, then that the first item on Sunstein and Hastie’s list of things to do to make groups wiser is “Silence the Leader.”

So exactly how do botched informational signals and reputational pressures lead groups into making poor decisions? Sunstein and Hastie again:

  • Groups do not merely fail to correct the errors of their members; they amplify them.
  • Groups fall victim to cascade effects, as group members follow the statements and actions of those who spoke or acted first.
  • They become polarized, taking up positions more extreme than those they held before deliberations.
  • They focus on what everybody knows already-and thus don’t take into account critical information that only one or a few people have.

Next time you are on the verge of convening a roomful of people to make a decision, stop and think about what it takes to position any group to make effective decisions. You might be better off taking Julie Minson’s advice, electing to choose just one other person to partner with you to make the decision instead. Seldom Seen Smith, the river guide character in The Monkey Wrench Game by Edward Abbey, was obviously a skeptic when it came to group decision-making, but he may have been on to something when he declared:

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.”

3 Steps Toward Better Meetings

How many meetings did you attend last week that lacked a specific agenda, started late and then ended late? How often did you attend a meeting without knowing why you were even there? How many meetings actually resulted in a new idea or significant decision?

With about 11 million business meetings occurring each day, one thing is clear: Meetings are a mainstay of business culture. When they are conducted effectively, they inspire and ignite innovation and lead to higher-performing teams and a stronger bottom line. When they are ineffective and irrelevant, they plague all of us with the notion that this time together was wasteful, costly and inefficient.

Too many meetings fail to generate any meaningful return on the investment of our time and energy. And they undermine our productivity. Our meeting-intensive culture forces people to complete their work in the margins of their day-early in the morning and late at night-hurting their health, motivation and work-life balance.

Something has to give.

It is time for better meetings. It is time for a meeting revolution.

Start the revolution by questioning the value of each meeting you attend, by preparing for your meetings and by ensuring that the right people, and only the right people, are invited.

1. QUESTION THE VALUE OF EACH AND EVERY MEETING YOU ATTEND

Instead of automatically accepting the next meeting request, pause and consider the meeting’s return on investment for you. Ask yourself:

  • Will this meeting assist me in achieving my goals?
  • How does the purpose of the meeting align with the company’s strategic priorities?
  • What contribution can I make in the meeting?
  • Will anyone even notice if I’m not present?
  • Will this meeting be energizing, or will it suck the life right out of me?
  • Will this meeting be a rehash of the last five meetings I attended?
  • Is attending this meeting the highest and best use of my time right now?
  • Remember, every time you say yes to one thing, you are saying no to something else.

2. SUCCESS AND EFFECTIVENESS DEPEND ON YOUR PLANNING

As you prepare for your next meeting, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why do we need to meet?
  • What is the purpose of the meeting?
  • Is this an informational, decision-making, problem-solving, brainstorming, team-building or instructional/skill-building meeting? Or a combination of a few of these?
  • What is the outcome I want to achieve as a result of this meeting?
  • Is there an alternative format I can use to achieve the outcome?
  • If a meeting is essential, what is the ideal meeting format to achieve the meeting outcomes-an in-person meeting, a virtual meeting or a combination of the two?
  • Who needs to attend the meeting?
  • What information do I need from the attendees?
  • What do the attendees need to know or complete in advance of the meeting to achieve the outcome?
  • What expectations do I have for the meeting attendees regarding preparation and participation? How will I communicate these expectations?
  • What is the ideal length of the meeting to accomplish the stated purpose of the meeting?

Use your answers to guide you in planning and preparing to have better meetings.

3. INVITE THE RIGHT PEOPLE AND ONLY THE RIGHT PEOPLE

To think about who to invite to your meeting, start by recognizing that there are four types of meeting attendees: the decision maker, the influencer, the resource person and the executer.

  • The decision maker is the primary authority.
  • The influencer has the pull and network within the organization to advocate and popularize meeting decisions and initiatives.
  • The resource person has specific knowledge, skills and expertise needed to inform the decisions and create plans for executing those decisions.
  • The executer has the knowledge, skills, resources and authority to successfully complete the work resulting from the meeting.

An ideal meeting has each of these types in attendance. Of course, one person can represent multiple roles, and more than one representative of a specific role may be required. For example, you may need three executers to complete a complex project discussed during the meeting.

To determine who really needs to attend the meeting, ask yourself:

  • What is the meeting outcome?
  • Who in the organization must be present to achieve the outcome?
  • Who is the decision maker?
  • Who is the influencer?
  • Who is the resource person?
  • Who is the executer?
  • If there are people who will not be invited to the meeting but who have been invited to similar meetings in the past, how will I communicate my rationale for excluding them?

Without the right people in the meeting, nothing will be accomplished, and everyone’s time will be wasted. To have better meetings, invite the right people and only the right people.

A decision maker is not necessary to start a meeting revolution. A meeting revolution starts with one person choosing to do something differently and then communicating with colleagues about why she has chosen a different approach.

Thirty-seven percent of employee time is spent in meetings. So, when you choose to lead a meeting revolution, you are not only ensuring that this investment of time and energy generates a significant return on investment, you’re also giving your team time back to do the work they’re good at, the work they’re hired to do and the work that will grow the business.

What can do you right now?

  • Here’s a game-changing question for you: Are you a planner, prioritizer, arranger or visualizer? Find out your productivity style in less than 10 minutes; take my free productivity style assessment.
  • Want to take it to the next level? Share the assessment with your team, then start a conversation about your respective productivity styles and what you each need to work well.

Share your thoughts on how these strategies worked for you! Please leave a comment on this post.

This article originally appeared on fast company.com.