Make Better Decisions with Less Pain, Virtually

People across the organization are counting on your team to meet an absurd deadline that you reluctantly agreed to. It’s become apparent over the last day or two that you made a promise that you simply cannot keep. You’ve called an all-hands meeting with your virtual  team to make a critical decision: Do you let others in the organization know ASAP that you will need more time, or do you delay alerting them, hoping that you can pull off a miracle?  Or is there a better option that you haven’t considered?

This is a crucial decision that requires an in-depth discussion to help everyone understand the trade-offs before coming to agreement. The ramifications will reverberate throughout your organization. What will it take from you, as well as from team members, to feel confident that the decision your team is about to make is one that everything can support?

Virtual teams have a harder time than most when it comes to making decisions. Among the reasons: They typically have fewer opportunities for real-time discussions (formal and informal); decision-making protocols and roles tend to be ambiguous; creating alignment and validating assumptions is considerably harder; and virtual teams often include a wide range of perspectives, with participants representing divergent perspectives as well as different cultures, languages and time zones.

So how can virtual teams make better decisions more often, with less pain? Joining me this month is Pilar Orti, Director of Virtual not Distant. (Check out our conversation on Pilar’s podcast 21st Century Work Life, where we brainstorm how best to solve a few thorny issues virtual teams face.) In this edition of Communique, we offer tips to help virtual teams make better-quality decisions in less time. The bottom line: Plan way ahead and allow sufficient time for needed conversations. (Yes, this may mean more meetings, but if people don’t have an opportunity to discuss their views, you risk making decisions with incomplete information and lackluster support, at best.)

  • Determine what kind of decision this is and who needs to be involved, and communicate that clearly. Most decision-making scenarios fall into one of four categories, listed in order of relative complexity: 1) People can make decisions independently 2) Decisions require input from at least a few other people 3) The entire team must have a say 4)The decision requires input from the entire team as well as other stakeholders. Other than #1, all other decision types require careful choreography, especially for virtual teams, where it’s often difficult to organize synchronous discussions. The more you can categorize each type of recurring decision your team typically has to make, the easier it will be to determine the best process.
  • Be achingly specific about the decision-making process you plan to use. Explain who will be involved and in what capacity. (E.g. After hearing important input from Jean, Luis and Markus representing Europe, Sarah and John will make the final decision on behalf of the project team. We will set up a virtual “anytime” conference area where the European team members can provide their input in writing. We’ll then set up a call to make sure we understand key points. Sarah and John will use this input to make a decision by Thursday, which they will communicate immediately via Monday’s team call.) You may want to call out the reasons some will have certain kinds of input and not others, to make sure some don’t feel slighted. For recurring types of decisions, creating a matrix or checklist can come in handy.
  • Create a decision-making schedule. Especially for make-or-break decisions, you’ll want to map out every step of the process, include the timing. To do this, ask yourself questions such as: How long should we allow for people to provide input? How many real-time conversations do we need, with whom, and what is the likely duration? If we set up an online input area, how much time should we give people to respond? Do we need to winnow down the choices before making the final decision? If so, who’s involved and how long will that take? Once we have all of our options lined up and input reviewed, how much time will elapse before we’re ready to make the final decision? Will we do this via email, team call, small-group-meeting, online or real-time discussion, or some other way? Keep in mind that each step requires a different amount of time. Who communicates the decision afterwards, and to whom? There are dozens more questions you’ll need to answer before you can create (and by all means, communicate!) a realistic schedule for everyone involved.
  • Make sure that everyone understands the implications of this decision before weighing in. This can be an excellent use of an asynchronous input area or a shared document. Ask people questions such as: “If we agree to make the changes our clients are requesting, it will mean _______ to our clients, to our team, to our organization, etc.” Or, “If we decide to launch this product with only the current features, the impact it will have is _____.” It’s helpful if people view and build on each other’s comments. This way, you can assess in advance whether people understand the impact of the decision the same way, and whether people are operating from the same set of assumptions. If not, it’s time for a discussion to bridge the gaps before moving to a decision. (For a checklist of guidelines, download Making decisions that stick, a white paper from Guided Insights.)
  • Set up protocols and make sure they’re followed. For example, if you’re using email as a means to gather input before deciding, make it clear by what date you need responses, and what kind will be most helpful. Highlight this in the first one or two lines. (For example, consider the difference between asking someone for their “thoughts” versus asking recipients something like: “What 2-3 aspects of this proposed change excite you, and which concern you, the most?” The more focused your question, the more helpful the input.) Be clear when you need to hear back by, and what the consequences are if you don’t. Example: “We need your input no later than February 15 to make our decision by February 17. If we don’t hear from you, we assume you agree with our proposed plan.” That way, if someone responds late, you can politely let them know that you have had to move ahead.
  • Create a stakeholder relationship map before you seek input. Map out (using words or visuals) any relationships that exist between team members and other stakeholders, formal or informal. Who has connections to which stakeholders? Should you have one person representing your team as its ambassador for different stakeholder groups? What’s the best way to reach out? (E.g., through phone interviews, using an online conference area, using shared documents, via small-group discussions, email, etc.) How will you synthesize what you learn and share with your team? Decisions that require external stakeholder involvement are more complex and typically take considerably more time. Factor that extra time into your schedule. If you create a relationship map as part of your ongoing team process, you’ll be one step ahead when you need to solicit ideas and input before making a decision.

Keep in mind that decision-making is not something that will happen in isolation to what is already taking place in your team. Teams make decisions, large and small, simple and complex, every day. Making good decisions as a team becomes easier when people trust each other, when communication flows, and when members check in periodically to make sure they’re aligned. Revising your team communications process periodically and promoting open conversations through your work will go a long way, when the time comes, to make important decisions together.


Making decisions that stick – White paper from Guided Insights – PDF file for download

Making decisions in virtual meetings – Blog post from Virtual Not Distant


Previous Communiques  

Avoiding the high cost of ambiguous decisions  – previous Communique

How to prevent unfair decisions from tearing teams apart – previous Communique

Six essentials for making decisions virtually – previous Communique


Related Guided Insights services:

Designing and Leading Engaging Virtual Meetings and Virtual Leadership workshop series – delivered both virtually or in person, or both

Facilitation Skills Training – delivered in person or remotely, covering both face-to-face and virtual facilitation skills

Meeting Facilitation Services – for both face-to-face, virtual settings – or a combination

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