Why do committees make bad decisions?

Patrick Weaver
April 21, 2016

Good group decision-making involves an open discussion among members, each with their own skills, experience, ideas and information, leading to an informed decision. Members actively listen to each other, ask constructive questions and then, based on the various ideas and inputs, jointly develop a solution combining the best elements from the overall discussion.

So why does this approach fail in so many situations? Unfortunately, in every group there are always two types of influence on its members: informational signals and social pressures. Informational signals can cause people to keep information to themselves when it contradicts information from others, especially leaders. Social pressures can cause people to keep information to themselves to avoid punishment, for example, the disapproval of leaders who are contradicted. These influences can distort the deliberations of the group by suppressing information if the facilitator or chair of the meeting is not careful.

Unchecked, these influences can lead to four problems:

  1. Instead of correcting the errors of their members, groups actually amplify those errors. For example, the leader’s mistaken conclusion is validated by the group;
  2. Cascade effects take over when the group follows whomever spoke first or loudest;
  3. Groups become more polarised, as each person’s perception of the discussion reinforces their predisposed position, also known as confirmation bias; and/or
  4. Groups focus on shared information (what most people know) instead of unshared information, the information known only by a few individuals.

These negative influences that can lead to poor decisions due to the effects of either a ‘tyranny of the majority’, ‘groupthink’ or the ‘Abilene Paradox’. Overcoming them to create an effective decision making group requires specific tactics from the group leader. Effective leaders need to:

  • Keep quiet and convince group members that they sincerely want to hear all ideas;
  • Reward group success (not individual success);
  • Ensure group members understand that if the group is right, everyone benefits and encourage everyone to find the ‘right answer’ rather than pushing their own ideas;
  • Assign specific roles to each group member to ensure everyone contributes (for example, one person is the scheduling expert, another the cost expert);
  • Avoid relying on the exclusive opinion of one ‘expert’, the wisdom of crowds (making decisions based on the average or majority opinion of ‘large crowds’ of people) will often lead to a better answer provided a majority of the crowd know their material;
  • Task individuals or assigned teams (known as red teams) with acting as devil’s advocates; and/or
  • Ask everyone is to put on a ‘black hat’ at an appropriate time and critique the emerging decision.

Process management is also important; the leader and the group need to distinguish between the ‘information gathering’ early rounds of the discussion in which ideas must be encouraged and ‘everything’ allowed on the table, and the final rounds of deliberations, in which groups must be tight and analytical as they seek to move to the precise solution. Successful groups will deliberately separate the two processes.

Finally, the group needs to focus on making the right type of decision; no amount of data gathering will lead to the ‘right answer’ if the issue being confronted by the group is a dilemma.

Author avatar
Patrick Weaver
Patrick Weaver is the managing director of Mosaic Project Services and the business manager of Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd. He has been a member of both PMI and AIPM since 1986 and is a member of the Asia Pacific Forum of the Chartered Institute of Building. In addition to his work on ISO 21500, he has contributed to a range of standards developments with PMI, CIOB and AIPM.
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