Conflict or Coordination: Two Different Kinds of Decision-Oriented Meetings

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Meetings Don’t Make Decisions. Leaders Do.

When an issue arises, calling a meeting has become so habitual, so automatic, that we’ve begun to conflate the meeting with the decision-making process itself. We assume that some-how the meeting will make the decision. It never does. Decision-oriented meetings can’t make decisions; only leaders can.

When an issue shows up on your desk, the first thing you must do is embrace this fact: You own it. You are the one and only person responsible for ensuring that a timely and effective decision is made. A meeting might be helpful as part of your decision-making process, but it is not the decision-making process itself.

The decision-making process begins by asking whether this decision is of high, low, or no consequence. If the decision is largely of no consequence—and there are many of this sort—make it as quickly as possible. Don’t call a meeting; don’t even bother consulting others. You have our permission to act on our behalf. Just go. The quicker you can make the decision, the faster we can all move on. Every inconsequential decision that is made quickly without fuss is a shot of adrenaline straight into the heart of our organization.

If the decision is of either low or high consequence, you’ll probably want to consult others (the more consequential the decision, the more consultation you’ll likely need). Others can offer invaluable advice, help you frame the decision properly, generate options you haven’t considered, or just provide a forum for you to talk out the problem. But you’ll have to consult them without calling a meeting.

If you want my input before you make your preliminary decision, you’ll have to get it from me personally. Send me e-mail or let’s have a one-on-one conversation. Less convenient for you, but that’s the point. You’re the one with the looming decision to make.

Now, have you come up with a preliminary decision? Good. You’re finally eligible to hold a Modern Meeting.

The Decision-Oriented Meeting Has Two Primary Functions: Conflict and Coordination

The Modern Meeting supports different decisions differently. Its function depends on whether the decision being discussed is of low or high consequence.

For low-consequence decisions, the Modern Meeting is mainly about coordination. It’s for finalizing your preliminary decision, generating buy-in, and agreeing on next steps. In essence, the meeting is for getting those most affected by the decision on the same page, to accelerate the resulting action.

In advance of the meeting, inform attendees of the decision you plan to make as well as the reasoning behind that decision. During the meeting allow attendees to ask questions, voice concerns, and propose modifications. Be prepared to adjust your decision in the face of good reasons, but remember that this is a decision of low consequence, so have a clear bias for action. The train is about to leave the station and the burden of proof is on the participants to convince you why it shouldn’t.

As you facilitate the meeting, ask questions intended to move things forward. “How can we alleviate your concern? Is this plan something you can live with?” Resolve the decision as rapidly as possible so you can focus on the all-important implementation.

If all goes well, a consensus is achieved, a decision is resolved, and an action plan is coordinated. We can now move forward together with the speed and agility of a school of fish.

When it comes to high-consequence decisions, on the other hand, we should be concerned less with speed and more with accuracy. That’s why when the stakes are high, the Modern Meeting is primarily about conflict. Your most critical responsibility is to encourage a robust, honest debate. This will increase the likelihood that the best possible decision is reached, and more important, that a catastrophic decision is averted.

To avoid groupthink, hold off on disclosing your preliminary decision to meeting attendees. First, present participants with just the issue. Consider having them submit their own thoughts about the issue to you in advance of the meeting, before they’re exposed to the opinions of others. During the meeting reveal your preliminary decision and invite them to disagree. Use participants’ own submissions to ensure they are expressing their honest opinions.

If there still isn’t sufficient disagreement, manufacture some. Ask questions like, “What are the pros and cons of the available options? What are some reasons this plan might fail?” Keep in mind that soliciting criticism of your own plan can be difficult. If you feel you can’t stay objective, consider appointing someone who doesn’t have any stake in the outcome as meeting facilitator.

Once a robust debate has taken place, work toward a consensus on which options can be eliminated. Then strive for consensus on which remaining option should be selected. If you don’t immediately get consensus, try harder. Still no general agreement? It’s up to you to decide.

You are the decision owner, the one person who is responsible for making sure an effective decision is made in a timely manner. Make the call. And remember to let the best decision prevail, even if it’s not yours.