Strategic Leadership and Decision Making

11

CONSENSUS TEAM DECISION MAKING

The Westerner and the Japanese man mean something different when they talk of "making a decision." In the West, all the emphasis is on the answer to the question. To the Japanese, however, the important element in decision making is defining the question. The crucial steps are to decide whether there is a need for a decision and what the decision is about. And it is in that step that the Japanese aim at attaining consensus. Indeed, it is this step that, to the Japanese, is the essence of decision. The answer to the question (what the West considers the decision) follows from its definition. During the process that precedes the decision, no mention is made of what the answer might be. . . . Thus the whole process is focused on finding out what the decision is really about, not what the decision should be (Drucker 1974).

INTRODUCTION

A strategic leader can utilize decision-making teams as a powerful asset in successfully coping with the enviornoment. Such teams improve their decision making by using a process of consensus, a process useful when developing national security strategy, military strategy, or strategic planning in other public or private sectors. Knowing how to forge consensus for policy development and implementation is critical to successful management and leadership.

STRATEGIC LEADERS AND TEAMS

Why be concerned about consensus team decision making at the strategic level? What is so important about that approach to policy making? Consensus decision making offers the benefit of using more fully the experience, judgment, perceptions, and thinking of a team of people. To those who have not participated in consensus decision making, the process may seem frustrating. But, mastery of small group consensus decision making processes may be the key to achieving a successful resolution of whatever crisis appears in this complex environment. Because of the nature of modern issues in the global environment, strategic decision makers must rely on teams to solve problems and to make policy recommendations. A high performing team can be a positive force in assessing strategic situations and formulating national policy.

LONG-TERM VISION. Effective strategic leaders employ a strategic team to help them in the visioning process. This team "sees" the strategic environment from various frames of reference, visualizing the effectiveness of proposed strategies over time. Teams help leaders to understand a complex situation and gain insight into how to achieve long-term objectives, allocate resources and integrate operational and tactical decisions into strategic plans.

CONSENSUS STYLE. Effective strategic leaders know how to get everyone involved in policy making and build consensus in the process. Within large complex organizations, whether public or private, consensus is the engine that sustains policy decisions. No strategic leader can succeed unless he or she can build such consensus. Thus, the search for consensus among peers, allies, and even competitors becomes a requirement for shared commitment to a national policy, and to corporate, business policy.

TEAM BUILDING. Successful strategic leaders use their knowledge and skills to structure and lead high performing teams. Strategic teams that perform with unity of purpose contribute to the creation of strategic vision, develop long-range plans, implement strategy, access resources, and manage the implementation of national policy. Given the nature of the strategic environment and the complexity of both national and global issues, strategic leaders must use teams. They cannot do it alone.

CHALLENGES TO DECISION MAKING TEAMS

Strategic decision makers regularly use teams to solve urgent problems such as in the drug wars where both civil and military assets, and federal and state resources are jointly employed. Most strategic-level decision-making teams exist for brief periods to resolve a major problem or to develop national policy and strategies to meet future challenges. While these teams carry great responsibilities, they are often "ad hoc" in nature.

A team leader has two overriding responsibilities: First, the leader is accountable for the effective functioning of the team. The leader monitors team performance and takes action to improve team effectiveness. Teams tend to perform best when responsibilities are shared and leadership tasks are distributed among members. Empowered team members are more likely to take responsibility for team success. Second, the leader is responsible for developing a stable leadership structure. Many decision-making teams tend to be more effective when the framework for leadership is clear. These teams tend to work more efficiently, have fewer interpersonal problems, and produce better outputs. Common observations of the strategic decision making process that contribute to the leadership challenge include: 

Given these difficulties, it should be no surprise that team meetings can be a journey into foreign territory for each team member. By adopting a "consensus style" of leadership, some of these problems can be eliminated.

CONSENSUS IN STRATEGIC DECISION MAKING

Decision making at the strategic level hinges on the ability of decision-making teams to forge consensus for action. No team can succeed unless it is strong enough to sustain decisions through bureaucratic politics, interest group resistance, media criticism, and implementation. Consensus acts as the "power plant" within the national security decision making system, or the private sector, to sustain policy decisions through implementation either in the government bureaucracy, or in the market place. 

WHAT IS CONSENSUS?

Strategic decision-making teams work to build consensus in solving critical problems. Some of the critical tasks requiring consensus are:

A strategic team's goal is to make decisions that best reflect the thinking of its members, thus 'forging' consensus. One can easily confuse what consensus is and isn't. Here are some guidelines (Scholtes 1988):

THE POLITICAL FRAME OF REFERENCE

This frame emphasizes both forms of consensus: a shared vision for change and common ground found through understanding and negotiation. The political frame suggests a three-step strategy for political action:

An effective leader must create an agenda that has a vision of what can and should be the long term interests of the parties involved. The leader must also have a strategy that considers relevant organizational and environmental forces in building a network to achieve goals. Most important, the team leader must negotiate differences based on a shared vision of the future.

BUILDING THE MODEL

The Consensus Team Decision Making Model (CTDM) identifies factors that distinguish high-performing teams from less productive ones:

The Consensus Team Decision Making Model portrays a thinking, collective group capable of high performance. Within the three pillars, there are 14 success factors critical to excellence in team decision making. Consensus, however, is not always present.

I was surprised that critical deliberations were taking place with no preparation or follow-up planned . . . the Oval Office debate was a free-swinging affair, and the freest swinger of all was the President's Chief of Staff, John Sununu. . . . He cut people off in mid-sentence and pursued his pet tangents, a behavior . . . that did not seem to bother the President. Bush listened, spoke little . . . repeated that the plotters had to express a clear intention to restore democracy . . . and then brought the meeting to a close (Powell 1995--418).

Strategic decision-making teams must operate at the proper conceptual level. This means employing multiple frames of reference and "staying out of the weeds." They search for consensus among themselves, within their organizations, among interested groups, and with the public. Finally, strategic teams avoid consuming limited resources or prolonging action, thereby missing strategic opportunities. 

We can analyze and evaluate every team, even low performing teams, in terms of these success factors. All teams display them in varying degrees. The best teams, however, appear to make a conscious commitment to monitor team performance in terms of the factors. This commitment to excellence differentiates and defines the high-performing team.

PILLAR ONE: HIGH CONCEPTUAL LEVEL

This dimension of consensus team decision making views the team as an intelligent entity, one that thinks rationally, analyzes the situation, synthesizes information, evaluates alternatives, and makes decisions. The team's objective is to find the highest quality solution to a complex strategic problem and minimize risk of failure.

Consider the example of a joint team of planners tasked to recommend a National Military Strategy for approval by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. The team's objective is to develop an effective strategy that meets future threats to our nation's security. The team must address many complex issues. These include world security threats, international agreements, domestic priorities, regional military powers, current political realities, and even contemporary social, economic, and environmental trends. The success of the team in developing an effective National Military Strategy depends in part on their collective capability to understand and integrate these diverse and complex strategic perspectives. Pillar One factors: 

ENVISION GOALS. Envisioning team goals is especially important where bureaucratic conflict can destroy team effectiveness. In this situation, team goals serve the purpose of establishing a sense of shared mission. Goals encourage team members to rise above parochial positions and commit to the team's higher mission. The team leader is responsible for articulating these team goals. He or she should state goals in language that all team members can easily grasp:

DESIGN A PROCESS PLAN. A team's process plan describes how the team will approach its work: a sequence of steps and a delegation of responsibilities. This process of deciding how to decide is "making a meta-decision." Meta-decisions are more important in group decision rnaking than in individual decision making. While an individual who has started in the wrong direction can turn around and go back to square one, a group moving in the wrong direction will have a tougher time undoing agreements and expectations among members in order to change course. The process plan should:

ACHIEVE SITUATION ASSESSMENT. Seeking divergent viewpoints provides a broader understanding of the strategic situation. Divergence enables teams to better assess the effectiveness and risks of strategic plans. Each team member has unique experiences which can be captured with free and open discussion. To realize the group's collective conceptual power, the team cannot merely tolerate different viewpoints. Instead, they must seek all member viewpoints to broaden the team's assessment.

Teams operating at a high conceptual level encourage diverse viewpoints and dissenting opinions rather than suppressing them as unwanted complications. Commitment to divergence is so strong, teams employ a variety of techniques such as devil's advocate when they do not uncover divergent viewpoints.

EXPAND FRAMES OF REFERENCE. A frame of reference is a perspective or mental map used by a strategic decision maker to make sense of events. Frames are both windows on the world and lenses to bring the world into focus. Multiple frames are helpful in understanding a complex strategic situation. For example, a strategic decision maker may find political and military frames of reference only to be inadequate in understanding the situation in Bosnia. Rather, decision makers must expand their frames of reference to include historical, social, legal, and religious perspectives in order to better understand the conflict.

High-performing teams expand their frames of reference to make sense out of the complex strategic environment. This includes not only numerical expansion, but also qualitative amplification of existing frames of reference. This expansion results in increased understanding of interdependent systems, a wider set of causal factors, and an expanded number of affected groups. With a broader understanding of the strategic situation, high-performing teams then focus their information resources to clear up ambiguities and build alternatives that integrate key issues emerging from these various perspectives.

FOCUS TIME HORIZONS. Time horizon describes the focal distance a team perceives in a strategic situation. A team may see tasks in terms of either current results or long-term changes. Appropriate time horizon is a function of the strategic situation and the team's mission. For a crisis response team, the time horizon could be 24 to 72 hours into the future, depending on the nature of response options. But for other strategic planning tasks, the time horizon could be 10 to 20 years. Establishing the appropriate focal point is a matter of insight--balancing near-term actions and future objectives.

Focusing the time horizon presents a challenge for strategic decision-making teams. Various federal departments routinely make strategic decisions within different time horizons. DOD normally uses a long-term planning horizon of six years. In contrast, other departments, such as Justice or Treasury, plan about one year in advance. Obviously, the problem of coordinating a national drug interdiction strategy among these three departments creates difficulties for an interagency team. The same problem occurs when teams are composed of federal, state, and local officials.

CLARIFY VALUE TRADE-OFFS. Strategic decisions, by their nature, are value-laden. For example, the decision to partially lift the ban on homosexuals in the military deals with one's values about military readiness and one's values about the civil rights of American citizens. Such decisions present difficult value conflicts to the team. Few strategic teams perform very well when attempting to resolve value conflicts through internal debate. Moreover, teams find value conflicts are not easily solved by objective analysis. Yet, value conflicts remain a central feature of strategic decision making.

High-performing teams recognize most strategic decisions have important value tradeoffs, some involving serious moral implications. These teams search for and clarify value conflicts. High-performing teams develop policies and actions to resolve value conflicts, thereby providing moral power to their decisions.

DETECT GAPS AND AMBIGUITY. Gaps usually emerge because the team is too homogeneous, not having the sufficient diversity among members to identify important strategic issues involved in the decision. In assessing the effectiveness of military operations, a naval officer offers one perspective, while Army and Air Force officers provide different ones. The lack of any of these perspectives could be a gap in assessment. Gaps are hard to detect since teams rarely realize something is missing.

High-performing teams work to detect gaps in information by examining and clarifying assumptions about the information base. When they detect gaps, these teams attempt to fill them rather than continue operating without needed information. If the gaps cannot be filled, the team notes missing information so that planning and decision making continues, but, with this problem in mind.

High-performing teams also watch for ambiguities carefully. These teams even check out questioning expressions of team members, for example, to determine whether an apparent visual ambiguity is simply a misunderstanding or a genuine inconsistency. Less productive teams fail to clarify obvious misunderstandings. Skilled teams don't allow themselves to be paralyzed by ambiguity; if an ambiguity cannot be resolved, they incorporate it as a qualifier to plans and actions. Sometimes, the ambiguity is due to different interpretations of the strategic situation. In this case, effective teams remain aware of these assessments.

PILLAR TWO: PRUDENT CONSENSUS APPROACH

After the inauguration, the Clinton national security team gathered . . . for the first time. The issue was Bosnia. . . . Tony Lake, the new National Security Advisor, sat in the chairman's seat, but did not drive the meeting. Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, sat on one side of Lake, somewhat passively . . . lawyerlike, simply [waiting] for his client group to decide what position he was to defend. Les Aspin [Secretary of Defense] flanked Lake on the other side. He did not try to lead either, and when Aspin did speak, he usually took the discussion into tangents to skirt the immediate issue. Vice President Gore arrived after we had been talking for over an hour, and we had to shuffle around the table to find a chair for him. . . . The President showed up a little later. . . . At subsequent meetings, the discussions continued to meander like graduate-student bull sessions or the think-tank seminars. . . . Backbenchers sounded off with the authority of cabinet officers. I was shocked one day to hear one of Tony Lake's subordinates, who was there to take notes, argue with him in front of the rest of us (Powell, 1995 ).

This component of consensus decision making views the team as a mediating entity; one that consists of people with competing interests and conflicting preferences. Accordingly, the team's task is to resolve conflicting viewpoints and build consensus.

Consider a joint team of planners tasked to develop a recommendation concerning allocation of service roles and missions. The team's objective is to allocate various roles and missions to ensure U.S. forces have superior military capabilities while avoiding redundancies and wasting resources. Pillar Two factors:

Success of a joint team in developing a consensus recommendation depends on the group's ability to identify as a team, control politics, and mediate conflict among its members. Teams in the joint/interagency arena are not likely to be "normal" teams. Their members represent real, usually entrenched, organizational interests. They feel an obligation to fight for those interests.

STRENGTHEN TEAM IDENTITY. Team identity describes the extent to which members see the group as an interdependent team, and operate from that perspective. Team members with weak identity participate as separate individuals, having no linkage or commitment to the group. Each must rely on his or her own individual skills. In contrast, members of a team with strong team identity capture the power of the group's shared expertise. The quality of a team's identity can be defined by how well team members use the following activities:

Defining Roles and Functions. Team members perform key roles and functions. All team members relate their roles and functions to one another. This shared understanding of interrelated roles and functions enables team members to integrate their work, anticipate what should occur when the unexpected happens, and react accordingly. With this knowledge, team members can assess whether functions assigned to specific members are being accomplished properly. They adjust their workload and assist one another when the need arises.

Engaging. Team members contribute to team success by participating actively in the execution of assigned roles. Each team member is a valuable resource. Team member contributions are secured through active participation and commitment. Low performing teams have members who express their disengagement in a variety of ways. A few may say, "Just tell me what you want me to do and let me get on with my job." Others are silent participants. Some fail to advocate a coherent position. Nearly all disengaged members show a lack of will to voice concerns with the direction their team is headed. High-performing teams recognize disengaged members and try to bring them back into the team.

Compensating. Team members contribute to success by stepping outside of their assigned roles or functions and helping other team members who are overcommitted or absent. When a team comes under pressure, some members may be unable to handle their functions. A high-performing team encourages its members to step outside their roles in order to help teammates.

A high-performing team understands it is not enough for team members just to compensate when problems arise. The team also learns what caused the problem, such as an uneven distribution of workload or an unwise employment of a member's expertise. In these cases, a high-performing team will even-out the work load, allocate appropriate resources to deal with a sudden turn of events, or realign team responsibilities according to member skills and expertise. Strong team identity is especially important to the success of a decision making team.

CONTROL INTERNAL POLITICS. Controlling politics is critical to team decision making because internal politics produce poor team performance and jeopardize organizational effectiveness. Politics consumes team members' time. Politics distracts team members and dissipates their energy. Strategic team members are busy people, and politics draws them away from their responsibilities. Another reason politics leads to poor performance is that politics restricts information flow within the team. Politics entices team members to withhold information from one another in order to "jockey for position."

Strategic decision making is inherently political. It involves complex issues with high stakes, conflicting viewpoints, and uncertain outcomes. However, not all joint/interagency teams engage in politics. In the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy's advisory team relied on open and forthright discussion with full access to information in group meetings. Although there was substantial conflict within the team, there was little evidence of politics. Internal politics are defined as tactics and covert ploys team members use to enhance their power to influence decisions. These actions include off-line lobbying, withholding or manipulating information, controlling agendas, or behind-the-scenes coalition building. In contrast, a lack of internal politics within teams is demonstrated by open and frank discussions, with a full sharing of information, and in meetings open to all team members.

The team leader is responsible for controlling internal politics. The first and perhaps most important step for reducing politics that results from conflicting aims or purposes is to understand that information hiding, deception, and games are part of organizational life. Techniques for controlling internal politics include:

FOSTER COMPETITIVE DEBATE. Competitive debate describes how decision-making teams manage the conflict inherent in strategic decisions. Conflict within a decision making team is inevitable. It can be healthy and useful, provided it is structured, focused, and conducted in the spirit of mutual respect. Failing that, conflict can be counterproductive and damaging to the team's mission. Consequently, it is prudent for teams to skillfully foster competitive debate of the issues.

High-performing teams encourage competitive debate--open and frank combative dialogue. Major points of difference and conflicting views are discussed among all team members in open forum. Teams compare different assumptions, facts, and reasons used to support conflicting positions. They focus debate not on bureaucratic "posturing," but on reasons, facts, and assumptions. Skillful teams establish important "ground rules" to promote productive debate:

FORGE CONSENSUS FOR ACTION. Decision making within government, among nations in alliances and coalitions, in the joint arena, or in public-private sector partnerships hinges on the ability of top decision-making teams to forge a consensus for action. A consensus building process may be slow, inefficient, and often frustrating. However, no team can succeed unless it can sustain its decisions through the difficulties of bureaucratic politics, interest group resistance, and public criticism.

High-performing teams approach the task by first strengthening team identity, controlling internal politics, and fostering competitive debate in an open, cooperative forum. With these conditions in place, these teams push for consensus by employing several tactics known to be effective in dealing with differences among team members.

High-performing teams take a prudent approach to building consensus. They know that gaining unanimous agreement on all issues essentially gives each member veto power, thereby trapping the team in endless discussion.High-performing teams use tactics and procedures that keep pace with the environment. Many successful teams use a two-step procedure called "consensus with qualification'' to push for consensus. First, the team debates the issue and attempts to gain consensus. Second, if consensus does not emerge after everyone has had their say, the leader makes the choice, guided by input from the team. All may not agree with the decision, but everyone has a voice in the process.

PILLAR THREE: VIGILANT DECISION MANAGEMENT

Having suffered through endless, pointless, mindless time-wasters for years, I had evolved certain rules for holding meetings. First, everyone got a chance to recommend items for the agenda beforehand, but I controlled the final agenda, which I distributed before the meeting. Once a meeting started, no one was allowed to switch the agenda. Everyone knew that the meeting would last exactly one hour. The first five minutes and the last ten minutes belonged to me. In those first five minutes, I reviewed why we were meeting and what had to be decided by the end of the session. For the next twenty minutes, participants were allowed to present their positions,uninterrupted. . After that, we had a free-for-all to strip away posturing, attack lame reasoning, gang up on outrageous views, and generally have some fun. Fifty minutes into the hour, I resumed control, and for five minutes summarized everyone's views as I understood them. Participants could take issue with my summation for one minute. In the last four to five minutes, I laid out the conclusions and decision to be presented as the consensus of the participants (Powell 1995).

Vigilant decision management describes how a team monitors its activities and adjusts to improve performance. This component of consensus team decision making views a team as a self-correcting entity; one that identifies weaknesses and takes action.

Vigilant decision management focuses on a team's ability to evaluate its performance while working within its tasks. It is one thing to engage in the process of envisioning goals. It is quite another to sit back and assess whether all team members understand the goals. Only through vigilant decision management can a team fine tune its performance. Pillar Three factors:

KEEP PACE WITH THE ENVIRONMENT. Processes that once relied on careful analyses and broad-ranging strategic plans are no longer a guarantee to success. The premium is now on keeping pace with the environment and moving fast to seize opportunities, especially in crisis or highly competitive environments. The best decisions are irrelevant if it takes too long to make them.

How do high-performing teams manage to resolve competing and paradoxical tensions in strategic decision making? These contradictions include simultaneously:

MANAGE TIME. Time management is the team's ability to meet team goals on schedule and to sequence subtasks so that output from one task becomes timely input to the next one. Effective time management requires skill and constant attention. Even teams with developed time management skills may fall victim to inconsistent monitoring of their schedules. They may work steadily toward their deadlines, only to realize at the last minute that various products of their deliberations don't fit well, or parts are missing altogether.

High-performing teams assign a "time keeper" or set "alarm bells" to alert them of approaching deadlines. These teams set time schedules and check periodically to see if they are meeting self-imposed deadlines. When the team sees they will not be able to accomplish all tasks, they re-order tasks so the most important ones can be completed. They also keep all team members informed of changes.

Protecting the last part of a work period to review the team's product and to complete final revision requires good planning and constant monitoring of a team's schedule. Allocating time effectively allows a team to review and refine its product. This skill is what distinguishes an excellent team product from a mediocre one. Without effective time management, teams crash with a flurry of activity just prior to a deadline. The result is that the team's product comes frustratingly close to high quality, but doesn't quite hit the goal.

To avoid a last-minute crash, high-performing teams build cushions into their time schedules, particularly when they are less experienced with the task at hand. They anticipate that unexpected additions to their tasks and unavoidable difficulties are common, and use this knowledge to gauge the size of the time-cushion they need.

ADJUST AND CORRECT. Adjusting and self-correcting is the essence of double-loop learning, and can be used to improve all consensus team decision making success factors. Double-loop learning is the process of uncovering errors in fact. In a double-loop learning model, the smaller inner circle represents the actual decision making process. The large outer loop represents critical self-examination coupled with adjusting and self-correcting. The decision to get out on the outer loop and examine what is going on is the sign of a mature, high-performing team. Initially, the decision to get on the out loop will always be a conscious one. But, as the team matures and practices consensus decision making, the trip to the out loop will be automatic.

EVALUATING CONSENSUS TEAM DECISION MAKING PROCESSES. How do we know that the team is achieving its task; how do we provide meaningful developmental feedback to the team as a whole and to the team leader as an individual? If feedback is goinlg to be more than just a trendy catchword, the key words in the above question are 'meaningful' and 'developmental'. One of the ways to approach the question of evaluation is to see it in as a functional system consisting of four basic components:

Inputs are defined as the members of the team, including the team leader. Each team member brings with him or her a set of values, morals, skills, attributes, preferences, knowledge, experiences, and expectations.

Process is defined as how a team arrives at a decision. This includes defining the problem, gathering information, building alternatives, evaluating alternatives, and choosing an alternative.

Output is defined as the goal or outcome of the decision making process. Historically, this is the part of the General Systems Model that, within highly structured organizations, gets total attention. The classic symptom of an output-oriented team is the almost instantaneous and heroic leap to a solution without the benefits of an effective consensus.

Feedback is information about the acceptability and effectiveness of the output. It is also information about the effectiveness and efficiency of the decision process. Explicit in the word feedback is the need for measurement and/or assessment. The feedback can be quantitative, that is, objective; or, it can be qualitative, that is, intuitive or subjective. The keys are how we measure or assess, and how we feed back measurement or assessment to the target. Within the context of consensus team decision making, there are two feedback targets: the team as a whole, and the team leader as an individual.

A FINAL WORD

In the final analysis, how you make decisions at the strategic level is just as important as the decision itself. The best decision in the world is nothing without a powerful consensus for action. The most perfect consensus in the world is useless unless it has produced a decision that is good for the organization. At the front end of the entire consensus team decision making process is something called "inputs." People who enter into a consensus decision making must come armed with critical and creative thinking skills that will allow them to efficiently and effectively function at the strategic level.

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