Posted on
July 19, 2023

Making space for decision discourse

Many teams stumble through their decision making process because they don’t make time for discourse separated from the decision point. This matters because teams assume these different steps are one and waste everyone’s time. 

If there is one thing that you take away from this post is that you should always take the time for proper discourse of a decision before moving to the decision making itself. This could be as simple as having two parts of a single meeting. It could also end up taking the form of commenting on a document asynchronously, workshops in person, and a single person making a decision offline. 

This is part of a larger process I believe creates good decision making:

In this post, we are going to focus on the discourse component before you make the decision. Future posts will dive into all of the other steps specifically. 

Deciding how to decide 

To enter into a valuable and effective discourse step we need to set (or propose) a few basics that will lead to the most effective use of everyone’s time and energy: 

  • Type of decision being made
  • Who should be involved in the discourse - and how 
  • Who gets to make the final decision - and how, if it is multiple people

This could be done by the person that identifies the decision point but it could also fall back to some process or procedure that is already set in the organization. 

If you aren’t very clear about these different aspects of the decision then you should take the time to figure it out. It may point to the fact that there is clarification that is needed on roles and responsibilities. Expectations mismatches on who is the best decision maker is a decision in itself that should be litigated before moving on. If you are doing this for the first time this might be a good way to test your assumptions about the roles and responsibilities. To be clear, I don’t think this is solved through an overwrought responsibilities matrix but through team discussions of expectations. 

Discourse, discussion, dialogue, and other terminology

I use the term discourse but it could be named many different things: debates, discussions, dialogue, disagreement, feedback, critique, argument, talking, and brainstorming. 

They all have slightly different connotations about the culture that they are part of. In some cases it is much more hopeful and congenial whereas others will focus on the fact there is conflict of some type. Debate might bring the connotation of a winner and loser whereas dialog could signal that there is collaboration. 

I like to use the term “discourse” because it most effectively points to the fact that we are here to have a discussion that could lead to important debates. I’ve found the most controversial issues yield the most value because they are a crux of how we see the world. We want the flexibility to have a reasoned debate of the options but in a way that is more collaborative (see this discussion between debate vs. discussion vs. dialog). We are benefited by group discussions above a single person controlling the options. 

Larger discourse avoids individual blindspots 

The reason why we want to have effective discourse is that it helps avoid various individual biases and creates better options that should be considered during the decision making stage. 

A favorite reference talking about this is this one by Tom Stafford, “a lens on the magic of deliberation.” Independently we make mistakes and will get things wrong. However, studies have shown that the discussion between people can help lead us to getting this right more likely. As part of his team’s work they consider how we might make poor decisions on our own but we are able to flip this when we work well together. 

Stafford makes the point that all of the biases we have individually work to help us in these group discussions:

So, confirmation bias, which may lead an individual, isolated, reasoner astray, allows an arguer to build the strongest possible case, and if they are mistaken there is always someone with the opposite view is who trying to do the same to disprove them. The result is a successful community of reasoners.

This is the “argumentative theory of reason.” We should find ways to allow for the discourse and to do that we need to set the right types of containers for that discourse. 

Discourse containers

There are many types of spaces this discussion could take place. Teams generally use a combination of asynchronous and synchronous discourse. I’ve liked the term containers after doing workshops from Nitzan Hermon on containers as he defines them:

The goal of a container is to tend to the air (/energy) between the members, as opposed to program what is said or done, where a facilitator can add another log to the fire or open a window.

How do we allow these containers to be more generative and improve the discourse we have?

Asynchronous systems end up being through emails, chat channels, documents, etc. These documents can be as specific as a PRD or PRFAQ. Or as generic as a decision memo that is one page written in one hour. These types of discourse containers can suffer from people ignoring them and lack of engagement. If you have access to document activity you can view it but most of the time it can be pretty depressing. 

Synchronous discussions are meetings of all types. Meetings can be ineffective and are often considered a tax on the team. They end up letting more and more meetings with more and more people get added to the process. In the worst case, consensus driven cultures can create a need for a pre-meeting (aka “meeting before a meeting”) where you get everyone’s buy in 1:1 rather than via another method.

However, meetings aren’t a bug. Even regularly scheduled meeting cadences aren’t bad (or good) inherently (see chronos time). Hallway conversations (aka ad hoc meetings) aren’t good (or bad) inherently (see kairos time). Let’s not demonize “meetings” when the real problem is decision discourse not being used effectively.

In these containers there can be people that want to subvert the process due to personal agendas or just failing to avoid personal biases. In those cases, you should be structuring your discourse to be more resilient to these bad actors. They can take many forms but what they usually look to do is to control and fill the discourse. A way to build a discourse process that is resilient to this is to structure it in such a way that no one person (including yourself) can take control of it. 

Creating helpful discourse containers

There are a few methods and techniques that I’d try out in your process to see if it can improve the effectiveness of decision making:

  • Collect options async, discuss controversy synchronously - we get an initial proposal to poke holes in a doc. People asynchronously add comments, concerns, options, outcomes, etc. Then we have a single meeting to answer any other questions and move forward.
  • Don’t “sell” the solution you want - by trying to only persuade people to your POV you will not get all of the helpful discourse you would have otherwise. Propose what you want but don’t worry about persuading until after you have a decision and need to communicate it out.
  • Time boxing - it can help move these discourse containers moving forward. For async methods it can take the form of deadlines for reading and commenting. Or the resolution of comments by a certain date. 
  • No requirement to address all feedback - you don’t need to address every comment. This could mean not responding or not having an answer but it is usually valuable to 
  • Decision logs - review your past decisions to see how you might learn from process success (and failure). I’ll be writing a future post about decision logs and auditing.

All of these techniques can help make discourse containers more functional but there is a certain need to adjust for your team. 

Methods for disagreement

I’m a huge fan of focusing on the disagreement in a team to get at the crux of what we should be talking about. There are a few different methods I’ve found to be helpful in more synchronous settings:

  • Premortem by Gary Klein - discuss all of the different ways you could fail as a team and see what is in alignment (or not). 
  • Ritual dissent by Dave Snowden - remove some of the social pressure of disagreement. 
  • Double Crux from CFAR - get to the crux of why people disagree.
  • Principled Disagreement from The Ready - “disagreement on the basis of shared beliefs, values, and/or desired outcomes.”
  • Delegation poker by Management 3.0 - figures out who might care more about a particular part of a decision.
  • Boris by Vaughn Tan - discusses the tradeoffs between different functional roles. 
  • Lean coffee-like disagreement discussions - I talk about this in my post Tug of war in online decision making.

Next time you want to wrap up the discourse try out one of these methods to really dive into the reasons why they exist. The discussion will make the eventual decision even stronger. 

Try a small change today

None of these methods or techniques work in a vacuum or apply to 100% of the circumstances. 

There is a possibility of adding too much discourse to your decision making process. You can usually tell when you keep revisiting the same assumptions or options. It could be that some people just don’t like the way the decision is going. 

Start small and push for the separation between the discourse and decision. You should take one or two of these and experiment with them. You will see your decision making velocity and fitness improve.