Say you’ve been tasked with making a key strategic decision that will inform your organization’s direction going forward. This is a major opportunity to influence your organization’s strategy, and with such an important decision on the line, you’ve gathered several key stakeholders in a meeting to debate the options.

But how do you ensure you make the right decision and avoid common pitfalls? Unfortunately, nothing guarantees that you will always make the correct decision. Sound decision-making is key to a successful organization but can be difficult to manage. Sometimes, with a variety of factors at play, you simply don’t have control over the outcome.

But you do have control over the process. By mindfully managing the decision-making process, you can avoid undue biases and influences and set yourself up for the greatest chance of success.

In the online course Management Essentials, Harvard Business School Professor David Garvin details three group decision-making techniques—consensus, devil’s advocacy, and dialectical inquiry—and how they contribute to arriving at a decision that's high-quality, able to be executed, and timely. By using these techniques, you can take charge of critical decision-making meetings and reach better outcomes.

3 Key Group Decision-Making Techniques

1. The Consensus Decision-Making Technique

In consensus decision-making, the group agrees on what the problem is and freely exchanges ideas and opinions about potential solutions. Once all arguments have been made, the group selects a set of recommendations that is acceptable to all members.

Consensus is the most common form of decision-making. However, it can include serious pitfalls like groupthink, in which the desire to agree becomes more important than raising potential concerns. As a manager, be careful to ensure that constructive conflict is welcome in the meeting, and people are encouraged to voice their arguments freely.

Pros: Consensus represents agreement from all parties involved in the decision and can foster team-building.

Cons: The desire to reach an agreement can allow for groupthink and hinder meaningful debate.

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2. The Devil’s Advocacy Decision-Making Technique

In this type of decision-making, begin by assigning an individual or subgroup to serve as the devil’s advocate. It is that individual or group’s job to probe the arguments presented to uncover underlying assumptions, push people to explain their reasoning, and clarify points that are unclear. Perhaps most importantly, this person or group challenges proposals put forth by digging into arguments to provide additional information that might reveal unstated weaknesses.

For example, perhaps you’re an online retailer deciding whether to expand into brick-and-mortar, such as the decision Amazon faced a few years ago. You might select a devil’s advocate to dig into the assumptions or shortfalls that each possibility—online-only or physical expansion—poses to uncover potential weaknesses on both sides of the argument.

This type of decision-making is most effective when the group members are open to receiving input and willing to alter their positions based on the feedback that surfaces during the discussion. As a manager, it is your job to ensure people feel comfortable and remain open to receiving feedback that could change their minds.

Pros: Challenging the group’s ideas can allow you to spot weaknesses in potential solutions.

Cons: Group members must be open to receiving feedback and adapting throughout the discussion to avoid undue tension.

3. The Dialectical Inquiry Decision-Making Technique

Dialectical inquiry requires active preparation from everyone involved in the decision. The group is divided into two subgroups, and each subgroup develops a set of assumptions and recommendations that oppose each other. Once both sides are presented, the group debates these alternatives with the ultimate goal of agreeing on a single set of assumptions and recommendations. The final solution can incorporate elements from one approach, both approaches, or neither of them.

Using the previous example, the group would be divided into two groups: one supporting an online-only model, and the other supporting expansion into brick-and-mortar. In debating the strengths and weaknesses of each, perhaps the group would reach a decision that incorporates both elements of the argument, such as hosting a short-term pop-up to test brick-and-mortar sales before fully committing to the long-term strategy.

Pros: Dialectical inquiry enables group members to debate two possible solutions and reach an outcome that includes the best components of each.

Cons: It requires preparation from each group member in advance of the discussion.

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Leading an Effective Decision-Making Meeting

The next time you’re responsible for leading a group to a decision, consider what decision-making process will produce the best result. Simply by thinking beyond a majority rules decision could result in the difference between a sound decision and a faulty one.

Do you want to become a more effective leader and manager? Download our free leadership and management e-book to find out how. Also, explore our eight-week online course Management Essentials to learn about how you can influence the context and environment in which decisions get made at your organization.

This post was updated on September 14, 2020. It was originally published on July 26, 2018.

Natalie Chladek

About the Author

Natalie is an Associate Product Manager at Harvard Business School Online working on Alternative Investments, Leading with Finance, Negotiation Mastery, and Sustainable Business Strategy. She received her B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, and staying up too late rooting for her Bay Area sports teams.