How should we decide?

As practitioners of participatory decisionmaking, we often consider how to apply different decisionmaking mechanisms in different contexts, especially when we work to disrupt or dismantle power dynamics within a group and or as part of the participatory decisionmaking journey. While classical models that analyze approaches to decisionmaking may be useful, they often over-emphasize individual leadership in decisionmaking or prioritize values like efficiency over the inherent value of group decision-making and collective power-building.

Let’s look at a continuum of approaches arranged by their general effectiveness at distributing power within a decisionmaking group. On one side are the decisionmaking approaches that generally distribute power to more participants within the group. On the other side of the continuum are approaches that tend to concentrate power in the hands of one individual, a few individuals, or even remove power from the group entirely.

Does this mean that unanimity is always a better approach than consensus? Does this mean that autocratic or stochastic mechanisms don’t have a place in legitimate participatory processes? In both cases, the answer is “No!”

The Vroom-Yetton model is a classical model for selecting a decisionmaking approach that is sometimes employed by project managers. One thing that is useful about this model is that it encourages us to analyze the nature of the decision we need to make and the circumstances surrounding our decision in order to select the approach that works best. These questions are similar to those proposed by Vroom, Yetton, and Jago, but with a participatory lens:

  1. Is it important that the mechanism distributes power throughout the group? How important is legitimacy?
  2. Does this decision require special knowledge, or is it important that the decision is accurate and/or precise?
  3. What time and resources are available to make the decision?

Using these questions as a guide, the model below presents an overview of some common decisionmaking approaches used by groups. When designing a participatory decisionmaking process, we often employ several of these mechanisms at different points in the process to maximize their benefits and minimize trade-offs. They are all important tools in our participatory decisionmaking toolbox. Use this model the next time you consider the question, “How should we decide?”

Mechanism: Unanimity

Definition: everyone agrees to the decision

Best for high-stakes decisions that have a limited number of options made by small well-formed high-trust groups.

Trade-offs: demanding in terms of resources, risky because a single person can derail the entire process, cannot be time-bound, anonymity is limited

Examples: Jury Trials

Good where special knowledge is required: no

Legitimacy: high

Time and resource requirements: high

Group size: generally best for relatively small groups

Mechanism: Consensus

Definition: no one disagrees with the decision

Best for situations where power dynamics and legitimacy are important but unanimity is not a practical option due to time or resource limitations.

Trade-offs: demanding in terms of resources, still risky because outliers can be a challenge

Examples: technology product design

Good where special knowledge is required: no

Legitimacy: high

Time and resource requirements: high

Group size: generally best for relatively small groups

Mechanism: Aggregate

Definition: the decision is based on information collected from participants

Best for complex decisions that require expertise, decisions that require anonymity, and groups that are unformed or have low trust.

Trade-offs: requires design, planning, and technical expertise to execute and may provide minimal opportunities for growth and connection, outcomes may not be definitive/clear and the aggregator(s) may hold significant power

Examples: olympic judges

Good where special knowledge is required: yes

Time and resource requirements: highly variable

Legitimacy: medium

Group size: any group size (may be adapted differently)

Mechanism: Ranked Choice

Definition: people vote for decisions in order of preference; lowest ranked choices until a majority is achieved

Best for eIther hIgh or low stakes decisions with a limited number of options where a clear outcome is needed and a large number of people should be involved.

Trade-offs: more complex to implement than other voting methods and may be confusing for participants.

Examples: many state and municipal elections in the US

Good where special knowledge is required: no

Legitimacy: medium

Time and resource requirements: medium

Group size: any group size (ideal for large groups)

Mechanism: Simple Majority

Definition: the decision receives votes from more than half of the people voting

Best for binary decisions among large groups that need a clear outcome where the ongoing support and collaboration of the minority opinion is unimportant or can be overruled by force.

Trade-offs: often alienating for the minority, which may reduce potential for collaboration, compromise or exploring alternatives

Examples: US Congress (some situations)

Good where special knowledge is required: no

Time and resource requirements: low

Group size: any group size (ideal for large groups)

Mechanism: Plurality

Definition: the decision receives more votes than any other choice

Best for simple low stakes decisions with a few similar choices that are all basically acceptable to the group.

Trade-offs: may result in a situation where the majority of people do not support the decision, may encourage vote-splitting or strategic voting and so does not provide good information about the choices of the group

Examples: US Presidential Election

Good where special knowledge is required: no

Legitimacy: low (generally requires a strong social contract or force)

Time and resource requirements: low

Group size: any group size (ideal for large groups)

Mechanism: Consultative

Definition: the decisionmaker(s) gather and consider the input of participants before making a decision

Best for decisions that are complex or require particular expertise, where ambiguity is present, or where legitimacy is important but other more legitimate mechanisms are not available.

Trade-offs: less legitimate than methods that distribute decision-making power and may backfire if parameters of consultation are not clearly defined, requires significant time and resources

Examples: community consultations, advisory groups

Good where special knowledge is required: yes

Time and resource requirements: high

Legitimacy: medium (depends on execution)

Group size: any group size (may be adapted differently)

Mechanism: Autocratic

Definition: one or several people make the decision or delegate it

Best for: situations where the decisionmaker(s) has/have legitimate authority that is accepted by those the decisions impact, and where speed, confidentiality, or expertise are prioritized.

Trade-offs: single point of failure, bottlenecks, low legitimacy unless the decisionmaker(s) are highly respected.

Examples: typical corporate structure

Good where special knowledge is required: yes

Time and resource requirements: low

Legitimacy: generally low, unless the decisionmaker is legitimate

Group size: any group size

Mechanism: Stochastic

Definition: the decision is determined by chance

Best for very low stakes decisions where trust is minimal or speed is a priority and other methods are not available.

Trade-offs: risky, low quality

Examples: coin toss, lottery

Good where special knowledge is required: no

Time and resource requirements: low

Legitimacy: legitimacy is based on arrangement among all parties involved

Group size: any group size

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store