Being decisive AND inclusive: How you can collaborate quickly

There’s a lot of talk about collaboration these days — and with it often comes a worry about making decisions. The more you try to include people and decide things together, the longer it all takes — right?

Wrong! At least, it’s not necessarily so.

People who want to be inclusive can easily get caught up by thinking: Everybody must agree; and Things shouldn’t happen before everyone’s been properly consulted.

The trouble is, life simply isn’t like that. Decisions can’t always wait, and there’s always more than one solution because our minds are compulsively creative. The good news is that being properly inclusive and being swiftly decisive is actually quite easy(ish) as long as you keep a few simple rules.

The first is to use the right decision making process for the right job. In my experience, there are three kinds of decision making:

  1. Decisions about purpose and meaning
  2. Decisions about strategy
  3. Decisions about getting things done

This piece is about the third kind of decision making, which of course need to fit with purpose and strategy, but don’t have to wait for them if things are changing or aren’t yet completely clear. I’ll come back to the first two briefly at the end.

To be able to make make fast decisions on the hoof without excluding others, everyone involved has to agree some simple terms. These are the ‘rules’:

i) Every decision is an experiment
ii) Decisions must be communicated
iii) Decisions must be reversible

Let’s take each in turn.

i) Every decision is an experiment — this approach is vital to allow for failure and learning. It’s the principle of good science which basically says ‘we have to stay open about what we know, because we might be wrong’.

There’s a huge amount of advice, support and practical knowledge available about how to do this well in the field of Action Research. A lot of it is quite academic, so for now let’s just say: we have to give each other permission to try things so we can learn from what works (and what doesn’t).

ii) Decisions must be communicated — Be clear about what’s happening and why. Try to say it as simply as you can (often harder than it looks), and remember it’s everybody’s responsibility to seek shared understanding.

It’s not enough to be clear and simple — to be inclusive you also have to be constructive and focussed on strengths and solutions. There’s no ‘best way’ of doing this (I like to use Appreciative Inquiry) so let’s say: we can only take part if we share well together.

iii) Decisions must be reversible — Stay flexible so you can adjust or adapt as things change. If you’re about to do something that reduces options, or that changes the picture for everybody, it’s not a decision to take on your own.

They are all golden rules, but this is the unbreakable one. You’re no longer being inclusive if there’s no way your choices can be overturned. The principle here is: we can’t decide purpose or strategy for others.

Taken together, these favour fast action and creative freedom without taking control away from others. NB!! I did say it was easy(ish) to be decisive and inclusive — the biggest challenge is always ourselves. As I’ve written before ‘People are tricky. We have a lot of emotional moving parts, so we do well when we handle each other with care’.

In the end, if you want to collaborate well with others, you have to work on yourself. What all three rules have in common, is the need to be able to hold your own views lightly. If you can’t, you’re not holding an opinion, you’re being opinionated, and partnerships will always be a struggle.

I said I’d come back to decisions about purpose, meaning and strategy, so here’s my parting shot.

Decisions about purpose and meaning are about the shared space that holds community together. This stuff is about our sense of identity and it doesn’t pay to rush. The more diverse your group, the deeper you’ll have to go. Processes like Deep democracy can come into their own here.

Consensus is the main goal because these choices define the very nature of the group and what it can or can’t do. However you decide to agree your mission and vision, the key principle for truly inclusive work is decisions must be fully owned by the whole group.

It’s an imperfect world though, so it’s not uncommon for small groups with good intentions to make decisions about purpose and meaning on behalf of others. Which leads me neatly on to…

Decisions about strategy. These are the ones that map the route to your agreed destination — they’re about the overall plan. This is where decisions can often be usefully handled by teams with particular skills, knowledge or expertise.

Sociocracy and it’s younger cousin Holocracy come into their own in this space because both aim to keep things working as a whole. It’s not super speedy because agreement has to be reached BEFORE action — but that also means there’s less risk of hitting bumps in the road. My reading of the principle is: decisions can be delegated as long as stakeholders are represented.

So to conclude — I’d encourage anyone who wants to work inclusively and collaboratively to ‘hold things lightly’ and allow for a bit of creative chaos. You can (and should) be able to make decisions on the fly, because it injects energy and gets results which you can learn from.

In my view, provided you’ve got an open and inquiring mind, a willingness to embrace multiple perspectives, and the patience to seek common ground in the midst of conflict, you’ll be able to go far AND fast together.

That said — do it with care, and follow the ‘rules’, and don’t apply the ‘just do it’ approach to everything!

This article only means to help those who are getting stuck to take action and to provoke some healthy discussion— there’s plenty more to say. Do check out the resources at Blueprints for Change, where there’s a great ‘How to’ guide about Building Networked Coalitions. Plenty of learning from experience in there about avoiding the “slow, bureaucratic and top-down decision-making processes” which can so often get in the way. I also highly recommend Elizabeth Lank’s Collaborative Advantage (reviewed here).

Please put your favourite resources in the comments if you want to add more.