Have you noticed that some groups seem to work very well together when making decisions, and others seem unable to make decisions? This lesson discusses the process of making group decisions and various models associated with making decisions.

The Rational Model

Bob works with a team on a weekly basis as a volunteer at his church group. He and the other volunteers come together to discuss information and make decisions. Although Bob often disagrees with the decisions, he recognizes he is part of the group and must be willing to sacrifice his opinions, at least some of the time.

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Depending on the situation, there are an incredible number of ways that individuals can make decisions. These range from the completely rational to picking a solution at random, with emotional and intuitive pieces thrown in as well. While all of these ways of making decisions have counterparts in group decision-making, we are only going to discuss the rational model here. The rational decision-making model incorporates a wide array of objective information and data into the decision-making process.

Although people don’t use the the rational model very often, it’s by far the most used model for group decisions. As we will see in this lesson, our human emotions and social relationships will still affect the rational decision-making process.

Decision-Making Process Steps

When Bob and his team sit down to make a decision, they go through a few predictable steps. What are the steps in the rational model? Not all models look the same; they range from four to seven steps. The only difference here really is the level of detail – all of these models are describing the same basic process.

Bob’s team uses the following process:

  • Identification of the problem or goal
  • Identification of criteria and importance of those criteria
  • Generate alternatives
  • Gather evidence and evaluate alternatives
  • Select ‘best’ alternative
  • Evaluation of the solution

Let’s follow Bob and his church group as they figure out how to improve traffic flow outside their church on Sunday mornings because they’re receiving complaints from the non-attending neighbors. We’ll go through each of the steps we laid out a moment ago, one at a time, and explore how they are related to our group’s decision-making process.

Step 1: Goal Identification

The first thing to do when making a decision is to decide what goal you are reaching for or what problem needs to be solved. In our example, is the proper goal to minimize the length of time traffic is impeded or to limit how many lanes are blocked? Framing this initial question affects all of the following steps and is a crucial part of the decision making process.

Our group decides to take a combination approach: the number of lanes blocked multiplied by the amount of time they are blocked.

Step 2: Identification and Importance of Criteria

What are the items you are going to take into account when making this decision, and how important is each of them to the final decision? Evaluating a decision with two criteria, one of which is three times as important as the other, looks very different than evaluating a decision with five equally-weighted criteria.

In framing the question, our group has already chosen the two criteria and how they both weigh in the outcome: the length of time lanes are blocked and the number of lanes blocked.

Step 3: Generating Alternatives

Here’s when the brainstorming happens. What are all the possible alternatives that might get us to the solution? In our traffic issue, one possible solution would be to allow parking in all four lanes of traffic in front of the church. Another option would be to only block one lane in each direction, and a third option would be to block none of the lanes by using a remote parking location with a shuttle, which would be less convenient to attendees.

Step 4: Gather Evidence and Evaluate Alternatives

Once possible alternative solutions have been identified, it’s time to weigh them against your selected criteria. On three successive Sundays, our group takes measurements of how long lanes are blocked, with results listed in this table:

Alternative Lanes Blocked Hours Product
All lanes 4 2 8
Half 2 2.25 4.5
None 1 2.5 2.5

As we can see, when all lanes are used as an option, four lanes are blocked for 2 hours and the product is 8. When the alternative of half the lanes, 2 of them in this case, are being blocked for 2.5 hours, the product is 4.5, and when none of the lanes are blocked except 1 for 2.5 hours, the product is also 2.5. What will the group decide?

Step 5: Select the Best Alternative

Based on the available evidence and predetermined selection criteria, which solution turns out to be the best? In our case, the remote parking with shuttle service results in the lowest product of lanes blocked and hours that traffic is impeded. Our group chooses this option.

Step 6: Evaluation of Solution

Good solutions to problems are never as easy as deciding once and never revisiting. Getting feedback and following up on that feedback should be included as part of the process of making the decision.

Our group asked for feedback and got the following complaints: This new way took too long, and the drivers cost too much money. The group decided to tweak the original solution of paying for a shuttle service to renting shuttles and asking for volunteers from the church to drive them. In this way, they were able to reduce both costs and wait times.

Strengths ; Weaknesses of the Group

When is it a good idea for a group to make a decision, and when is it better left to specific qualified individuals in that group? It turns out that groups have a number of both strengths and weaknesses compared to an individual making a decision.

Advantages of group decisions include a greater number of perspectives and larger amounts of brainpower. A group of people will have a wider range of experience than an individual and will be able to draw on this experience to create a greater number of possible alternatives. They will also tend to have a better understanding of which criteria should weigh in the decision and by how much. Finally, many brains have a higher capability of evaluating the alternatives on the range of criteria than just a single brain.

With all of those advantages, why not make every decision this way? Well, there are also disadvantages to this way of making decisions. Perhaps the most obvious is that it usually takes far longer for a group to make a decision than it does for an individual to make a decision. Another potential disadvantage is that conflicts can arise when making a decision in a group. One common reaction to an outspoken individual is to avoid conflict and just go along with them. This and other social pressures can erode or eliminate the advantages of diversity and increased brain power that groups have.

Lesson Summary

Making decisions in groups can take many forms, but the most common form adheres to the rational decision model, which incorporates a wide array of objective information and data into the decision-making process.

Steps to this process include:

  • Goal identification
  • Evaluation criteria
  • Generating alternatives
  • Evaluating alternatives
  • Selection of best alternative
  • Evaluation of the solution

Groups with diversity of opinion and perspective can generate more alternatives and have more brain power to evaluate solutions. However, too much diversity can lead to crippling conflict, and nothing will be decided. Similarly, social pressures to avoid conflict can lead to the group decision being dominated by a few loud individuals.