The Sky is Falling!

How an effective decision making process helps avoid the perils of groupthink and improves performance.

WE ALL KNOW THE FAMOUS STORY of Chicken Little who, after an acorn fell on his head, ran to tell the king that the sky was falling. Along the way, he encountered other friends, including Turkey Lurkey, Henny Penny, and Goosey Loosey, who eagerly jumped on the bandwagon to warn the king of Chicken Little’s discovery. This band of well-intentioned alarmists encountered Foxy Loxy who tried to derail the plan and eat them instead. Narrowly escaping crisis, they finally got to the benevolent king. He asked the “right” question: “where is the piece of sky?” The answer revealed the truth and gently allowed Chicken Little to save face with his friends.1

Did Chicken Little use a sound decision making process when he concluded that the sky was falling and the king needed to act? Why did his friends blindly follow him? Might the outcome have changed if the king had not questioned Chicken Little? Many times in our own organizations, we perceive that a crisis exists, and we assign the resolution of that crisis as a key priority. When we meet to decide on a course of action, many leaders fail to question basic assumptions and afford great deference to the advocate assigned to resolving the priority. In one scenario, the group decides to take action on the proposed solution and no one thinks to challenge the proposal or question its efficacy. This phenomenon is known as “groupthink.”2 In another scenario, leaders engage in endless debate over a single option, and upon reaching impasse, they present an “up or down” decision to the CEO. This is usually a false choice, excluding many alternative options and leaving leaders feeling resentful.

Decision making theory has been around for a long time.3 Only recently, however, has research uncovered key disciplines that can help us make sound decisions quickly while avoiding the perils of groupthink. In this article, I will explore four such disciplines. The “PACT” model for decision making is: (1) Prepare and agree on clear objectives, (2) Assess and propose multiple viable options, (3) Clarify roles up front, and (4) Test decisions and improve the process accordingly.

Preparation is the key to success in so many endeavors, so it almost goes without saying that preparation is critical to effective decision making. When a business crisis emerges, whether it threatens a short or long term element of your organization’s strategy, it requires careful preparation before it is assigned priority status. This preparation includes carefully defining the problem and agreeing on the desired outcomes. Without disciplined problem definition and objective setting, team members tend to choose options based on faulty assumptions, setting the stage for impasse and unilateral decisions that do not garner the support of the team.4 This dynamic occurs because teams are presented with choices on which they must vote, and the vote often necessitates a tie-breaker. The subsequent problems are often attributed to unhealthy teamwork or leadership problems. In his recent article “When Teams Can’t Decide,” Bob Frisch writes: “To combat [the problem], companies use team-building and communications exercises that teach executives how to have assertive conversations, give and receive feedback and establish mutual trust. In doing so, they miss the real problem, which lies not with the people but with the process.”5

To improve the process, teams need careful preparation and problem definition. First and foremost, leaders must challenge whether a perceived problem is real; i.e., is it a barrier to effective strategic execution? There are many ways to approach problem definition, but I find the “Define” phase of the Six Sigma™ process instructive. In this phase, project sponsors seek information that helps describe the symptoms of a problem and the context in which it exists.6 The objective is to come up with an operational or strategic definition, scope and boundaries, an estimated impact on the organization, and some baseline data supporting the project definition.7 In addition, the leadership team needs to assess whether the issue is important and if its resolution will have high impact on the organization. Once the problem is defined and its priority status tested, the team should then set clear objectives. This step is critical to an effective decision making process. The team must determine not only how to define the desired outcomes, but also how to measure them. “In the absence of clearly articulated goals, participants will choose options based on unspoken, often widely differing, premises….”8 Frisch describes a manufacturing company that decided to close a plant based on its objective to achieve the highest possible return on assets. However, when this objective was shared with the parent company, the parent wanted to keep the plant running. Its objective was to minimize corporate overhead and maximize earnings. Closing the plant would necessitate closing another plant, and this would inhibit the parent company from achieving its objective.9 Once the team understood this outcome, they were able to attack the problem as a team.

The team meeting is a perfect forum for evaluating and assessing options for solving a thorny business issue. In his book Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni underscores the importance of this strategic tool: “It is where executives wrestle with, analyze, debate, and decide upon critical issues (but only a few) that will affect the business in fundamental ways.”10 Once a problem is defined and objectives set, the team must structure a process for developing the best possible decision, and generating constructive conflict around the validity of the proposed solutions is vital.11 We must not be misled into thinking that the team meeting is an event, cautions Garvin and Roberto, but rather, it is but one part of a decision-making process.12 The meeting is the vehicle through which teams stage the critical inquiry into possible solutions, and there are steps that will help maximize the quality of the final decision and minimize interpersonal conflict.

First, generate multiple, viable options for consideration. Current research reveals that when groups consider multiple options, they are, by necessity, opening their minds to the range of possibilities. This helps to avoid the groupthink that occurs when a single option (go/no go) is presented and there is limited room for rational inquiry. Indeed, people feel constrained to ask questions when only one option is presented—especially when the presenter has far superior knowledge of the material. They leave the meeting with unanswered questions and the decision does not garner necessary buy-in. Multiple options are also linked to teams with lower occurrences of interpersonal conflict.13 “Working together to shape those options enhanced the group’s sense of teamwork while promoting a more creative view of [the company’s] competitive situation and its technical competencies.”14 In addition, considering multiple options helps avoid the false choices that are a recipe for poor decisions and team resentment.

Second, develop a process to assess and constructively analyze the options. This is one of the most important steps in the decision making process and should be given due time and attention. For one thing, if done poorly, it can lead to dissension, lack of commitment, and interpersonal conflict. Furthermore, if a decision is made too quickly or too late, it can have disastrous consequences strategically. In order to structure this part of the process effectively, teams should strive to make this a collaborative (rather than competitive) process. A process characterized by debate or advocacy (competitive) is typically not transparent; sponsors or advocates are prone to withholding information necessary for an effective decision simply to make their project look more attractive.15 Garvin and Roberto go even further, writing that this approach “typically suppresses innovation and encourages participants to go along with the dominant view to avoid further conflict.”16 Again, this is groupthink, and it stifles effective decision making.

In contrast, the more effective methodology is one of collaborative inquiry where teams are assigned to represent certain positions, study all angles of the problem, and articulate the pros and cons of their position to the broader leadership team. These “issue” teams are required to engage in critical thinking around an idea, vigorously testing its assumptions and hypotheses. In forming these groups, it may be wise to break up natural coalitions or assign people to take a position that they do not normally represent. This will disrupt natural biases that may occur along functional or hierarchical lines. During the presentation of these opposing views, all team members should ask challenging and probing questions relative to the issues, maintaining focus on the problem to be solved and the agreed-upon outcomes. Whatever feedback is received should be incorporated into the proposal, or a new option can be created with the best features of all of the options. This process will help to drive the team toward consensus; if this cannot be achieved, only then should a tie-breaker be used.

As with many issues in leadership, there is a debate over whether a final decision should be made by the team or by an individual. There is certainly empirical support for both. Group decisions can be achieved through the engagement process already described with teams ultimately coming to consensus through the iterative process of testing, probing, and refining their proposal. On the other hand, teams may also reach impasse, and no amount of collaborative effort will break the tie. In “Who Has the D,” Paul Rogers and Marcia Blenko underscore the importance of assigning a sole decision maker – someone who is accountable for the decision and its implementation:

Eventually, one person will decide. The decision maker is the single point of accountability who must bring the decision to closure and commit the organization to act on it. To be strong and effective, the person with the D needs good business judgment, a grasp of the relevant trade-offs, a bias for action, and a keen awareness of the organization that will execute the decision.17

Key considerations to take into effect when selecting the decision maker include “global vs. local,” “center vs. business unit,” “function vs. function,” or “internal vs. external.”18 These considerations imply and underscore an important point: the CEO is not and should not always be the sole decision maker. Indeed, assigning all decisions to the CEO will inhibit the organization’s ability to quickly make decisions and adapt to new obstacles and opportunities. Action is the goal when assigning roles for decision making. As with all systems, clarifying these key roles is not enough; human systems should be put in place to reinforce the importance of these roles, and objectives should be set to measure the quality of each employee’s performance in the role. Clarity and team alignment around those in decision making roles is essential, for these roles often can and do trump the organizational chart.19

Finally, key stakeholders should be identified up front. For example, those who have veto power or input into the decision should be defined before the issue teams are engaged, and these roles should be chosen carefully and judiciously to avoid bogging down the process. Make your choices meaningful. For example, too many people with input may be overkill without enhancing the quality of the decision. Remember the old adage: if you don’t have time to do it right the first time, you won’t have time to do it over.

The problem with measuring the impact of a decision making process is that one only knows of its soundness after – sometimes long after – the decision is made. However, there are some tests for decision making effectiveness in the present, as well as metrics to track. Each major decision should be followed by a debrief session in which the team assesses lessons learned that should be incorporated into the next decision. Was the process followed? How was the quality of the critical inquiry? Was there interpersonal, rather than cognitive, conflict?20 Catching these issues early can help improve execution and inform process innovation or compliance.

As to the quality of the decision itself, there are steps teams can take to test the efficacy of the choice during the process. First, track the number of alternatives generated. Second, assign “intellectual” watchdogs who are designated as “devil’s advocates” for the process. If the fundamental assumptions for a project have changed, retest the assumptions and challenge them vigorously. Third, always come back to the original criteria set for the project. Does the solution measure up to the objectives set at the beginning? If not, why not? (Know the answer to this important question; you may not have the chance to answer it a second time!) Fourth, ensure that the process itself was fair. “A real-time measure of perceived fairness is the level of participation that is maintained after a key midpoint or milestone has been reached. Often, a drop in participation is an early warning of problems with implementation….”21 Fairness also requires that the decision maker keep an open mind and actively listen during the process. People do not need to agree as much as they need to feel heard and understood. Finally, do a post-audit on selected decisions and see how well they match up with the expectations and assumptions set forth at the beginning. Track the results of these audits over time to see whether your team’s decision making is improving.

The PACT model helps teams drive toward team effectiveness on decision making by following key disciplines and process guidelines. By engaging in careful problem definition, clear objectives, structured critical inquiry around multiple options, clearly assigned roles, and reality testing of the process, teams will see measured improvement in the speed and quality of their decisions.

Finally, it will save you from the perils of groupthink, especially when the “sky” is just an acorn.

End Notes:

  1. “Chicken Little” has many variations, including those with no happy ending. It is derived from an African folk tale dating back centuries. The morals of the story are many.
  2. “Groupthink” has been defined as: “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” (Janis, Irving L., Victims of Groupthink, 1972, page 9.)
  3. E.g., Plato utilized the technique of option analysis, listing “pros” and “cons” in order to reach a sound decision.
  4. Frisch, Bob, “When Teams Can’t Decide,” Harvard Business Review, November, 2008 p. 4.
  5. Id.
  6. Watson, Gregory, Six Sigma for Business Leaders (2004) p. 101.
  7. Id. at 103.
  8. Frisch at p. 6.
  9. Id.
  10. Lencioni, Patrick, Death by Meeting (2004) p. 241.
  11. Lencioni, Patrick, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, (2002); Garvin, David A. and Roberto, Michael A., “What you Don’t Know About Making Decisions,” Harvard Business Review, September, 2001, p.26.
  12. Garvin, and Roberto at 26.
  13. Eisenhardt, Kathleen M., Kahwajy, Jean L. and Bourgeois III, L.J, “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1997, p. 37. See also, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, 2d edition, edited by Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus, (2006), p. 75. (“A cooperative context tends to facilitate constructive controversy, whereas a competitive context tends to promote destructive controversy. Controversy within a competitive context tends to promote closedminded disinterest and rejection of the opponent’s ideas and information.”)
  14. Id.
  15. Garvin and Roberto, p. 25.
  16. Id.
  17. Rogers, Paul and Blenko, Marcia, “Who has the D,” Harvard Business Review, January, 2006, pp. 14-15.
  18. Id. at 14-18.
  19. Id. at 19.
  20. Id. The authors have a useful checklist for diagnosing problems with the process at p. 20.
  21. Garvin and Roberto at 31.

Susan Diehl is a certified CEO Advantage advisor with extensive experience as an executive and private attorney. She is passionate about helping others succeed as leaders. Susan lives in Ann Arbor, MI. She can be contacted at


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