What is the Optimal Group Size for Decision Making

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(Do Too Many Chefs Spoil the Broth?)

Harvard management gurus say seven is the magic number for optimal decision making; a recent study was done by Shiela Margolis of The Institute of Workplace Culture believes 4.6 (4+one midget?). So, what does that say about a Jury of twelve or a Congress of six-hundred and thirty-five? We digress.

Working in teams is a key paradigm for most management and operational processes. However, we all know how human political dynamics can impact results. The team dynamic is such an important subject and goes hand-in-hand with the “War for Talent.” Indeed, just having more heads do not necessarily make better decisions. In fact, we all know how a camel was designed, right?

Much has been written and spoken about the dearth of talent or “super-star” employees that can ignite innovation and combat the threats of disruption. However, there is wisdom in collective insight, innovation, and great decision making when that collective wisdom can be tapped into.

Needless to say, a myriad of studies have been done to determine optimal group decision making to help find that sweet spot as it relates to the number of group participants, which really translates into a number of group interactions and ideas. Too much clutter can lead to confusion and can be inefficient. On the other hand, too few participants can miss the target. Those of us who have participated in group decision making understand that it is much more than the number of participants. Group success depends on a number of variables starting with who chooses the participants. What criteria do they use? Are the choosers capable of assessing the true benefits that group members can bring to the table? Indeed, do the choosers even fully understand the nature of the concern or a vision of potential solutions? In fact, perhaps the easy solution is to find a proven superstar or consultant to provide the perceived expertise. Thus, the War for Talent. However, there are two very important things to consider before hunting for the superstar:

  1. Can a proven super-star transfer their expertise to the actual concerns of the company?
  2. Can the superstar work well with the other members of “the group,” and how long (at what cost) will it take to judge a good hire?

Consider this: According to research reported in Science, the October 2010 issue  by authors Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi and Thomas W. Malone:

“This “c factor” (the group’s collective intelligence) is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.”

Many companies are now striving to make their teams more multi-level by inviting participants from different levels and departments of the organization. While this may be a good idea, it can imply a basket of potential interaction problems such as the political agendas, the type and level of knowledge as well as the age group of the participants. Indeed, there will be a growing number of Dudes & Dudettes participating with their elders with perhaps a different set of interactive skills.

MetaOps and MetaExperts CEO, Mr. Ron Crabtree, CPIM, CIRM, is an internationally recognized expert and author in cutting-edge business process improvement methodologies, has written about the importance of having a trained Facilitator to not only keep the group on track but to also articulate and hold accountable established ground rules for the group. Indeed, as Mr. Crabtree is quick to point out, “becoming a productive facilitator takes specific training on not only how to conduct team meetings but also how to keep focus and provide motivation for participants to develop a group zeitgeist approach to the team goals. Most importantly, having an outside a-political facilitator can help provide a more objective approach to the concerns at  hand.

As an experienced Certified Business Analyst, I have found that perhaps the best way to really optimize the decision-making process is to use the business analysis format:

  • Brain storm with top level decision makers as to their views on the problem and what might be done
  • Brain storm with the company subject matter experts and staff directly involved in the processes of concern.
  • Assess if the company has the internal capacities and requirements to address the concerns
  • Develop a scope of work with suggested solutions and requirements
  • Form a decision-making group to present an action plan to the decision makers
  • Form a decision-making team consisting of key decision makers, key stakeholders, as well as key employees that can address the major perceived operational risks.

Now, whether this adds up to 4.6, 7 or larger group of participants will depend on the complexity of the issues and how well the scope of work is laid out (including budget and expected ROI) should be part of the process in determining the actual size of the decision-making group.

As an addendum, may I suggest that you have an “outsider” (maybe even a super star) participate in the decision-making process to be charged with helping to provide as objective a decision as possible.

Additional Reading

Decision Making in Complex Times

Three Steps to Better Decisions

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