Choosing in Groups

I recently read an interesting book by Michael Munger called ‘Choosing in Groups‘.  Professor Munger is an economist, former chair of the Department of Political Science at Duke University and teaches (amongst other things) on how and why people organize themselves to make decisions.  It’s a book on public choice theory but with plenty of insights for leaders who need to facilitate or make organizational decisions.

It opens with a story from the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase and find an inland route to the Pacific Ocean.  Near the end of the mission, and prior to returning home from the west coast (in what is now the state of Washington), the Corps have to survive the winter with dwindling supplies and amidst relentless rain.  The group identified three possible options: stay at their crudely built base camp, explore further south where they had heard there might be more elk, or venture back inland where it might be colder but the storms would probably be lighter.

Although Lewis and Clark were military captains and (as senior officers) had made decisions for the Corps throughout the trek, in this particular case they decided to take the decision to a group vote.  We don’t know the reasoning for this approach but Munger states that “there are two important reasons people choosing in groups often use some kind of voting mechanism: information and legitimacy.”  This struck a chord with me and I could immediately see direct relevance to general business decision-making processes. While leaders should (and do) make decisions for their teams, there are also situations for group decision-making .

Looking first at information, Munger states that, “collecting information by aggregating judgments can make the group smarter than any of its members.”  Part of the reason the leader assembles a team is to benefit from the expertise of those individuals and and tap into their advice and candor for the good of the organization.  In short, a leader can benefit from the advice of a group of experts.  When it comes to legitimacy, which Munger describes as “building ownership and morale,” this is especially important when individuals have a stake in the choice and it will have a direct impact on them.  Group decisions mean that the individuals within the group personally own the outcome.

In day-to-day decision-making in an organization, I often find that both reasons cause a need to use a group for input.  That is, the organization DOES want to benefit from the wisdom of individual experts and those individuals ARE the people who must lead or operate a function based on the decision.

An example of this that we often come across at Integris Applied is when establishing a team to build requirements for new services and evaluating potential service provider solutions.  When building such teams we try to identify a cross section of experts and stakeholders who can collectively represent the knowledge and interests of the full organization.  These may include functional experts (such as security and finance), service delivery leads (who will guide and manage the service), and customers (who will ultimately use the service).  Finding the right mix of individuals, building a rule-set for evaluation, and managing the internal debate to solicit and incorporate each members’ input are key to making the right decision and creating ownership in the outcome.

In a business, like in the Lewis and Clark expedition, responsibility for a decision comes down to a single leader.  Wise leaders recognize the need to engage teams for information and legitimacy.

– Tim Ryckman, Jan 2019 – [bio]