How to make the toughest calls.

Five steps for safely navigating the most divisive decisions

We've all been in situations where people can't agree, particularly when we need to gain consensus and support within a diverse group or committee, many of whom may have their own biases, preconceptions, big opinions and bigger voices. And sure, there are times when people see things so fundamentally differently, that they will never be in accord, but those aside, there is usually a route to agreement if you can take people through a rational and objective process. Here are the five key steps for making those divisive and contentious decisions, without descending into a factional stalemate:

1. Define the decision you want to make. It sounds obvious, but arguments often become circular because the different parties aren't looking at the same issue. One could interpret the decision as, "Should we open an office in France?" While another may feel the real question is "Which is the best country in which to open a new office?" And a third, "Shouldn't we be driving penetration in existing geographies before we think about new offices?" Without a common understanding of which question to address first, it's not surprising we don't get consistent views on the answer.

2. Agree the basis for making a decision. Decisions are only difficult when there are factors to balance or trade-off. Risk may be a big concern for some, while others focus on the potential reward, the lack of capability, or the longer term implications. Before trying to push a decision through a group, it's important to get consensus on which factors we should take into account, how would we rank or trade-off their importance, and which boundaries or lines we would not wish to cross. Some of those may need to shift as decision-time comes closer, but at least you have common ground from which to start.

3. Create and short-list options. There are plenty of ways to develop innovative options to solve problems, whether through creative exercises within a group, or by drawing ideas from a wider population, and in general, the more perspectives the better. But to get a genuinely broad array of options, it's important to separate the process of opening up the ideas, from the process of narrowing them down. Run one discrete session to generate as many options as possible without critiquing them, then run a second to take out those ones that obviously score badly against the criteria you've agreed. By the end of the second session you should have a small but diverse shortlist of reasonable alternatives.

4. Gather the data. Using the criteria you've agreed and the shortlist of options, the task of building a concise, objective comparison, or fact-pack, becomes relatively simple, and can often be delegated, either internally or externally, to a relatively neutral party to compile.

5. Make the decision. Even with an objective fact-base, agreed criteria and a clearly defined decision to make, the final conversations can still be tricky, but with good preparation, facilitation and a willingness to move with a majority or executive decision, most decisions will generally make themselves within a short period of discussion. Don't let requests for more information derail the process - unless it's clear what specific information would significantly alter the group consensus, and how it could be quickly and easily obtained, say no.

As a process it might sound onerous, but for a big strategic issue, it's usually a good investment, purely for the ability it gives you to make a definitive call and move directly to action. But beyond that, it gives a couple of more subtle, but no less valuable benefits. Firstly, it creates clarity and transparency around the call you've collectively made - even those who may still disagree with it, are absolutely clear why it was chosen and at least know that their thoughts were heard and considered. But secondly, if it does transpire that the decision doesn't quite play out as you'd expected, and you need to re-think, you've got a bunch of solid alternatives, all evaluated, discussed, and ready to take over as a plan B, should you ever need them.

So the next time you need to make a divisive decision without dividing your people, think about how you can apply these five steps in your organisation.