Why Big Groups Shouldn't Make Big Decisions
Big groups tend to make boring, slow, and wrong decisions. Clean up the quality of your decision-making by making smaller decision-making groups.
I try to send these on Thursday, but again I ended up sending this one on Friday. Thursdays is one of the days I have opened on my calendar for coaching, but it's also my article publish day. So, that means if I have many coaching sessions, it tends to eat into my writing time. First world problems. I'll propose again that I may move my posting day to Wednesday to spread things out. We'll see!
I recently mentioned on LinkedIn that you don't want to make important decisions with big groups. Why did I feel the need to mention that?
On social media in particular, there's an emphasis around consensus-based decision-making, inclusion, and equality among all employees. While these are nice things when deciding which restaurant to visit for a team lunch, I don't think they're effective elements of business decision-making.
I recently wrote an article about ownership and decision-making. In it, I made the case that you should have a single owner for decisions, and not try to create consensus. I wanted to drive into this topic a bit more.
I'll cover the various reasons big groups make poor decisions, and then get a bit more specific around how Amazon and other companies make more effective decisions.
Big groups make boring decisions
If 25 people need to buy pizza, you're getting cheese pizza. Perhaps a few pepperoni pizzas, and a few vegetarian pizzas. Why?
When you're trying to satisfy a big group, you will pick non-offensive, non-polarizing options. If you're painting a house that you intend to sell someday, what color do you paint it? White, or beige, or gray. It's boring, but it doesn't offend anyone.
When a group decision is made, you rarely say, "Holy Smokes, what a cool decision!" Instead, you might say, "That makes sense." Logical decisions are great, but they're not bold.
Do you agree that bold decisions are necessary for corporate success? Think of the major surprise inventions from companies over the years. Most leaders at Amazon would never have invested in Alexa. It was too much of a wild bet. Heck, it's still a bit of a wild bet. The same is likely true for the iPhone, or the Metaverse. Hah! I crack me up. Perhaps the Metaverse isn't a great example. Or perhaps it is, since it clearly is a bold bet.
What allows or encourages someone to make a bold decision? I think the biggest thing is ownership.
You need to feel like you're an owner over the consequences. I wouldn't boldly choose that a friend should wear a purple robe to work. It wouldn't feel right because the social consequences would not be mine. But wearing one myself to work? Sure, the consequences are my own, and so I could make that decision if I wanted. Which I did once for Halloween. It was great.
More applicable to work, it wouldn't feel right for you to make a bold bet for someone else's project. You wouldn't tell people that your peer team should use a new technology for their project because it isn't your team. It's not your place to be bold for them.
If you're one of ten people on a team, would you boldly state that your team should use that new technology? Perhaps you'd suggest it to your peers, but you wouldn't insist on it. It wouldn't be right for you to make a bold decision for the larger group.
Alternatively, imagine you're the most senior engineer on a team. You might feel empowered to be the owner over some bold design decisions. If those are good or bad, you can know that you'll face the consequences. You'd feel confident making a stronger argument for moving to a new technology.
What are we left with? In a group without strong ownership, everyone has a small piece of the decision pie. The least offensive options end up chosen because no one strongly objects. Least offensive politicians might work out well, but least offensive business ideas? Boring.
Big groups have an equal voice problem
Imagine you have a standard engineering team. 4 recent college hires. 3 experienced graduates. 1 principal engineer with 20 years of experience.
Now they need to make a technology decision. Imagine the room. They're all sitting there, suggesting ideas, and proposing which option the group should take.
Assuming everyone talks an equal amount, and has an equally loud voice, that principal engineer will be a single voice in a crowd.
I remember an argument at Facebook (Meta now), where people's levels are hidden.
3 very junior engineers were arguing with 1 very senior engineer. As a manager, I knew the resumes of the employees, and who was likely to be right in an argument. I also had much more experience in the space, and judged the junior engineer's opinions as pretty naive. All three engineers agreed with each other though, and drown out the senior engineers' voice, telling him that he should 'trust them' on this decision.
Should he just trust the group? I'd say no. We love to imagine that we're all equal, but we're not. There are some people who have proven through success and experience to be worth listening to.
If 4 med students and a single experienced doctor were arguing about a surgical technique they were about to use on you, which option would you like to choose?
Crowds make poor decisions because they don't have a great way of elevating the voices you should be listening to.