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Why Voting Is NOT Collaborative Decision Making

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Nov 22, 2013 1:51:00 PM

Voting is not collaborative decision making

Eat or be eaten. Over millions of years we have evolved based on this simple rule. And it has big implications for decision-making in business and at home. Left unchecked, the behaviors that allowed your ancestors thrive within their social group are the very traits that are deadly to collaborative decision making.

In this series of 2 blogs, we will look at collaboration and decision making. We’ll look at how voting is a very poor tool for business-level collaborative decision making. In the second blog, we will look at ways to improve your collaborative decision making.

Decision-making is not easy

Over evolutionary time, our brains have evolved quite amazing pattern recognition capabilities. This is what allowed us to recognize that pack of lions is in a hunting formation, not lazing in the sun. But, if you think about it, this system is biased towards certain types of decision outcome. “Ooooo! Those bushes just moved. There must be a lion in there. Decision: RUN!”

But it was only a rabbit.

This evolutionary journey has left us riddled with biases and limitations that make good, rational decision making difficult. Over the last few decades, cognitive neuroscience has discovered lots and lots and lots and… well, if you want a pretty good list of the ways we are biased in decision making, just check out the Great Wiki in the Sky. Oh, and have your scroll finger ready.


Our brains didn’t only evolve to match patterns. It also evolved to remember what’s good for us and what’s bad. Reward systems in the brain kick in when they see things that make us happy (like finding some lovely ripe fruit on a particular kind of tree) and punish us when things that make us sad (like tripping over that rock… again!). So we seek out things that made us happy in the past and we seek to avoid things that made us unhappy.

This smacks us right in the head – or maybe the heart – as it introduces emotions into the decision making process. We “feel better” when we are presented with information that confirms our world-view and we weigh this information more heavily in a decision. Conversely, we tend to ignore information that is in conflict with our preconceptions, all of which messes with our ability to make good decisions.

As if that wasn’t enough, it turns out that, out there in the savannahs of Africa, there were no strong evolutionary pressures to be able to hold many variables in active memory at the same time and use them to make a decision. This means that we’ve ended up with a brain that can only hold “5-7 chunks of information” at once – a significant limitation in most major business decisions.

Collaboration is hard

Of course, we weren’t alone out there on the savannah; we were in groups. A quick look in any newspaper will show you that we’re still a very tribal species. So you’d think we’d be good at collaborating, right?

When our ancestors, 2 million years ago, got together, it wasn’t to work out the best way to set up their supply chain in light of changes to social attitude to sustainability. No, it was to work out who would have what role in the hunting group, who would get to eat what afterwards and who would mate with whom once the eatin’ was done! There were winners and losers within these groups and those who won…. well, they got a greater share of the food, the better roles and more productive mating rights.

Just like a modern boardroom or Senate committee.

So, we’re wired to compete rather than to collaborate.

Of course, evolution also explains why we collaborate at all, and in some cases why we appear downright altruistic. And we DO collaborate for good reasons. Basically, it comes down to the fact that, by collaborating, individuals are more likely to survive and have children. So we evolved to compete and collaborate simultaneously ---- collab-atition is born!

Collaborative decision making. Deadly combination?

So, there are problems both with decision-making and with collaboration that are based deep in our evolutionary history. During collaborative decision-making all these problems collide. Even worse, a few other issues emerge exacerbating and already-toxic mix.

Now, our blogs are often light-hearted, but there is always a serious point, and in this case it’s this; collaboration and decision-making is a deadly combination, sometimes literally. One well-known example of poor collaborative decision making is the Challenger disaster where seven astronauts died.

But getting collaborative decision-making right is well worth it. A typical decision made in companies or government will be “good” only about half the time. Research shows that good collaborative decision-making practice can increase this hit rate to around 80%.

So, if like me, you think a 60% improvement in your success rate is worth the fight, let’s take a look at how to tackle these limitations and biases head on. Let’s look at how to make collaborative decision-making work… but first, let’s look at what does not work!

Voting. How to fake collaborative decision making

Collaborative decision making is hard, so many people fake it.

Around 2,600 years ago, a bunch of clever guys in white robes sat in a circle in Athens, Greece and came up with a great idea: democracy. Let’s just vote for everything. And democracy is so good that it’s still here and it’s moved into all areas of our life. “Shall we go swimming or to a movie today? Let’s vote!” Nothing wrong with that, but…

“Which of these contractors shall we use to build out this $2bn infrastructure project? Let’s vote!”

Now I’m worried.

For small, everyday decisions voting is fine. In fact, it’s a great tool for simple decisions that you want to make quickly and that don’t have long-lasting effects. “I know you’re upset that we’re going to the movies today, little Jimmy. Don’t worry, we’ll go swimming tomorrow instead.”

But where the decision is complex, where there are multiple stakeholders, where the consequences are long-lasting… voting simply isn’t up to the job. Why? Because it combines the worst of our decision-making limitations (we’re each making the decision on our own) with the worst of collaboration (politics, jockeying for position, not wanting to be the odd one out, etc.)

Voting in complex group decisions (often anonymous) is an avoidance of true collaboration and it ignores problems with decision making. Each participant follows his own “decision making process” which results in his vote. A voter can be totally un-prepared and his vote will still count; nobody will ever know.

How to make collaborative decisions?

Okay, so now we know how not to make collaborative decisions. So what should we do?

Well, the next blog in the series will look at this in more detail. For now, let’s confine ourselves to what a good collaborative decision-making process should do. Well, it should;

  • Leverage the creativity of the team, not hinder it
  • Help correct for our biases
  • Break the problem down into manageable chunks
  • Give each person a voice, but not necessarily an equal “vote”
  • Include strong consensus-building tools
  • Be rational and transparent

Don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait for the second blog in the series…