A Tip on Making Better Group Decisions

Since I assume many readers work in large organizations, I pass this post from Eliezer Yudkowsky at the Overcoming Bias blog as one of those rare bits of practical advice that isn’t overwhelmingly difficult to implement and can make a real difference in the quality of outcomes:

From pp. 55-56 of Robyn Dawes’s Rational Choice in an Uncertain World. Bolding added.

Norman R. F. Maier noted that when a group faces a problem, the natural tendency of its members is to propose possible solutions as they begin to discuss the problem. Consequently, the group interaction focuses on the merits and problems of the proposed solutions, people become emotionally attached to the ones they have suggested, and superior solutions are not suggested. Maier enacted an edict to enhance group problem solving: “Do not propose solutions until the problem has been discussed as thoroughly as possible without suggesting any.” It is easy to show that this edict works in contexts where there are objectively defined good solutions to problems.

Maier devised the following “role playing” experiment to demonstrate his point. Three employees of differing ability work on an assembly line. They rotate among three jobs that require different levels of ability, because the most able – who is also the most dominant – is strongly motivated to avoid boredom. In contrast, the least able worker, aware that he does not perform the more difficult jobs as well as the other two, has agreed to rotation because of the dominance of his able co-worker. An “efficiency expert” notes that if the most able employee were given the most difficult task and the least able the least difficult, productivity could be improved by 20%, and the expert recommends that the employees stop rotating. The three employees and the a fourth person designated to play the role of foreman are asked to discuss the expert’s recommendation. Some role-playing groups are given Maier’s edict not to discuss solutions until having discussed the problem thoroughly, while others are not. Those who are not given the edict immediately begin to argue about the importance of productivity versus worker autonomy and the avoidance of boredom. Groups presented with the edict have a much higher probability of arriving at the solution that the two more able workers rotate, while the least able one sticks to the least demanding job – a solution that yields a 19% increase in productivity.

I have often used this edict with groups I have led – particularly when they face a very tough problem, which is when group members are most apt to propose solutions immediately. While I have no objective criterion on which to judge the quality of the problem solving of the groups, Maier’s edict appears to foster better solutions to problems……

This echoes the principle of the bottom line, that the effectiveness of our decisions is determined only by whatever evidence and processing we did in first arriving at our decisions – after you write the bottom line, it is too late to write more reasons above. If you make your decision very early on, it will, in fact, be based on very little thought, no matter how many amazing arguments you come up with afterward.

And consider furthermore that We Change Our Minds Less Often Than We Think: 24 people assigned an average 66% probability to the future choice thought more probable, but only 1 in 24 actually chose the option thought less probable. Once you can guess what your answer will be, you have probably already decided. If you can guess your answer half a second after hearing the question, then you have half a second in which to be intelligent. It’s not a lot of time.

I differ a bit with Yudkowsky on last point, about changing our minds. In the study he cites, the participants had to state their guesses. As Robert Cialdini pointed out in his classic Influence,, people have a strong need to appear consistent. Once they voice an opinion, or even an inclination, they are loath to reverse themselves.

This research suggests a corollary: avoid if at all possible discussing where you are coming out on an investigation until you are done with your research. Otherwise, you may wind up shutting down your own thinking by revealing possible recommendations too early.

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  1. Jobst Heitzig

    Better group decisions are possible

    Ever felt powerless in an election?
    Ever been overruled by a majority over and over again?
    Ever seen a group decision fail to pick an obviously good compromise?
    Ever wondered whether democracy and majority rule are really the same thing?

    Then this is for you!

    True democracy is about every person having power, not just a mere majority!
    Groups can make just and efficient decisions!
    And it’s surprisingly simple, too!
    Here’s how: Vote, but don’t use majority rule. Use a better voting system!

    Give it a try! Use this simple method for your next group decision:

    Discuss the options and make sure any good compromise options have a chance of being identified as such. Then, on a ballot listing all options, each person ticks as many options as she likes, from one to all, and then underlines the one of them she likes best. Tally the ticks for each option. Then draw two ballots at random. If some option is ticked on both ballots, the winner is that such option which got the most ticks overall. Otherwise, the winner is the option underlined on the first of the two ballots.

    You doubt that drawing ballots at random can be any good? Then think again: this is the only way to make it impossible for a mere majority to overrule all others and ignore their preferences! As everyone’s ballot has the same chance of getting drawn, everyone has the same amount of power.

    But isn’t this the same as just drawing an option at random? Not at all! The better options will get more ticks and have thus the largest chance of winning.

    Still, how can a good compromise arise from a process involving randomness? Think strategically: it is in the best interest of everyone to tick a good compromise, since that reduces the probability of getting a less preferred option. Therefore good compromises will very likely win! Often the system will even lead to complete consensus so that no randomness remains at all.

    This system, called “D2MAC” (which stands for “Draw Two / Most Approved Compromise”), is only the simplest of a series of good voting systems that are much more just and efficient than mere majority rule…

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