Teams today are key to organizational success. It’s teams that are the fundamental to any accomplishment or progress. Gone are the days of incredible individual contributions. Making decisions remains, however, the charge of individuals -managers, leaders, supervisor, coordinators. On the other hand, decision-making is costly, and there is even such a thing as decision fatigue.
Delegating decisions to teams, in whole or in part, seems to do the trick for some companies. Sure, companies with flattened hierarchies inherently use team decisions. However, for most organizations the question remains. Is it possible that teams make better decisions? Well, we’ve already discussed ways to delegate to teams and how to improve team decisions. Now, let’s focus on why teams make better decisions.
Teams vs. individual decisions
Comparing team decisions and individual decisions is tricky. Should you run the comparison on a performance baseline? What is it, really, that you want to know? Here are some things most people would compare. Take note of what you agree with.
- Teams draw from diverse backgrounds. In fact, modern teams are all about diversities these days. Millennials in particular care a great deal about diversity.
- Teams put together more brains and more processing power. Individuals simply can’t compete. Teams can do several things at the same time. They can coordinate and cover various pieces of the puzzle. It’s parallel processing.
- Expert knowledge of a niche or field beats teams. Experts spend a long time developing that knowledge. Cursory knowledge, even when offered by a team, is not always helpful. For example, medical advice from a physician versus a whole village of non-physicians.
- Experts can become outliers within the team. Even when you have team trust, experts within teams can be “averaged out.” Trusting experts to impact team decisions is risky.
- The specialization of tasks within any team ensures improved results. Each team member does their share, and corroborates results with peers. Over time, this adds up to great effect. It’s what makes teams super.
- Great wills of great individuals ensure success. These great leaders inspire groups of people towards great achievements. Without such individuals, progress is impossible. Leadership matters and decisions should go hand-in-hand with leadership.
As you can see, there are a number of typical opinions about decisions. Some would favor the team as being more capable. Others would favor strong leaders around which things get done. One key fact is that team decisions reduce work pressure.
How to tell if teams make better decisions
Suppose, however, that you try a simple experiment. You ask for the height of the Eiffel Tower. Which do you think would be closer to the truth? The team leader, with one guess or the average of the guesses of the whole team? Obviously, you’d expect that the team average be better than one guess.
But is there a better way to go about it? And, above all, can you extend this to making decisions? Some researchers already checked much of this in a series of related studies.
It’s by now pretty clear that groups (including teams) can make precise collective estimations. This includes a variety of cases, from building heights to object weights, etc.
Groups that communicate, however, similarly to cheating on a test, will bias the collective estimation. This, for a variety of reasons, is a negative effect. Sure, you can eliminate some extreme cases/outliers. But overall, there is a clear influence of groups over individual decisions. This group pressure suggests that merely accepting team averages is not enough.
Team communication plays a role in further enhancing the effect of this bias. And, what’s more, it’s team deliberation that makes a significant difference. In fact, this is a key finding of a recent study. Averaging the opinion of a group, no matter how large, will point to a certain result.
It’s not guaranteed that this result will be better than an individual estimation. However, probabilistically, it is very likely to be so. When you bring in small debates, you get a lot closer to reality. While wisdom of the crowds beat individual wisdom, debates outperform crowds. Which debates? Team debates. Aggregate knowledge from a small number of debates, to be precise. It’s achievable. Besides, team debates would not be undermined by social influence bias.
How to train teams to debate and aggregate knowledge
This is important for a number of reasons. When you try to use team decisions, beware. The shortest path is truth. Teams will be very economical with the energy they spend arguing.
They will concede to authority or expertise. They will subtly trade points to reach consensus. For example, “you agree with me on this, and I agree with you on X matter.” The overall crowd wisdom of a team will decrease. You won’t get the advantage of a large and diverse data set. And you can’t benefit from reducing social influence bias. The risk here is that your team will make a lot of biased decisions, e.g. “There’s no reason to change our sales strategy.”
Hence, you need to come up with a strategy for deliberation and debates. Hence, the only way to reduce social influence bias is to shoot it down. In essence, talking to one another helps decisions. Team communications foster a thoughtful and more accurate decision-making process.
One approach would be to change your perspective on conflict management. Conflicts at work, are, in essence, communications gone wrong. Here’s a guide to improve on work conflicts.
Furthermore, perhaps it’s best to insist on effective communication. Add to this some of the quintessential team trainings.
A separate strategy would be to use micro-teams. Naturally, you can’t expect to introduce team debates in meetings. Even if you know how to improve your meetings. It is perhaps best if you chart teams in 3-person groups. These micro-teams should discuss and explore various issues.
Now, have these micro-teams disassemble and reassemble. And check the knowledge gained. Aggregate the insight. And make the best decisions possible.