Has your team ever faced a vexatious decision that required you to trudge through clashing perspectives to get to a solution everyone could live with? Maybe you found the prospect of this heated discussion so unpleasant that you kept putting it off. Or maybe you waded into the troubled waters more than once but couldn’t agree on a path forward. Hard problems, high-stakes decisions, heated arguments—there must be a way to make these discussions easier.
In The Good Fight, I shared a technique for making contentious decisions that I call “Common Criteria.” I was reminded of it recently when writing an article about how to handle difficult conversations about returning to work. The technique is great for so many difficult decisions so I’m revisiting it today.
The Hardest Decisions
The idea behind the Common Criteria technique is that hard decisions aren’t simply about negotiating on the relative merits of one solution or another. There’s no simple math of one plus one equals two in a hard decision. Instead, the hardest decisions are those where you and your teammates don’t even agree on what you’re solving for or what a good solution looks like. These decisions have hidden agendas that make the conversation treacherous.
Hard decisions are hard because the people around the table have diverging perspectives on the problem that stem from your diverse expertise, your specific stakeholders, and most importantly, your unique values. Until you can understand and appreciate those different interests, you’re not likely to agree on a solution.
Why then do we tend to go into a decision-making process blind to one another’s values? It’s like entering a minefield with no sense of which wayward step could trigger an explosive reaction. The Common Criteria technique maps the terrain before you try to find a path through it.
Common Criteria Process
Here is the simple process to define a set of common criteria and then use them to align on a decision.
- Define the decision that needs to be made. (This should be done by the decision-owner. If you don’t have a decision-owner, get one before going any further. You can read my case for why teams shouldn’t decide, here.)
- Ask each person to identify one or more criteria that the team should be using to evaluate your options. Continue to add criteria until the list includes all that your colleagues think are salient.
- Rank the criteria based on which are the most important to address with the decision. You don’t have to get this perfect, just have a cluster of the need-to-haves, want-to-haves, and nice-to-haves.
- List the possible options. Spend a little time specifying what’s included in each option but DO NOT discuss the merits of any of the options at this stage. Try to broaden the options beyond the original set that you had been considering.
- Begin to evaluate each option on each of the criteria. Give people ample time to be able to explore one another’s perspectives.
- Triage the options, removing one or two options that now seem less compelling.
- When you get to only two or three options, add in a discussion of different ways of structuring or implementing the decision that might make the difference one way or the other.
- End the discussion and have the decision-maker share their decision.
Imagine you’re a member of the leadership team of a law firm. You’re trying to decide on what your workplace policies will be following a year of Covid work-from-home arrangements. The scuttlebutt tells you that your colleagues’ opinions are all over the map. Some are advocating for a full return to the office for everyone, others are pushing for a remote option because they’ve been working most weeks from their lake homes and are pretty darn happy about it. This is not going to be fun.
The first questions are 1) what’s the decision and 2) who is (are) the decision-maker(s). It’s possible that you’re going to have one policy for the whole firm, in which case, it might be the managing director who arbitrates the final decision. Alternatively, you might decide that there will be thresholds set by the firm (a managing director decision) with room for different practices or offices to set their own rules within the framework (those decisions would fall to the practice or office leads). Let’s assume for the sake of keeping this post south of 3,000 words that the firm wants one answer.
Next, convene the team and start talking about criteria. You might hear about:
- Client service and convenience. We need to provide an exceptional level of service to our clients
- Talent development and knowledge sharing. We need an arrangement that ensures our team members are constantly growing and developing and have the information they need to do their jobs well
- Firm culture. We want the intangible benefits of a strong sense of belonging and camaraderie
- Efficiency and productivity. We need to assess how different arrangements will affect the speed and ease of completing our work
- Compliance and risk. We need to consider the security of sensitive client information that flows among team members
- We should factor in the cost of the working arrangement
- Employee experience. We need to think about how different arrangements will impact employees and their families
I would guess that you’d have a few more criteria, but you get the point. Just naming these criteria will have put so many people at ease. The IT person who has survived a year of sleepless nights thinking about sensitive client files passing through unsecured home networks has briefly stopped sweating now that they know you’re willing to consider the issues inherent in work-from-home scenarios. The head of HR is feeling heard now that you’ve committed to weighing onboarding and development in your decision. The tenor of the conversation is already more constructive.
Now rank the criteria. Are there some that need to be high on the list whereas others are just secondary factors?
Once the criteria are set, it’s time to start drawing out all of those fantastic (or fantastical) ideas people have for what the new working arrangements might look like. Maybe one leader is advocating for a full return to the office with a 9-5 schedule. Another might be thinking that this year has worked great and that people should be able to work from home whenever they want.
The important thing is to use the criteria to help guide you to a few more options. For example, you might moderate the full-time office scenario (an option) to consider employee experience (a criterion) by setting a core window of 10-3 when everyone is expected to be in the office, but with room for people to time-shift their office hours to minimize the commute or provide childcare flexibility.
Try to get to 3-6 options.
Once you have the set of possibilities, do the drudgery of rating each option on the criteria. Don’t worry about two-decimal-point scoring schemes, just use something simple like red, yellow, green, or bad, neutral, good. As you go, you might be thinking that forcing the team to work through this drudgery is a bad idea, but it’s amazing how the process allows most of the emotion to dissipate, which is a good thing.
At this stage, you’ll likely find that one or two solutions are pulling out ahead. That often leads to a scenario where you can break the decision into two parts: what is the best thing we can do; and how can we best implement the decision to take into account other issues?
In the law firm example, you might be leaning toward allowances for 2-3 days a week of working remotely but right in the decision, you’re factoring in what investments IT would need to strengthen the security of the network. Once the Managing Partner feels confident enough to choose an option, the process ends.
The magic of the Common Criteria technique is that it sets you at ease by reflecting what’s important to you in the criteria that will be used to make a decision. You’d be surprised how reassuring it is to see your criteria written on a whiteboard. Once you and your teammates hear your concerns being validated, you’re more willing to listen to the other factors at play. From that point on, it becomes an exercise in problem-solving rather than an unruly, uncomfortable fight.
I talk about the common criteria process like algebra. Once we understand each other’s equations, we can solve for the unknowns.