GSO Group Decision Making
The GSO technique for group decision making is a structured decision framework. It rapidly moves a group through the three steps of idea generation, option synthesis, and execution ownership. The GSO model is designed to minimize personal ownership of ideas, premature adoption of an answer, and paralysis once the decision is made. It is also designed to do these things rapidly.
The GSO Team Decision Structure
The GSO team decision structure is not intended to replace the many fantastic group decision techniques available. It is a shorthand way to remember what is needed for a group to consistently generate high-quality decisions. It can be used as a guideline for a structured decision process, and it can also be used as a tool for diagnosing where a team is having difficulties.
GSO stands for generate, synthesize, and own. Groups often struggle with some well-documented pathologies when attempting to make decisions together. Some groups never consider multiple options before settling on a solution (a type of groupthink); some groups are quite able to generate ideas but get trapped when trying to choose an option or prioritize (decision paralysis); and some groups are able to get to a decision but leave without full commitment to the decision by group members. These decision pathologies map closely to the fundamental leadership trap. Limited mindsets make it hard to generate strong alternatives. The confirmation bias leads a group to disregard the negatives of a preferred solution. Overconfidence makes it hard for group members to build alternatives and sets up a dynamic of competitive options that are owned by individuals who are convinced they are right.
The GSO structure evolved as a shorthand way to help my students remember the key elements of a group decision process. GSO is an adaptation of the nominal group technique,[i] which does an excellent job enabling idea generation and idea synthesis to include the need to ensure that the group takes ownership of the next steps in the process.
Immediately honing in on a single solution is a significant problem for decision-making groups. It sometimes feels as if groups forget that their job is to find an optimal solution and instead act as if their job is just to come to a decision. This is understandable when you consider that many managers are pressed for time, and everyone knows that once the decision is made, the meeting is over. Overconfidence in the initial ideas can combine with frequent difficulties related to team-member power differences or conflict avoidance patterns to limit the generation of serious alternatives.
Indicators that the generate step is a source of team dysfunction include the following:
- Meetings consistently finish ahead of schedule.
- Some team members start contributing less and less over time. This may be a sign they’ve learned disagreement will not make a difference.
- The team has been “blindsided” by unexpected resistance to their decisions from those outside the group. This could be an indicator that options are not really being critically assessed.
- Team members enjoy working together, but the team is under-performing or feels under-appreciated by outsiders—a possible indicator of a groupthink dynamic.
- For the leader, it feels as if most of the best ideas, or at least the ideas being adopted, come from you. Something may be preventing team members from offering competing ideas to yours.
The four tasks of the generate step are as follows:
- Clarify the question and check to make sure everyone understands it.
- Individually generate lists of options.
- Share lists and let others add to the individual lists (brainwriting).[ii]
- Combine individual lists into a single list and check to make sure everyone understands each item.
Decision paralysis often occurs in those groups that are skilled at generating ideas but simply do not have a defined process for coming to a decision. This can be caused by a number of things: a history of being criticized for decisions by those higher in the hierarchy, a lack of clarity around how to choose among options, individual blockers who simply refuse to consider alternatives besides their own, a risk-averse culture, or lack of accountability for action. We can sort these reasons into several buckets: lack of a decision process, a risk-averse culture, and difficult individuals (either on the team or higher in the hierarchy).
While the GSO structure can help with all three types of dysfunctions, if the problem is difficult individuals, a good decision process may have limited effectiveness. That difficulty may call for a deeper intervention. Consider seeking a leadership coach to help you manage that relationship or read up on some of the research that’s been done on having difficult conversations and surfacing hidden conflicts.
Indicators that the synthesize step is a source of team dysfunction include the following:
- Multiple meetings need to be scheduled for each decision. The team may be debating the same points over and over.
- Individuals are often unwilling to concede points or change positions.
- The team members constantly decide they need more information before they make a choice.
- New people are continually being invited into the decision process.
- There is a history of team decisions being unilaterally overruled by individuals higher in the hierarchy. This will create an overly careful team that will not stop until they have the perfectly 100 percent–defensible decision.
The tasks of the synthesize step are as follows:
- Combine similar options and rename them.
- Discuss each and every option with particular attention paid to discussing the pros and cons of each one.
- Rank or otherwise prioritize the options.
- If enough data are available, make a choice.
Owning the decision is not an explicit part of most group decision processes taught in business schools. The assumption seems to be that, once the decision is made, the situation passes out of the realm of decision-making and into the realm of execution or communication. This is a gap in these group decision models.
In practice, group decisions fail most often because of lack of follow-through. In my opinion, that is a failure of the decision process. Owning a decision means every member of the team, including those who had argued for a different decision, is willing to support the decision—in public and in private conversations. Owning a decision also means every member of the team is committed to moving the decision forward, either through vocal support of the decision to external stakeholders or through execution of the decision. Paying attention to the process during the generate and synthesize steps makes owning a decision easier. Specifically, confronting disagreements and noticing and acknowledging frustration within the team pay dividends during the own step.
Indicators that the own step is a source of team dysfunction include the following:
- Once the decision is made, team members disappear (don’t initiate inquiries about the decision or are suddenly too busy to respond to team leader inquiries).
- Few on the team volunteer for the next steps after the decision is made.
- In your organization, it is not unusual to hear people discuss internal disagreement within their teams after a decision has been publicly announced.
- Your organization has a recent history of “passing the buck” and pointing fingers at others after public failures, creating incentives for team members to distance themselves from team decisions as a defensive mechanism.
- “Execution is not our job” is a widely held mindset in your organization and is often used as an excuse to disengage once the decision is made. If a team truly owns a decision, members will take interest in its execution, even if execution is not their job.
A leader can ensure a team assumes ownership of a decision by leading the team through a short set of questions. If any of the questions trigger warnings, the team can discuss ways to address the risks.
Questions to discuss as a team after a decision has been made include the following:
- Is there individual responsibility? Does each team member have a professional reason to take responsibility for this decision? This could be due to their role, their expertise, or an explicit statement by their supervisor assigning responsibility.
- Is there accountability? What happens if the outcome is poor or the decision is not executed? Do team members feel they will be personally accountable?
- Is there recognition? Do team members have reason to believe they will be recognized for a successful outcome? Will they be rewarded? Do they value the reward?
- Do they care? What would make team members passionate about the success of this decision? Why are they not? What can the team do to link the decision success to what matters most for each team member?
The GSO framework does not replace other, more detailed group decision models. It provides an easy-to-remember shorthand for remembering the three key elements of a successful group decision. Leaders can use GSO to diagnose team dysfunctions and help their team avoid the group-level version of the fundamental leadership trap. We may be notoriously good at persuading ourselves that we know more than we really do, but we are even better at convincing each other that is the case if we are not careful about how we manage our group interactions.
This description of GSO group decision-making is adapted from Chapter 7 of Unquestioned Brilliance. For more on this and other strategic leadership techniques see Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap.
[i] André L. Delbecq and Andrew H. Van de Ven, “A Group Process Model for Problem Identification and Program Planning,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 7 (July/August, 1971): 466–91. The nominal group technique is a great example of a management technique that has been around for so long that is it easy to forget how valuable it is. There is definitely a bias among MBA and executive education students to discount ideas that are more than ten years old. It is not like group decision-making is a new problem!
[ii] Paul B. Paulus and Huei-Chuan Yang, “Idea Generation in Groups: A Basis for Creativity in Organizations,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 82, no. 1 (2000): 76–87.