I could see Claire slump a little in her chair. She was a very senior leader in her company and had been charged with leading a decision team through the evaluation of a major strategic choice, one that would dramatically shift the business model of the company by creating a very visible distribution partnership with a giant firm. The decision carried huge risk – for the company, for its owners and customers, and for her personally – since it was bound to upset some employees and important customers.

“That’s a big decision,” I said slowly, realizing mid-sentence that I was at risk of playing Captain Obvious.

While only a select group knew about the possible direction under consideration, opinions were already divided. Claire knew this because her email and text strings were lit up with lobbying from the alliances already forming around the options on the table.

The fight was picked. Now Claire’s challenge was to turn the bubbling conflict into something productive.

Conflict is often decision-making in disguise. When you do it right, it can make everyone and everything better. People learn from each other. They broaden their view of the world. And the decisions they make are often better in quality and much better in implementation than when tension is swept under the rug. If you’re on a leadership team, you’d better master the decision-making play.

What makes Claire’s task seem daunting is that the decision seems gigantic, complex, and contentious.

But what if Claire could turn what feels like an overwhelming task into a series of small moves? What if she could steal a page from accomplished strategists to help the team navigate the challenging topic in a way that keeps passion but injects rationality? What if instead of trying to get one giant but doubtful victory, Claire could manufacture a series of small wins that creates momentum and – gasp – fun for the team? 

Here’s how she could turn a tough fight into play.

Win #1: Start by clarifying the decision to be made. Make sure it’s clear, simple, and agreed to by everyone who is engaged in the decision process. “How can we fundamentally change our business model to gain access to these three new markets?” might be an example of this. It’s Claire’s first small win.

Win #2: Agree to what we don’t want. Sure, Claire should get the team to talk about the desired outcomes they’re pursuing for the business. But it’s just as interesting to have people share what they don’t want, what they fear most. Fear drives more of our subconscious behavior than we think. So if you can draw it out, validate it (“whoa, I wouldn’t want that either!”), and help each person convert their worst fears into what they truly want, you get a three-fer. You get a vivid picture of the team’s collective fears, a more specific vision of success, and the interpersonal bonding that comes from self-disclosure. It’s Claire’s second small win.

Win #3: Identify options. There are almost always multiple ways to address any course of action. Claire will only have to think back to the lobbying she’s had from team members to identify a few. Why not say to the team, “Before we go further, I want to catalog all of the potential options we have in front of us.” She can write them down on a whiteboard, making sure they are mutually exclusive. The rule here is no evaluation or judging. The team just lists them and describes them as dispassionately as possible. Yes, someone will roll their eyes at the suggestion made by that guy, but simply acknowledging options preempts the time waster of someone later saying “but we never considered X.” If the team winds up with too many options, the team can always vote on which two or three make the short list. It’s Claire’s third small win.

Win #4: Tease out assumptions. Usually, what comes immediately after identifying options is the food fight where different factions fight tooth and nail for their preferred option. Listening drops to levels only seen in Congress. Instead, Claire can say to the group, “It’s possible that any of these options are the best choice for us. Let’s make a list of what must be true for each option to lead to a happy ending.” Now the team is coming to agreement on the assumptions behind each option. To cap it off, they can vote on which three assumptions are most crucial to the success of each option. It’s Claire’s fourth small win.

How to make tough team decisionsWin #5: Embrace skeptics. Staring at a list of critical assumptions for each option, the skeptics will start to get restless. “I’m not sure I buy that assumption,” they’ll say to themselves or mutter to each other on break. Skeptics get a lousy rap in teams. Leaders often feel frustrated with them, wishing they’d just be a little more positive. It’s better to embrace the skeptics. Claire can say, “OK, what evidence would convince you that each of those critical assumptions is valid.” Skeptics are usually reasonable. They know they don’t live in a climate-controlled lab. So with a little time, they will often be able to identify data that would make them comfortable that the assumption was tested and worth acting on. Claire will see their defenses drop. A bit. They’re skeptics after all. And in the process, the skeptics have done the team a valuable service by making sure the group’s thinking is rigorous enough. It’s Claire’s fifth small win.

Win #6: Search for data. Once skeptics have helped identify the required evidence to test your assumptions, Claire can simply ask the team, “For each assumption, what data do we have and what additional data would we need to convince our friendly skeptics?” Pretty soon, they’ll have a research agenda on their hands. Since skeptics generally love research, Claire can get them involved in hunting down the answers. It’s Claire’s sixth small win. She’s on a streak now.

Win #7: The choice. Once the team has assembled all of the data possible to test the assumptions underlying their best options, it’s time to make the decision. Let’s say Claire chooses a joint decision approach for this decision. She now says to her team, “It’s time to make a call. Based on the options before us and the data available to us right now, what is our best judgment? What should we do?” There still may be debate. People may still wring their hands. But rather than making one big agreement in one “swell foop,” they’re more likely to come to an agreement that they can all live with. It’s Claire’s seventh small win. She’ll be tempted to heave a sigh of relief and maybe give herself a high five. But to really complete the play, Claire isn’t quite done yet.

Win #8: Track the decision. The best teams learn from experience. As big as this decision is, Claire knows it’s not the last they’ll face. So together, they write down what they decided, why they decided on it, and how they managed the process. They do this so that they can communicate it to other curious people and so that they can revisit the decision later and see how sound their judgment was, particularly on testing assumptions.  It’s the eighth and capstone win for Claire. Not only is the decision as sound as possible in the real world, but she has the foundation in place to help the team get better at the next decision.

Notice what Claire is communicating by how she turns a team fight into play.

  • We’re all on the same team. We trust each other and the process to get the right answer.
  • Everyone’s input matters – the dreamers and the skeptics and everyone in between.
  • We make decisions based on the merits, not based on personality or shady politics.
  • We live in the real world, so we make decisions based on the best data we have available. But we do look carefully and critically for data.

Add that up and Claire has made a powerful statement about the kind of environment she’s going to create in her company. She’s fostering a place with transparency and engagement and the ability to intelligently navigate challenging human emotions. That can only help her company live closer to its ideals and deliver results.

Your organization’s mission matters just like Claire’s company’s mission. Your mission gets played out through the decisions made every day. Those decisions sometimes provoke conflict, but they’re often fights worth having. They make everyone and everything better because without them your firm won’t rise as high or shine as brightly as it could. And, we all need your company to shine as brightly as possible.

Be Bright


Ted Harro

Ted Harro

Founder, Noonday Ventures

Ted helps companies climb higher and shine brighter by unleashing the brilliance in organizations. 

He transforms leaders into catalysts, raises teams to peak performance, and helps organizations perfect and implement their strategies.  Prior to Noonday, Ted led the professional services division of Wilson Learning Worldwide. Ted holds a Masters in Organization Communication from the University of Illinois at Chicago.