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Group Decision-Making and Problem Solving

Sections of This Topic Include

Guidelines to Successful Group Decision-Making and Problem Solving
Additional Perspectives on Group Decision-Making and Problem Solving

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Note that the reader might best be served to first read the topic Group Dynamics to understand the basic nature of most groups and their typical stages of development. (It's not clear at this time if online groups have similar nature and stages.)

Guidelines to Successful Group Decision-Making and Problem Solving

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

There are many techniques that can be used with groups to help them make decisions and solve problems, for example, voting, consensus, reference-to-authority and nominal group technique. The guidelines in this document refer to the voting and consensus techniques.

Voting (to Make a Selection from Among Alternatives)

The purpose of the voting technique is to make a selection from various alternatives, for example:

  • Select the most important or desired item from a list of items (by ranking)
  • Select a range of the most important or desired items from a list of items (by rating)

There are a variety of approaches to the voting technique.

Show of Hands

The most common approach to the technique is simply to ask for a show of hands about each item on a list, one at a time, and the item that gets the most votes in a show of hands is the item selected from the list.


Ranking is assigning one distinct value to each item to select the single, most important item from a list. For example, a ranked list would have one item ranked as 1, another as 2, another as 3, etc.


Rating is associating a value with each item in order to identify ranges of items from a list. Several items can have the same value associated with them. For example, a rated list might have several items rated as high, medium or low or as 1, 2 or 3.


A common approach to using the technique is as follows.

  1. Each member gets a certain number of dots (votes) that he or she can use to vote for items on a list. The number of dots that they get is usually equal to the number of choices that are to be made from a list. For example, if three items are to be selected, each member gets three dots.
  2. Each member walks up to the overall list of items and places their dots next to the items that the member recommends be selected from the list.
  3. After all members have cast their votes, the items that received the most votes get selected from the list.

The dot-voting technique has variations. Different colored dots can represent more than one vote, or even a negative vote. Sometimes, each participant is given one vote of each weight and required to apply each vote to a different item. In other cases, a member is allowed to cast multiple votes for one item.

Consensus Process (to Ensure Collaborative Decision Making)

The purpose of this particular consensus technique is to make a group decision in a highly participative, egalitarian fashion, and get a result that everyone can “live with.” You might:

  • Select the most important or desired item from a list of items (by ranking)
  • Select a range of the most important or desired items from a list of items (by rating)

Often, there is confusion around the term “consensus.” Consensus means that every member of the group can live with the group’s final decision. It does not mean that every member completely agrees with the decision. Consensus is often the means by which highly participative groups members reach their decisions, especially if they favor a highly egalitarian approach to decision making.

There are several approaches to the technique of reaching consensus. One quick approach to consensus is to just ask for a quick conclusion from the group by 1) suggesting a specific answer to the decision that must be made by the group and 2) asking if everyone in the group can live with that suggestion. Although that approach might save a lot of time, it certainly does not support the kind of strategic discussion and thinking so important in strategic planning. Therefore, planners might consider the following, more thoughtful approach to reaching consensus.

Before the Meeting

Members receive information that:

  1. Clarifies the decision to be made. It is often best if the decision is written in the form of a “yes/no” question or a choice from among alternatives, for example, “Should we approve ___?” or “Should we hire ____?”.
  2. Is sufficient for each member to come to some conclusion on their own.

Ground Rules During Consensus Activities

The facilitator explains ground rules to other members of the group, for example:

  1. Members do not interrupt each other.
  2. Members can disagree with each other.
  3. Members do not engage in side discussions.
  4. Silence is considered agreement with the decision to be made.
  5. When a decision is reached by consensus, all members act as a united front to support the decision.

Consensus Process

The facilitator guides the procedure.

  1. The facilitator specifies a deadline by which to reach consensus in the meeting.
  2. In a roundtable fashion, each member:
    a) Gets equal time to voice their preferences and their reasons regarding the question.
    b) Focuses their perspectives on what is doable.
    c) Does not mention other members’ names.
    The most senior leader or manager in the group voices his or her opinion last.
  3. At the end of each person’s time slot, all members take a quiet minute to:
    a) Collect their own thoughts in response to the last speaker’s preferences.
    b) Decide what they would be willing to compromise or have in common with the last speaker.
  4. At the deadline:
    a) The facilitator poses what seems to be the most common perspective voiced by members
    b) Asks all members if they can support that perspective.
  5. If no consensus is reached, members might choose one of following options:
    a) Have a discussion, based on what was learned from the consensus activity so far. Then repeat steps 2-4 to see if a consensus has been achieved.
    b) Consider further research until a specified future time. Decide what additional information is needed and maybe appoint a committee to do research. The committee researches and provides recommendations, preferably in writing to each member of the group before the next meeting. At the next meeting, members hear the committee’s recommendations and initiate the consensus process again.
    c) Consider using a vote to decide (via rating or ranking). Some people would assert that voting is not consensus, but it sure is handy if the consensus process has not reached a conclusion by an absolute deadline.

Additional Perspectives on Group Decision-Making and Problem Solving

Facilitation Library
Problem Solving Techniques for Project Managers
Cindy Tananis and Cara Ciminillo on Round Robins
Fishbowls (for groups to learn by watching modeled behaviors)
Problem Solving Solving Complex Business Problems
Eight Creative Problem-Solving Techniques

Also consider
The following are group-based methods, except for Decision Making and Problem Solving.
Action Learning
Communities of Practice
Conflict Management
Decision Making
Focus Groups
Group Coaching
Group Conflict Management
Group Dynamics (about nature of groups, stages of group development, etc)
Group Learning
Large-Scale Interventions
Meeting Management
Open Space Technology
Problem Solving (includes tools for problem solving)
Self-Directed and Self-Managed Work Teams
Team Building
Training and Development
Virtual Teams

For the Category of Facilitation and Teams:

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