The Strategic Use of Anonymity in Decision Making

Can anyone recall those waste-of-time meetings where one or two staff members took up far more than their share of the meeting? Of course you can. We have all experienced someone trying to railroad meetings with their personal agendas. These insistent members are notorious for putting on the facade that they have supernatural powers—e.g., invulnerability, x-ray vision, super hearing, etc. They know it all, right?

Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No. It’s Mr. Jones, the librarian!

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Of course I am being facetious, but you know exactly who I am talking about. This type of behavior can, however, have far-reaching consequences—especially in the area of decision making. Often times the leader ponders: Are those few voices truly representative of the group?

When bringing a group of people together to generate, winnow, and implement solutions, the leader must extrapolate the collective creativeness of the group—not just a select few. An open forum (which feeds the so-called Super-men and women) does not always tap in to the joint intelligence of the group. In fact, this meeting design often only creates tension and compliance, as opposed to togetherness and commitment.

The questions then become: How can the leader dispel the group’s tendency to use input from only the few? How does the leader create a culture where participation is ‘the way we do things around here.’

There are two noteworthy answers worth mentioning. For one, the leader has to bring the group together and develop explicit meeting protocols, norms, or agreements that explicitly define the group’s expectations surrounding meeting participation and processes. Secondly, the leader must use a variety of processes that encourage anonymity when generating ideas. This practice drives everyone to participate—which, in turn, leads to more ideas surfacing and buy-in from the participants because they were heard.

Although anonymity allows everyone to have a voice, this should not be the only application in the leader’s arsenal. Too much anonymity can produce a group personality where members hide their experiences, expertise, and viewpoints behind the process. Yet, while members of the group are striving to gain trust with one another, anonymity should be commonplace. As time progress (and relationships strengthen) the leader can slowly wean the group towards more outward processes—while keeping the explicit protocols in the forefront of discussion. It is truly a balancing act!

Balancing Stones

There are a slew of activities and resources that are available for practitioners looking to gather information from a variety of stakeholders. Harvey, Bearley, and Corkrum (2001) offer the all-so-familiar nominal group technique, which is a simple method to generate ideas with everyone having an equal voice. Each of the steps is represented below:

  1. The facilitator presents the problem or decision.
  2. The facilitator tells the group they have a few minutes to think about the problem or decision.
  3. The facilitator has the individuals silently generate and write their ideas on 3×5 cards.
  4. The facilitator gathers the ideas from each individual in a round-robin style and records them on a chart. When working with a large number of individuals, various groupings can be assigned.
  5. When all ideas have been recorded, the group discusses each idea in order until everyone has a common understanding. If the group is large, the members can divide into smaller groups to collaborate and collectively share information on and merits and demerits of each idea.
  6. With group agreement, the facilitator eliminates duplicate ideas and combines similar ones.

The authors also offer a method called Spend-a-Dot to narrow or prioritize a number of items on the list.

  1. Record the possible solutions or ideas on a chart or series of charts and post the chart(s) on a wall.
  2. Give each participant a set number of colored dots. The number of dots should be approximately 20 or 30 percent of the total number of ideas posted, and should not exceed ten dots.
  3. Advise each participant to place one or all of the dots next to an item or items he or she considers important.
  4. Count the number of dots for each item.
  5. Discuss the implications of each item with the group.

Both processes are simple, yet so effective.

There are also instances where decisions need to be made, yet time is of the essence. This is a great opportunity to anonymously gather input through the use of online survey tools. This is especially effective when contractual agreements do not allow enough time for face-to-face meetings. Taking a couple of minutes to complete an online survey is far less disruptive.

Online survey tools are great for gathering information quickly. Many low-cost websites allow users to create professional survey formats to be turned into customized surveys with multiple choices, drop-down menus, and comment boxes. Some widely used online resources automatically offer reports summarizing the gathered data, including SurveyMonkey.com, Zoomerang.com, and Checkbox.com.

In summation, leaders need to create a culture where everyone has superhuman powers—in other words, all their ideas are well-known, creative, and invulnerable. This is possible only when the leader works with others to establish meeting protocols, as well as strategically using anonymity in decision making.

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A wealth of information is available on the methods of engaging people in large- and small-group meetings. Here are some good references:

The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady (2007). Sixty-one different change methods are offered by the originators and leading practitioners in the field.

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The Practical Decision Maker by Thomas Harvey, William Bearley, and Sharon Corkrum (2001). This resource includes fifty-four different structuring devices for problem solving.

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Large Group Interventions by Barbara Bunker and Billie Alban (1997). This book demonstrates a variety of interventions to create commitment from everyone.

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The Handbook of Large Group Methods by Barbara Bunker and Billie Alban (2006). Similar to their earlier work in Large Group Interventions, Bunker and Alban provide a comprehensive overview of newer methods to apply.

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Cheers!

Perry Wiseman, author, Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change

References

Harvey, T., Bearley, W., & Corkrum, S. (2001). The practical decision maker. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education.

Holman, P., Devane, T., & Cady, S. (2007). The change handbook: The definitive resource on today’s best methods for engaging whole systems. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Bunker, B., & Alban, B. (1997). Large group interventions: Engaging the whole system for rapid change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

———   (2006). The handbook of large group methods: Creating systemic change in organizations and communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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