Decision making is a regular part of the life of every nonprofit, and whether your organization has three employees or 300, finding and adopting the best decision-making processes and practices for your team isn’t always easy.
You may struggle to find a middle ground between a hierarchical "top-down" process, where a few chief executives call the shots, and a more democratic "consensus" model where everyone gets a say. A decision-making model called the advice process, made popular by the nonprofit guide Reinventing Organizations, combines the best aspects of both methods. It allows anyone in an organization to make decisions by seeking feedback from everyone who will be affected by the potential changes, and from people with expertise in the topic.
The advice process may be a great fit for your workplace, especially if you already work well together and have a strong sense of shared values.
How does the advice process work?
The guiding principle of the advice process is simple: anyone in the organization can make any decision, as long as they listen to input from those people who will be impacted by the decision, and from anyone with relevant expertise. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: The decision maker proposes a change. This process allows everyone (including employees with less formal authority) to make choices after seeking feedback from others. The decision maker may be the person who first notices an opportunity or problem in need of a solution, or the person who will be most directly affected by the proposed changes, and should be willing to take responsibility for the outcome.
Step 2: The decision maker seeks input. Next they’ll check in with anyone whose advice or knowledge can help them make the best choice.
- The bigger the decision is, the more perspectives should be involved.
- Asking for feedback from every member of a large organization may drag out the process, or pressure the decider into making a choice based on majority consensus. Instead, you might reach out to a representative sample of one or two people in each organizational area.
- If decisions involve just a few employees, some advice processes can be completed through an informal conversation (in person or over online chat).
- For choices with higher stakes or the potential to affect more people, the decider may want to schedule one-on-one or group meetings.
- The decider doesn’t need to agree with all the advice, but they do need to listen to what everyone says.
- Regardless of the method, the decision maker may want to set a deadline for input to keep the process moving. Your goal isn’t to achieve perfection or get everyone to agree—it’s to find a solution that works.
Step 3: The decision maker considers the feedback and makes a choice. Once they synthesize all input, they decide on an action and let everyone know where they’ve landed.
Note that this will be a single person’s choice, not a consensus model. No colleague, not even a supervisor, can tell the decision maker what to decide or override the final choice—though decisions can be reviewed at a later date.
As you might have guessed, the advice process is a good choice for teams that already work well together. Not every decision made using the process will be a slam dunk, so people should be comfortable sharing constructive feedback.
It’s even easier to implement if open discussions and informational transparency are part of your organizational culture. If higher-ranking employees tend to hoard all the info, it becomes more difficult for everyone to make informed choices.
Reasons to use the advice process
- People directly impacted by a potential change will have a clearer idea of what that change might look like in practice, including its perks and pitfalls.
- Workers feel valued and essential to the organization, especially knowing people trust them to make an important choice. And the democratic nature of the advice process encourages equity, since employees can make proposals designed to meet a specific group’s needs.
- Since the advice process doesn’t work unless you work together, it can be great for building and strengthening work relationships.
Supervisors and upper-level employees cede some of the decision-making power to others, and delegation can take "decision fatigue" off their shoulders. More importantly, leadership gets a chance to mentor and support others as they coach employees to make the smartest choices—without making the choices for them.
Potential challenges to watch for
- The decision might be wrong in hindsight. Some advice-process decisions won’t work out as envisioned, or the decider might make a call that others think is the wrong one. Believe it or not, bad decisions are part of the process too. Mistakes are catalysts for growth, and a failed initiative can be an important learning experience for everyone involved.
- There’s always the potential for bias. The decision maker should be careful not to push people toward. This diminishes the importance of seeking feedback, which is all about hearing new perspectives.
- Not everyone will agree on the right thing to do. Even though everyone should understand what’s at stake, differences of opinion are normal.
- The decider won’t be able to please everyone. They’ll have to make individual judgment calls throughout the advice process, especially if a choice needs to be made quickly. It may not be immediately obvious who to ask for advice, or how many people to ask—some folks may resent being left out, or feel pressured to form an opinion. Still, flexibility and respectful communication can go a long way.
If people are dissatisfied with the choice once it’s made, a conflict resolution process may be necessary (ideally your organization has one in place). The decision maker may reevaluate their choice and go in a different direction, but that’s ultimately up to them.
There may be some bumps in the road the first few times you use the advice process. But it can encourage open discussion of priorities and power dynamics in your workplace, while giving everyone the opportunity for on-the-job learning—the positive outcomes might surprise you.
Did you enjoy this post? Learn more about How to Improve Your Decision-Making Process.