The best leaders recognize that their job isn't to make every decision or even break every tie when it comes to their team. Doing so creates an overdeveloped sense of responsibility in themselves an over-reliance on them from their people. Nor is it their role to ensure complete consensus on every issue, which lends itself to never-ending discussion and weak compromise. 

A strong leader will  facilitate a robust discussion based on the best available data, review a range of options, and help the group arrive at a widely and deeply supported solution.

A robust decision-making process implemented effectively will provide stronger solutions, greater buy-in and alignment, and clarity on specific next steps. Even so, the most aligned teams with the best process can, at times, hit a stalemate. When this happens, teams either defer the decision to another time, hoping that the deadlock will somehow dissipate, throw it back to the group leader, or acquiesce to the loudest voices in the room. None of these options result in high-quality decisions.

Rather than defaulting to one of those options the next time you find your group in gridlock, try one of these simple exercises instead.

When you're trying to narrow the choices

Often the decisions you have to make as a team are not binary, but multi-optional. Say you're trying to whittle down your annual goals from nine to five or your strategic initiatives for the quarter from seven to four. It can be overwhelming to talk through all the possibilities and then somehow find a compromise. 

In that situation, dot voting can be a powerful tool. Give everyone a set of sticky dots equivalent to double the number of options you're discussing.

Write all the current options on a piece of Flipchart paper, have someone speak to the specifics of each option, and then have everyone vote using their dots. They can put their dots anywhere. Want to go all-in on one solution? Go for it. Feel like dividing them evenly across a couple of options? That's great too.

Once everyone has voted, take those options that scored the highest and remove the rest.

When you're choosing between two options

In this instance, the team has split into two camps which want to take a different, seemingly opposing directions--for example, targeting the over-50s versus the under-30s in your next marketing campaign, hiring one candidate over another, or opening a new office in Miami versus Nashville.

Neither is seemingly wrong, both have merits, and you can't get a consensus. What usually happens is a back and forth between the two most vigorous proponents of each side of the debate. It's a long, slow, grinding, and, dare I say it, soul-sucking exercise that culminates in a battle of obstinacy. One by one, folks start to abandon their position in hopes the conversation will end. Sensing the tiring masses, someone quickly moves to a vote and declares victory.

Rather than put everyone through this bruising exercise, make it a more rounded debate. Have one person from each side lay out their arguments with no interruption. Once the initial statements have been shared, ask if anyone wants to add in supporting points. Don't let the same person speak twice until everyone who wants to share has done so, and don't let the same discussion point be repeated more than once.

Once there are no new arguments, put it to an up-or-down vote. A simple majority is fine, and a supermajority is even better. Now you can start on the work of finessing that idea.

When you're stuck on the details of a solution

You may be circling a decision at this stage, but there are nuances to work out that are causing disagreement. This often happens when you're fine-tuning goals or initiatives or even when you're wordsmithing your vision and mission statements.

Start by clearly stating the current proposed solution. Have everyone in the group indicate their level of buy-in by raising one to five fingers accordingly:

  • Five: I'm all in
  • Four: I'm pretty stoked
  • Three: Meh, I'll do whatever the group wants
  • Two: I'm not comfortable, or
  • One: I cannot support this

If there are no "ones" or "twos," everyone is either on board with the decision or happy to go with what the team decides. In which case, the team should adopt the proposed solution as-is.

If there are "ones' or "twos," have them share their perspective and put forward an amendment to the solution that would take them to a "three" or above.

It's your call whether to adopt the amendment. If you do, go back to a first vote on the amended solution. If not, go to a second vote on the current resolution. This time it should pass if there are no "ones."

If there are still "ones," have them share their perspective and forward an amendment to the solution that would take them to a "three" or above.

Again, if you accept their proposed amendment, that goes back to a first-round vote. If you still choose to stick with the original solution, at this stage, you should have a straight up or down majority vote to accept that.

Good facilitation takes time and a degree of skill, but when you do it, you'll end up with the strongest possible solutions to your biggest challenges.