Deciding how to decide

The format of how a group makes a decision has an effect on the decision that is made with different methods being more suitable for different situations. So what are a few of the different approaches we could use?


Factors which influence the choice of decision making include: urgency, importance, future lifespan of the group, personalities in the group, group size and expertise. In any group some people will have more personal power than others and this can be beneficial or harmful. It can be managed with a facilitator or by having leaders with the consent of the group.

Chinese parliament

Useful for urgent but not instant decisions. A leader has been appointed and the rest of the group give their ideas and proposals and the leader makes the final decision.

Simply picking a leader does not give them authority on the ground. If the group is not disciplined or practised in following that person’s authority, when it comes to the crunch they may simply make their own choice or follow someone else. This was seem on the D12 Paris demonstration when people followed someone they knew or someone highly visible rather than the person that had been designated.

Hand score voting

Useful where urgent consent is wanted from all in a small group (less than ten). A few proposals are stated, then for each proposal on the count of three, everyone votes with their fingers. They vote on a scale from 0-5 – five fingers for agree completely, none for blocking the proposal. People feel pressurised to agree which can help get a quick decision but the bias is that the most dominant person will speak first with their proposal, so this is likely to be adopted. This is why it is important that several proposals are heard first, so that people know what their options are. The group decides in advance how many fingers is the minimum for consent depending upon the risks – three, four or five.

Majority rule

Used in democratic voting so most people are familiar with this. Suitable when less broad consent is needed because decisions do not infringe greatly on the minority. How you prepare and decide which proposals to vote on will determine a lot of the outcome.

Working groups

Creation is most effective as individuals or small groups. Working groups are a useful model where a small number of people are given authority by the group to come up with proposals. These are then questioned and altered by the main group. The choice of people for the working group is obviously very important for their expertise and breadth of opinion. It is not advisable that everyone in a group should be ‘an expert’ as they will have a similar narrow worldview on the topic that could make the decision less robust.


For long term decisions as the process is time consuming. Can be used for large groups as long as the group has a shared purpose and a level of trust. Proposals best prepared by smaller working groups. Useful when decisions affect everyone and the power and personal choice of all people needs to be respected. Proposals are discussed and then voted on. Skilled facilitation is required to ensure that different voices are heard. Points are not repeated, if others agree with points raised, then they wave their hands/fingers. If anyone in the group feels the proposal is against the ethics of the group or would cause them to leave the group, they can ‘block’ it. If someone does not wish to be part of the proposal but is willing for it to happen, they can ‘stand aside’. If there are significant stand asides then the proposal should be discussed further.

Taking a step back and looking at how we make our decisions is essential for us to understand their influence on the outcome and to work with others. As the environment movement joins with equality movements we need to make group decisions with people who have different decision making cultures. Great social shifts are preceded by a coming together of previously unrelated social movements and now is one of those times in history. So when you’re in yet another meeting, with a room full of frustrated people struggling to work together, remember to decide how you decide, and to appreciate the wonder that these passionate people from diverse movements are finally coming together.


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