John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Nov 97 (v1.0)

A Simple Decision-Making Method
for E-mail Groups

Sometimes in the course of an e-mail list, the group needs to make a decision about some issue at hand. In a "working" list - where the group's explicit purpose is to carry out a task - this may happen on a regular basis. As many of us know, group decisions can be a very complex, emotional, and frustrating process. This may be especially true on e-mail lists, where discussions can be a bit confusing. The lack of face-to-face cues may make it more difficult to understand other people's meanings and intentions. Messages on a list also tend to be scrambled in sequence, so that several threads of conversations become intertwined and crisscrossed. Add this to the fact the people are coming from different time zones, and the list becomes a bit of a temporal jumble.

In this article, I'd like to propose a simple discussion/voting method that can help structure the decision-making process. This method assumes that decisions on the list are democratic. The process consists of 5 stages, with stages 2 through 4 having a specific, predetermined length. The role of "facilitator" for all decision-making may be a permanent position (the list owner or some other list member), or may alternate among members. The facilitator guides the group through the 5 stages and reports the outcome.

1. Setting the Process into Motion

The first step is to decide when a question or issue is important enough to set the wheels of the decision-making process into motion. In many cases it will be obvious because list members already have introduced and informally discussed the issue. At least several members of the list must agree to begin the Formal Discussion of the issue. One option is to begin the Formal Discussion after this possibility has been motioned and seconded. Another option is a simple "show of hands."

If there is sufficient interest in beginning the decision-making, the facilitator sends a "Decision Agenda Message" (DAM) to the list announcing that the process has begun. This message: (a) indicates that the Formal Discussion period has begun; (b) clearly states the issue being discussed (the issue should be expressed in the form of a yes/no question); (c) outlines the specific length and deadline (date and time) for each of the stages; (d) encourages the list members to avoid distracting the group by starting other discussion threads.

2. Formal Discussion

For a specific period of time as specified in the DAM, the list discusses the issue. The length of this period may vary according to the needs of the list and the particular issue at hand. Probably at least 2-3 days is necessary, in order to allow people in different time zones to participate. To avoid distractions, other discussion threads should be kept to a minimum. All members of the list should be encouraged to participate. It's very possible that the discussion may result in a change in the wording of the question. If there is general agreement about this change, the facilitator resends the DAM with the new wording of the issue. If there is general agreement, the time-frame for the decision-making stages may be altered in this resend of the DAM. During the Formal Discussion Stage, the facilitator may send one or two messages to the list reminding the group of the date/time for the end of the discussion and the beginning of voting. If the discussion fades out quickly, the facilitator may ask the group if anyone objects to proceeding immediately to the Voting Stage. If there are no objections, the facilitator sends a message to the list indicating that the Voting Stage has begun.

3. Voting

At the established date and time according to the DAM, the facilitator sends a message to the wizard list indicating that the formal discussion has ended and voting can begin. This message reiterates the date and time that all votes must be in. No votes are accepted after the deadline and no further discussions should occur during this voting stage. The facilitator tallies the votes and sends a Voting Tally Message (VTM) to list indicating the results. Another list member may volunteer to confirm to count. The final decision may be based upon a simple or 2/3 majority vote, or on a consensus. Which of these three options is used should be determined before the decision-making begins. If consensus is the preferred choice, but a consensus is not attained after the votes are in, the facilitator sends a second DAM indicating that the group is returning to the Formal Discussion Stage. The group repeats the process until a consensus is reached.

4. Appeal

In the VTM, the facilitator also asks the group if there is anyone who calls for an appeal. In this Appeal Stage, the group discusses whether there were any violations of the decision-making process or unusual circumstances that may have disrupted the process. If no one calls for an appeal, the process moves to Stage 5. If someone does call for an appeal, the appeal discussion lasts for a predetermined period of time (2-3 days). The facilitator announces the end of the Appeal Stage and calls for a vote (simple or 2/3 majority decision) on whether the decision-making process should be restarted at Stage 2. If the discussion fades out before the predetermined deadline, the facilitator asks whether anyone objects to proceeding immediately to the vote.

5. Implementation and Evaluation

Once the decision has been reached, the group puts it into action. At some later point, when the effects of the implemented decision can be evaluated, the group should discuss how well the decision worked.

Keeping Records

Efficiently making decisions can build a sense of efficacy, purpose, and cohesion within the group. Keeping records of the decision-making sessions offers additional benefits. The VTMs can reveal who are the active members of the group and who are not, as well as the history of each member's positions on important issues The sequence of issues in the DTMs also provides a valuable outline of the history of the group.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

The Natural Life Cycle of Mailing Lists
Extending a Work Group into Cyberspace
How many mail list subscribers does it take to change a light bulb?

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