You know the drill. There's a board meeting tonight and you are completely prepared.
You compiled the board reports (all 137 pages) and posted them online last week.
You emailed the package to the officers, including the minutes from the last meeting and the updated action item list.
You'd think that the board meeting would go quickly. After all, the board has all the available information at their fingertips, and they've discussed these issues before. All they need to do is make a decision.
But it never works out that way.
Undead discussions and long meetings
Boards are notorious for experiencing decision paralysis. This seeming inability to make a decision on even simple issues causes agenda items from meetings to show up month after month without being resolved. Simple decisions can be discussed to death, buried, resurrected and discussed to death again.
Andrea Meyer-Smith, PCAM has experienced this phenomenon many times:
"I had a board that was reviewing whether to change a policy regarding parking rules and after 4 months of discussion, it was finally tabled because the board knew if they changed the policy, some owners would be upset. Yet the majority of owners were actually upset because the policy was outdated. They ended up doing a survey of the owners and still waited many months before taking action because some of the board didn’t agree with the survey results and argued that surveys were just a way of gathering information, while all final decisions were to be made by the Board."
It's enough to drive one a little mad, isn't it?
You may have asked yourself, 'Self, why don't they just make a decision? Why do they have to keep having the same discussions over and over?' And the most important question, "What can I do to help them break out of this cycle, to make decisions more quickly and decisively, and shorten these infernally long meetings?"
Let's look to science for the answer.
How we make choices
The human brain receives massive amounts of information in a given day - some 400 billion bits of information per second. The brain's job is to make decisions based on that information. Most decisions, such as blinking or breathing in and out are handled by the subconscious. Active, deliberate decisions that involve the logical, thinking part of your brain are less frequent, numbering in the tens of thousands per day.
As a fine-tuned decision making machine, your brain has developed a system which allows it to attach weights to options, to quickly determine which choice is better. This system (called 'Value-Based Decision Making') is contrasted with the 'Cognitive Control' aspect of the brain, which allows you to stay focused on a goal and work toward achieving that goal. Together, the Values system and Cognitive Control help your brain evaluate decision options while discarding distractions from the goal at hand.
This gives the brain its unique ability to consider and discard options quickly, leading to rapid decision making.
The trouble comes when many different choices are given a similar value by the values system and are not discarded by the goal system. The brain then needs to make a choice between seemingly similar options - a difficult decision. This is where a bizarre mechanism of your brain comes into play. It begins to attach negative emotion to the options that you do not intend to choose. (What you may be missing out on by not choosing the other options). This is often also referred to as fear of missing out.
This fear, of making the wrong decision and missing out on some imagined opportunity, leads to decision paralysis (also known as analysis paralysis). In short, with so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all.
Too much choice is counter-productive
In his influential TED Talk, The Paradox of Choice, Psychologist Barry Schwartz illustrated this fact using a mutual funds data study of over a million people in companies around the world. Researchers found that the more mutual fund options that were offered, the amount of participation among employees actually decreased significantly - 2% for every 10 options offered.
So ultimately, we feel better when we have fewer, more obvious choices to make a decision. Which is not to say we should try to completely remove the option of choice. The secret is to provide the right kind of choice. Specifically, clusters of choice.
Clustering options = smarter decisions
Malcolm Gladwell, author of "Tipping Point" explains how providing a cluster of choices, 3 to 4 options, allows people to make a more accurate and informed decision. He explains it in relation to spaghetti sauce in his informative and entertaining TED Talk, Choice, Hapiness and Spaghetti Sauce:
Now let's bring that back to the board meeting and the question at hand, what can you do to help the board make informed decisions faster so that the meeting ends earlier and the community runs more smoothly?
The 1-3-5 approach
In their article "Decision-Paralysis: Why It's Prevalent And Three Ways To End It" Forbes Magazine recommends a simple three-step methodology to create clusters of choice that actually facilitate the decision making process, which they dubbed the 1-3-5 approach:
- Pause and ask one good question.
When the board asks you for information to help them make a decision, don't go into every available option and alternative. Your first step should be to pause for a moment and really think about the problem they are trying to solve. (Keep in mind that the problem they are trying to solve and what they ask you for may not be the same thing.) Then ask one good question that gets to the heart of the issue.
- Insist on three options.
Do not give too many similar options, this is what leads to decision paralysis in the first place. Instead, cluster the many options into just three distinct clusters that the board can easily identify and evaluate.
- Talk to five people.
Before presenting your three options, talk to 5 people (not on the board) about the decision at hand and the options you are considering. Often you may find that a homeowner or colleague has a different experience or angle from your own that leads to a better perspective on the issue. (This may be difficult to achieve if the decision is not an open one, but even then you can reach out to experienced managers and mentors and discuss the issue without revealing private information.)
As a manager, it is not your job to make any decision for the board - that is their function. However, they will look to you as a professional consultant to help inform their decision, and that is where this method can shine. Not only will your meetings be shorter, your boards will be more productive, which makes your homeowners happy, which in turn, makes you, and your management company, look fabulous. Go you!