High-Quality Team-Based Decision Making
If senior leaders can create an open environment for their teams to make better decisions, their churches can really benefit.
Sometimes, senior leaders want to avoid conflict. Where does it play out? In our small team meetings. It leads to a lack of creative tension, poor decision-making, and a lack of trust and accountability.
The solution? Senior leaders need to develop a much more open communication style that works well in a small team.
In this post I want to focus on what Les McKeown calls “high-quality team-based decision-making” and why it is crucial to any organisation. 1
As Christian leaders, we should be better at this than most for two reasons:
- We are elders, a word always found in the plural in New Testament churches.
- We uphold values of truth and love which should result in honest but truthful creative tension (Ephesians 4:15).
Alas, our aspirations and values don't always converge in our small team meetings. Often they’re not even good, never mind great. So, what can be done to improve them?
The role of Chair
The role of Chair is crucial. The Chair starts by creating a good agenda: this should consist of items such as Bible reading and prayers, apologies, fixing the date of the next meeting (do this at the beginning), declarations of personal interest, and Items from last time to check on progress and problems.
Once they are in place, focus can turn to the rest of the agenda. By asking beforehand if anyone else has agenda items, it helps the whole team realise that the Chair is not dominating the meeting, but facilitating it. The Chair can prioritise the agenda:
Then maybe leave alone the ‘non-Urgent and non-Important’.
If there are complex issues coming up, the Chair can request someone in the team to outline the issue and produce a summary paper for all to read beforehand. This can save a lot of time and allow discussion to focus on what needs working on.
During the meeting the Chair needs to encourage contributions where candour is key. This may mean guiding someone away from saying too much or refocusing the conversation if it is going off-topic. It will also mean encouraging someone to speak who is quieter.
It is important to learn and practice key values and skills; listen carefully and actively (with your eyes) to others. Say what you think, don't take disagreement as a personal attack, and trust that the to-ing and fro-ing will lead to a better outcome than you could achieve on your own. Afterwards, stick to collective accountability. Don't give in to the temptation to have a meeting after the meeting.
Some of us find all this very hard, especially if we have been brought up in a sole pastor role, and/or are introverted by nature. It can be difficult to believe that creative tension will lead to better outcomes, and not to personality conflicts. But take a long hard look at Acts 15 and see how helpful the process was there.
At my church, we have often found that using a flipchart and getting comments down on paper is a useful means of validating everyone's contributions. It also enables everyone to see all the points.
The Chair will need to watch time in all of this and keep an agenda moving. Some items will need to be left to be taken up again (but with action-pointed research before next time). Remember that there is only so much that can be done in a one-to-two-hour meeting, so get the difficult done first.
What happens in small groups, can be translated to larger meetings too. Acts 6:1-7 shows us a great leadership team getting ownership and buy-in from a large group. Of course, the more people in the room, the harder it is for all to speak, but getting everyone around tables and into small groups can help (see previous posts on this such as decision-making and going to two services).
Map a way ahead
Having drawn out people’s insights, and registered the strength of those comments, a facilitator (who doesn’t have to be the Chair) can begin to draw everything together and develop a way forward. Individuals can then ‘own’ specific action points.
Good creative tension doesn't mean we always arrive at the lowest common denominator, otherwise we would just go with what causes the least offence.
Rather, Christian leaders should keep on raising the bar with one another, challenging themselves to faith, love, humility, prayerfulness, and service (see Acts 20:17-38 for a great example of this). Learning to endorse someone else's good insights is a valuable lesson to younger leaders. It shows them that we are about service and effectiveness, not about egos and reputations.
Following the meeting, the sooner everything can be written up the better. Circulate notes or minutes as quickly as you can. If action points are personally owned because people spoke up in the meeting, this will be better than names on circulated notes afterwards.
The Chair will want to encourage individuals who have owned action points by speaking to them outside of the meeting, asking how they are getting on, what can be done to support them, assuring each person of prayers, concern, and appreciation.
Following people up does not mean the Chair is acting as the group’s policeman, but because encouragement outside the meeting goes a long way in affirming contributions in the meeting. It assures each person that who they are, and what they are doing, is valued.
It is one of the reasons the senior leader, as he begins to employ staff and develop other leaders, has to prioritise into his timetable the important role of encouraging people outside of meetings. It will take time, effort, and skill.
John Maxwell stresses how important it is to lead up or lead north. 2 If the person supporting me, the one to whom I am accountable, is ‘there for me’, I need to be ‘there for him’ too.
I don't pass up trivial problems but learn to solve problems which I let my supervisor know I've sorted. I don't trespass on their limited time. Instead, I learn to collaborate with peers all the time.
These ‘outside of the meeting’ habits are key to high-quality team-based decision-making. If I see meetings as routine and trivial and can't wait to get back to my ‘real work’, I will be shaping a culture where I undermine the crucial importance of team-based decision-making.
Pitfalls to avoid
Senior leaders have to teach Christians the difference between things that are right and wrong, wise and unwise, and liked and disliked.
This is a matrix many fail to understand.
Far too often Christians say something is wrong, when what they mean is that they dislike it. It is okay to dislike something (even strongly), but morally that is significantly different from saying it is a sin against God (see how Paul talks about a decision involving Apollos in 1 Corinthians 16:12).
There is also a weakness that creeps into conversations if we find ourselves saying that while something isn’t wrong, it is a slippery slope to something that is. Comments like that taint an idea with moral offensiveness, even if it isn't. It is also a truism that could be said of any idea or proposal.
We must recognise, however, that even the strongest of Christians may disagree on what is wise or unwise in difficult circumstances (see my post on the dispute between Paul and Barnabas). It really can be okay for strong feelings to be expressed but we all need to learn to trust one another, and sometimes agree to disagree.
This may lead to a delayed decision or even a different direction. Yet often such candour will lead to better decisions than anyone would come to left to themselves. That has certainly been my experience.
Senior leaders need to harness ‘the power of the team’ in coming to good and better decisions. Teams are not just vehicles to bring to fruition what they've predetermined should happen. In the long-term, high-quality team-based decision making will lead to a much healthier culture of genuine cooperation and collaboration.
To summarise: the creation of an open environment where all are empowered to speak but also learn to trust and submit to others who have different points of view is important if we are to work together well. The church can then really benefit from having a team-based leadership.
It is worth investing our best energies in.
1 Les McKeown, Do/Scale (The Do Book Co, 2019)
2 John Maxwell, The 360° Leader (Nelson, 2005)