Shared Decision Making: Adaptive Action in Engagement


Recently I worked with a group of organizational leaders who bring disparate groups together to collaborate on political and social issues. One of the challenges they face is helping their client groups define how they will make decisions together, ensuring adequate representation of their individual constituencies. Among this group, their largest question was about how they decide about engaging others and then make their intensions clear. In that conversation I shared four options for effective shared decision making.

So what?

As the person who is accountable for a decision, you have to define and communicate how people will be represented in each decision-making process as it emerges. In shared decisions, there are four ways to define constituent participation. The following definitions offer you distinctions that can inform your “So what?” explorations:

  • Direct Participation – In direct participation, each person who is affected by a decision is engaged in the process and has the same opportunity for influence as every other constituent.

    This approach is most effective when you have only a few constituents to contribute to a decision. On the other hand, you can also use this approach in large-group activities that often launch long-term projects, with the understanding that you will use another approach as the project continues.

    One benefit of direct participation is that you allow for the broadest input. One barrier is that it can be difficult to get all voices in the room when it is a decision that affects a large number of people. Additionally direct participation can generate a great deal of data that you may have difficulty sorting through as you seek a decision.
  • Direct Representation – In direct representation, participants in the process represent specific groups of people. Representatives know their constituencies and are responsible to: 1) Gather input from their groups; 2) Represent the wishes of those individuals; and 3) Follow up with those constituents about decisions and next steps.

    This approach is most effective when there is a large constituency whose input is highly diverse. Multiple ideas and perspectives are heard in the process.

    A benefit of this level of involvement is that it ensures constituents have an option to share their perspectives directly into the process and are notified of final decisions and rationales. A barrier to this level of involvement is the responsibility it places on system resources. Most specifically, it can be a burden for a designated representative to connect with constituents to gather input and share outcomes reliably and consistently.
  • Secondary Representation – In secondary representation, individuals are invited to bring a specific perspective, based on their roles in the community. You might invite parents or business leaders or community leaders to bring their perspectives into decision making, but they are not directly responsible to those groups.

    This approach is most effective when the number of constituents makes direct contact prohibitive in time and cost. You engage with the groups’ perspectives, based on the roles of individuals you invite.
  • The benefit of this level of representation is that it provides a more efficient use of time and resources. The barrier in this level of representation is that some constituents may not see their perspectives represented if they differ significantly from the selected representative.

    Conditional Representation – In conditional representation, the decision is made by the accountable individual or designee, who uses perspectives of constituents to make decisions, in consultation with experts to inform the decision.

    This approach is most useful in times of emergent crisis response. It is most effective when the person who is accountable gathers expert data and information about the crisis and makes a decision that represents the perceived perspective of the greater community.

    The benefit of this approach is that it provides for a timely decision that has been informed by expert data. A barrier to this approach is that, by addressing the considerations for the greater community as a group, individual concerns and situations cannot be considered.

The table at the end of this post outlines the important points of each level.

Now What?

Once decisions are made, it’s important that, to the extent possible, you are transparent about each decision to be made and the evidence, input, and data that will inform that decision. It’s important that you plan and communicate carefully about types of decisions to be made and levels of participation that will be considered. Greater transparency and openness will go a long way to increase trust in the process and support for the final outcomes.

You cannot, at the beginning of a process, know all the decisions that will have to be made. On the other hand, you can set the parameters, up front, about the types of decisions to be made, and the levels of engagement you intend. Even when decisions have to be made confidentially, as in the case of many employment decisions, for instance, your constituents need to know, up front, that any decisions of that nature will be not be open to public access or scrutiny.

Finally, ensure transparent and timely communications about the decisions as they are made.  In shared decision making, the flow of information must go two directions. As you collect information to consider in decision making, you also share back to the constituents how their input was used. You do that by sharing: 1) The resulting decision that was informed by their input; 2) The criteria you used for making that decision; 3) The ways their input was used in your decision making; and 4) Ways you will gather future input and use it as further decisions are required.

Shared decision making can be a messy proposition, but the benefits that emerge when it is done well far outweigh the challenges. You have choices about the patterns of engagement you foster when you lead a shared decision-making process. Clarity, transparency, and consistently will go a long way in creating the patterns of trust and participation you want. 

Try using these distinctions in your next project and let us know how they work. Be in touch!


So what?

Deciding the best match for shared decision making

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