The way Democrats run their caucuses in Iowa provides a different model for making business decisions that you should use in some situations. In particular, use it when it is important that the minority be heard.
Unlike Republicans who hold a straight vote, Democrats in Iowa physically divide the room. Each attendee clusters in his or her “candidate’s area.” Then the caucus facilitators determine which clusters are not viable – generally those with less than 15 percent of the vote.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The “unviable” clusters are eliminated and the other candidates’ backers get to convince the eliminated candidates’ supporters to throw their lots in with their preferred surviving candidate.
The advantage of a straight vote, like the Republicans do, is efficiency. Even if someone like Mitt Romney beats someone like Rick Santorum by only eight votes, it is clear and happens relatively fast. On the other hand, the discussions that take place to help people make the best second choice with the Democrats’ method of dividing the room are particularly valuable. They serve to 1) free people to consider their second choice; and 2) help others understand the thinking behind their decisions.
Second Choices are Freeing
In some cases, people make their first choice because they promised someone else they would support that choice, or because they committed to that position a long time ago and don’t want to appear to be indecisive. People also stick to their first choice because it’s what they think others expect them to do. When this choice goes away, they are freed from those commitments and expectations to do what they really think is right.
Commitments and expectations are not necessarily bad – it’s just that, at some point, they can become out of date. The world moves on. And sometimes people’s choices need to move on as well. Second choices allow them to do that.
Ask, “What would you do if you could not have your first choice?”
Understand the thinking
We used a caucus process to help a group reach consensus on a mission statement. Each individual wrote his or her own draft. Then they had to merge their drafts with others’ drafts, trading wording for support. After a surprisingly short period of time, we ended up with two competing mission statements.
One said, “Serve our customers by….” The other said, “Serve our clients by….” Neither group would consent to the other label for people they were going to serve and we reached an impasse. Then I noticed that one group was dominated by Americans and the other group was dominated by Europeans. I asked each to explain their reluctance.
The Americans said that “customers” were people they sold to, where “clients” were people they partnered with. The Europeans said that businesses had “customers” and prostitutes had “clients.” Not surprisingly, the Americans understood that it would be easier for all to accept “customers” in the mission statement than it would be for the Europeans to accept “clients.”
Ask, “What’s the thinking behind your choice?”
Utilize the right decision making process for the situation
Different situations require different leadership approaches. Often it’s important to have a bias for action – as in a crisis. Other times it’s valuable to dig deeper and get at people’s best thinking. In those cases, find ways to go beyond the constraints of first choices and understand the thinking behind the choices.
Everything communicates. You can either make choices in advance about what and how you’re going to communicate or react to what others do. It is important to discover your own message and be clear on your platform for change, vision, and call to action before you start trying to inspire others. It will evolve as you learn, but you can’t lead unless you have a starting point to help focus those learning plans. Identify your target audiences. Craft and leverage your core message and master narrative. Monitor and adjust as appropriate on an ongoing basis.