Collaborative Decision-Making

Jun 23rd, 2020 | Category: Research in Education
By Ronald Warwick

      The aim of this paper is to share a process the author has developed and implemented with many private and public organizations as well as thousands of graduate students over the past 50 years. The aim of this process is to identify values, concerns, issues, priorities, and goals, and then plan and implement improvement strategies, gather and analyze data from these improvement strategies, revise and continually improve the organization to meet and exceed its aim.

      The journey through this process enables you to lead a collaborative process with any group in your organization, however small or large. This process involves two phases: Phase One is the Identification Process phase, and Phase Two is the Continuous Improvement Process phase. Phase One can be achieved usually in a one full-day meeting. However, Phase Two requires a number of small-group team meetings to address the continuous improvement process.

      The first step is for you, as the leader, with your leadership team, to determine an area needing improvement. This first step starts by the leader placing a question in front of the leadership team who will be going through this process and/or assisting the organizational staff who will be going through this process. The question is on the screen starting with the stem: “What are the …?” Some examples of areas needing to be addressed might be:

  1. What are the values most important to implement in our department?
  2. What are the causes of our decision-making system not being effective?
  3. What are the academic competencies and behavioral skills required of our graduate nursing program?                     
  4. What are the criteria to be considered in selecting our next
    church leader?
  5. What are the strategies we can design in our work place to help us be more collaborative and supportive of each other?

Phase One: Collaborative Decision-Making Process

Step 1: The point is that whatever issue, priority, item, etc.… you wish to address, formulate it into a question. This question starts the process. NOW STOP! The wording of this question must be discussed, clarified, and agreed upon with the leadership team before going to the next step. Once this has been achieved, move to step two.

Step 2: Groups of five to seven members are selected who represent a mixture of the organization work-force community. Each group follows a process that enables them to list items (responses to the question) with no conflict. The groups are led through this process by a leader/facilitator and all groups proceed through the “Collaborative Decision-Making Process” starting with 2.1 listed below:

2.1 Each group brainstorms responses by writing each idea on a 5×8 index card using large felt pens, one idea per card. (NO TALKING ALLOWED) The reason “NO TALKING IS ALLOWED” is that each person must be allowed to think of ideas that respond to the question without being influenced by another person’s comments during this step in the process. This step takes only five to ten minutes. After ten minutes, ask each group to close this activity down.

Step 3: After step two is completed, one member at a time, places his cards on the table/floor following the procedures listed below:

3.1 Place one card down on the table/floor. Place the next card under it if it is related to the above card.

3.2 If the idea on the next card is not related to the card previously put on the table/floor, start a new column.

3.3 Proceed under this criterion until that person places all his cards on the table/floor.

3.4 The next person in the group follows the same criteria and the activity proceeds until all group members have their cards down on the table/floor in columns.

3.5 NO TALKING ALLOWED DURING THIS ENTIRE PROCESS Again, each person must be allowed to think without being influenced by another person during this step in the process. (The leader/facilitator, must stop any discussion during this process. This is critical!)

Step 4: After everyone has placed cards on the table/floor, anyone can now move any card to any place in any column where one feels it is more related. Everyone is allowed to discuss the card moves and debate any move. This process is time consuming and should not be rushed. It is the key time for everyone to explain ideas and hear different points of view. The leader/facilitator moves the discussion along but does not cut people off or force a decision. Respect for each person’s view is critical and DISCUSSION IS CRITICAL! The leader/facilitator reminds each group to remove any duplicate card and clarify any card that is not clear to the entire group. After moving and clarifying the cards, the leader reads each card to the group and if any editing is suggested, the card is changed to reflect the edit.

Step 5:  After the cards in each group have been arranged to everyone’s satisfaction, the next step begins. This step involves two groups integrating their columns into one set of columns. As these columns are combined, remove duplicates and edit card wording if needed. Read and agree on the final set of columns after combining is complete. Repeat Step 5 again, and again, and again until one group of columns remains on the table/floor.

Step 6: After all the column cards have been combined and clarified, and the total group is satisfied with the location of the cards, the total group creates a title card for each column. In the upper right corner of each card, mark the title column card and number code of the column cards in each column so they are identified. Title cards are 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0… Cards under Title Card 1.0 are 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3… Cards under Title Card 2.0 are marked 2.1, 2.2, 2.3…. and so on.

Step 7: The next step is to determine which card items are the most critical to the entire group at this time from all the items generated. This is done through a multi-voting process. The leader/facilitator explains the criteria used for the voting process: If the item is “critical to be addressed now”, vote five fingers, if it is “important to be addressed now”, vote three fingers, if it is “important but not critical at this time”, vote one finger. The facilitator reads each card and asks for the vote. All members of the group vote at the same time, and no talking during the voting process. If you are slow to vote, shut your eyes and then vote so you are not influenced by other votes. The leader will delay to count votes until all group members vote on the item. The leader/facilitator (or a group member) records the vote on each individual card in the lower right corner of each card, no vote on the title card. This process is done on each card on the table/floor. One strategy used for counting votes is to ask the entire group to sit in a circle with their backs facing the center of the circle. Also, sometimes the leader/facilitator asks the group to keep their eyes closed during the voting step to enhance no influencing from others during the vote.

Step 8: The top-voted column of cards is identified. The group might notice a natural break in the votes between the top level and the next level and select the top-level items. The top seven to ten cards based on the vote count need to be identified and selected. These items are then set in a single column in any order for the group to see, and then labeled in the upper left corner as “A, B, C, D, E, F, etc.…” Then individuals in the group are asked to rank the items in order of importance to be addressed with the highest rank number given to the one “most critical”, and the next highest rank number given to the next rank, and so on down the line. The lowest number (1) is given to the “least critical” of the items in the column. If you have eight total cards in the column, (8) would be given to the highest ranked item, (7) to the next ranked, and so on down to (1) for the lowest-ranked item.

Step 9: The leader/facilitator totals the “rank votes” from all participants and displays them on the screen for all to see. Once the rank vote totals are complete, ranking the items is next. The rank of the items is written next to the total vote column and everyone can see the rank. The highest voted item is ranked # 1; next highest vote is ranked # 2, and so on. If any items tie for a rank position, revote the item by the five-three-one vote method only to determine the rank position, and do not change its previously recorded total vote.

Step 10: After the rank is recorded, the total group determines if the group has control over the items listed and ranked. The item-control analysis is done by asking the group if it has control, (authority to make decisions to address the item) over improving this situation/item. Again, the group may be asked to sit in a circle facing to the center to allow easy vote counting. The vote is done by the “thumbs up / thumbs down” method with no talking during the voting process. If an individual feels the work-group has control over improving this item, vote “thumbs up”, if not, “thumbs down.” The facilitator records the control vote in the next column in the following manner: yes vote (35) /no vote (15) if 50 people are in the total group. After the control vote is recorded, the group may decide to discuss the control vote interpretation, and may vote again after some group clarification is understood differently based on new information.

Collaborative Decision-Making Process Rule: The rule that determines the group’s priority to be addressed is “HIGHEST RANK AND HIGHEST CONTROL.” The items with the highest rank and highest control are the items the group believes are the best ones to address at the present time.

Review Table 1, Chart 1, and Chart 2 below.

Collaborative Decision-Making Process Steps Review

Step1:      Formulate a question

Step 2:     Individually brainstorm responses to the question on 5 X 8 cards: (NO TALKING)

Step 3:     Create card column distribution

Step 4:     Move, discuss, clarify, remove, and edit cards

Step 5:     Combine groups, again and again to get one total group of cards

Step 6:     Code the title card and column cards

Step 7:     Vote on each card, 5-3-1, with 5 most important, 3 very important, 1 important

Step 8:     Select top voted cards (7-10 cards) and label them (A, B, C, D, etc…), single file line

Step 9:     Total individual rank votes and determine Final Rank 1, 2, 3…

Step 10:   Item Control Analysis Rule: Highest Rank and Highest Control

Table 1

Item 1 2 3 4 RT # Yes/No Highest Rank & Highest Control
C etc…                

      Below are two example charts of data; Chart 1 is from a high school head coach athletic staff, and Chart 2 is from a middle school teaching staff, each after a one day seminar using the above process to determine the values important to them, and what they expect from their students in their programs.

Chart 1

Head Coach Data
  Descriptions Determined by 11 Head Coaches Total Rank Control Count (Y/N)
C Respect (Self, Teammates, Opponent, Fans, Officials & Facilities) 209 1 10/1
B Take responsibility for their own actions 175 2 11/0
F Integrity 170 3 11/0
G Importance of being a student first then an athlete 168 4 11/0
A Athletes should be dedicated in becoming a
better player, student and overall person
162 5 11/0
I Be a good representative of LZHS in the community 153 6 11/0
D Handle constructive criticism 119 7 1/10
H How to set goals and steps to reach them 115 8 11/0
E Value all levels and all roles in the sport 114 9 10/1
N Relationships with coaches and teammates 112 10 11/0
M Positive reinforcement from coach and
athletic department
108 11 11/0
K Thoughtful (about actions, self, others) 100 12 11/0
O Demonstrate how to handle criticism, setbacks 95 13 11/0
J A support group of friends and family 70 14 6/5

Chart 2

Middle School Teacher Data
  Descriptions Determined by 26 M.S. Teachers Total Votes Rank Y/N Control HR/HC
A Focus on ALL students not only the extremes 167 10 26/0  
B Students feel school is a safe and caring place 200 3 21/5 X
C Keep high expectations and have students meet them 194 5 14/12  
D PD that is worth staff time 188 6 *4/22  
E Piloting before forcing implementation 168 9 *3/23  
F Bring back the FUN! 151 13 26/0  
G More opportunity to speak openly 195 4 12/14  
H Acknowledge each classroom is different, but important 162 11 26/0  
I Work together towards common goals 184 7 23/3 X
J Follow through (admin) 181 8 *4/22  
K Mix teams evenly 202 2 *7/19  
L Admin. should follow handbook matrix 159 12 *6/22  
M Bad Behavior needs to be taken care of 215 1 25/1 X

Collaborative Decision-Making Process Analysis

      As participants of this collaborative decision-making process move through these steps, they come to realize that each step requires agreement of a vast majority of people in order to move to the next step. The process is built on participants discussing ideas and coming to consensus before moving forward. By the end, almost all participants are in agreement and display very little disagreement. This is the result of the designed collaboration strategies built into the steps in this process. In the end, the participants contribute all the information addressing the initial question, discuss and determine all the input in each step, do all the voting to identify priorities, do the final ranking of the most important items to be analyzed and addressed, debate and determine what they have authority to control, and not able to control, and plan solutions going forward. Through this collaborative process, leaders of the organization need to support the findings from this process, and work within the work place to improve their work environment and in turn, improve the organization as a whole.

Phase Two: Continuous Improvement Process

      After the organizational work group completes the “Collaborative Decision-Making Process” to identify the “Highest Rank and Highest Control” priority items, each selected planning team addresses one priority item using the “Continuous Improvement Process” phase which consists of the following steps: Plan Improvement Strategy, Implement Improvement Strategy, Gather and Analyze Data on Improvement Strategy, Revise and Re-Implement Continuous Improvement Strategy within the organization.

Plan Improvement Strategy

  1. Who should design the improvement strategy?
  2. Who should implement the improvement strategy?
  3. What are the expected criteria?
  4. How are the criteria assessed?
  5. How are data collected?
  6. How are data analyzed?
  7. When, with whom, and where are data shared?

Implement Improvement Strategy

  1. Research group identified
  2. Instruction on improvement strategy
  3. Control group identified
  4. Time limits established
  5. Criteria established
  6. Data collection methods identified
  7. Data collection times determined

Gather and Analyze Data on Improvement Strategy

  1. Data gathered and analyzed
  2. Findings determined
  3. Conclusions stated
  4. Recommendations suggested
  5. Impact of recommendations is analyzed
  6. Integration of recommendations considered
  7. Final recommendations agreed upon

Revise and Re-Implement Continuous Improvement Strategy

  1. Plan staff development on the intervention
  2. Support staff with mentoring and modeling
  3. Expand the intervention implementation
  4. Plan assessment of the implementation
  5. Assess the implementation
  6. Continually assess and improve the implementation

Final Thoughts

      Once the top priorities are identified and selected, planning teams are created from the staff to address as many priorities as the leader and staff can handle. Each planning team should consist of members who are most knowledgeable about the topic. Team members may be selected from any level within the organization who can contribute knowledge and understanding to the improvement design, intervention implementation, gathering and analyzing of data, and revising of improvement strategies continually. This entire process is a long-term investment in the building of quality in any organization, and as each priority is improved, other top-ranked priorities continue to rise to be assigned a planning team. As years go by, many of the top 10 items may be addressed and improve the quality to the organization.


Warwick, R, (2015). The challenge for school leaders: A new way of thinking about school leadership. Rowman & Littlefield.

Warwick, R, (2010). School academic systems: Continual improvement concepts and implementation strategies. Conference Presentation. Lakemoor, IL

Warwick, R, (2002). Academic system improvement using data analysis [Seminar]. Lakemoor, IL: Quality Education Seminars.

Warwick, R. (1995). Beyond piecemeal improvements: How to transform your school using Deming’s quality principles. National Education Service.

Ronald Warwick, Ed.D is recently retired from Concordia University Chicago and now serves as an adjunct professor at CUC. Before spending ten years on the faculty of CUC. Dr. Warwick served as a public school mathematics teacher, public school administrator at the building and central office levels, and a college professor and administrator. He earned the Ed.D. from Indiana University with majors in both administration and supervision and curriculum and instruction. Prior degrees were earned at Loyola University of Chicago. His career spans more than 55 years.