Consensus vs. Collaboration

Let’s say you are working on an application.  There are hundreds of decisions every week, sometimes every day.  Decisions can be big and small.  How quickly should something animate?  What color should the button be?  Is it better 2px to the left or to the right?  Decisions like these accumulate into the design of your application.

So the question is:  How best to make these decisions?

It is certainly possible that a single person could be in charge of the design and make all the decisions him/herself without even talking to other people.  This is called the “Dictator” model.  One person controls all.  The benefits of this model is that decisions are made quickly and usually consistently.  There is a vision (sometimes good, sometimes bad), but it is not muddied.  On the other hand, this model often leaves other contributors feeling left out of the decision making process.  Usually the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) has the authority to do this.  There is no consensus or collaboration in this model.

Another model, called the “Committee” has everyone vote on every decision.  This is a consensus driven model.  The committee is usually 3 or more people with equal votes.  Usually a few people are ‘louder’ than the rest or play office politics so that their voice carries more weight.  The benefits of this model is that risk is distributed.  In other words, if something is designed wrong, then everyone is to blame, which means no one is to blame.  Spreading decision making responsibility allows each person to avoid putting their head on the chopping block.  The downside of this approach is that usually the design is horrible and makes users feel like putting their own heads on the chopping block to avoid the pain of using such a mangled, inconstent, uninspired piece of crap.

The last model is “Collaboration“.  Generally, you have one person who was delegated authority from the HiPPO to be in charge of the design.  However, since this person is not actually the HiPPO, he/she can not use the Dictator model effectively.  However, the designer’s head is on the chopping block for the design, so the ultimate decision lies in their hands.  The best route is to collaborate with the team.  This means the designer has to work with the team and talk about the choices and even brainstorm ideas.  With that idea-exchange the designer has to make the final call.  This allows the designer to maintain consistency, have a vision and make decisions quickly compared to a consensus driven committee.  However, it also allows each person to get their fingerprints on the project.  It allows good ideas to be heard.  A good designer knows how to strike the right balance between the doctator and the committee.  A bad designer will lose that balance.

What kind of model do you use in your organization?  I find the first two models are the most common.  However, the last model produces the best results.  I find it fascinating how human psychology leads us to make sub-optimal decisions.  Darwin would not be happy.

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