The benefits of diversity in decision-making are well-documented. Having different perspectives and expertise on complex issues produces better outcomes. But diverse perspectives need not necessarily surface during discussions.

What then can leaders and organizations do to harness diversity to optimal effect? How do you ensure you get the very most from diverse experts and points of view? How can you enhance the quality of conversations to achieve the best decisions with your team?

The Big Decisions, the Right Mechanisms

An in-progress study by Darden Professor Panos Markou is poised to shed new light on this problem. With Emory’s Tian Heong Chan, he analyzed years of data on decision-making in U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Advisory Committee meetings.

What they have found is that the quality of outcomes depends on how shared decisions are made. If stakeholders are invited to decide or cast their vote on an issue spontaneously — by a simultaneous show of hands or pushing a button, for instance — the quality of the discussion and the ultimate course of action will be better than one taken by a sequential vote — going around the room as stakeholders articulate their choices and reasoning, one by one. In fact, the study finds that this kind of spontaneous decision-making leads to better discussions and results that are roughly twice as effective in terms of long-term outcomes.

“When you are making really complex decisions with momentous impact, a fantastic approach is to bring in diverse expertise and backgrounds. But just bringing different people into the room isn’t enough,” says Markou. “You also have to find the right mechanisms to facilitate robust discussions and to get all of those diverse perspectives and experience out in the open. The FDA context afforded a great opportunity to look at how really important decisions were being made over the years and to track the quality of those decisions over time.”

More Diverse Views Discussed, Better Results

Markou and Chan were able to access a wealth of data from the FDA covering approvals and rejections of new drugs and treatments, as well as information on how approved drugs went on to perform in the market — whether they ended up being withdrawn or discontinued. Together, they looked at more than 500 FDA meetings over a 17-year time period, analyzing transcripts to understand what was said and how, and how votes were taken: a spontaneous show of hands or a sequential vote.

“The FDA really fits the criteria in terms of hard problems and complex decision-making,” says Markou. “They have to figure out whether to allow a new drug or medical device to be marketed to millions of Americans. Data are more often than not messy and incomplete, and there are a lot of stakeholders that are affected by such decisions, such as patients, prescribers and insurers. Also, other regional agencies often follow the FDA’s lead for guidance, meaning that these decisions typically have widespread impact.”

Parsing the data, he and Chan found that when experts were asked to vote on a drug simultaneously, they were less likely to find unanimity than by going around the room and voting sequentially. “This may seem counterproductive,” says Markou, “but what we see is that actually more diverse perspectives and information surfaced during the discussions.” They also found that these simultaneous voting mechanisms produced far better results. Just 3.4 percent of drugs approved this way were withdrawn; this compares to a roughly 8.6 percent withdrawal of drugs that had been approved when votes were taken sequentially.

In other words, simultaneous voting mechanisms produce less agreement but yield results that are twice as good.

The Nature and Language of the Discussion

“What we see happening here is that when people are told they will all be voting spontaneously, via a show of hands or by pressing a button, it changes the nature of the discussions that they have,” says Markou. “These conversations are broader and deeper, with experts broaching more diverse topics and attacking the problem from many more angles.”

Not only that, but the language that stakeholders use in this context is more authentic and spontaneous, with more positive and less authoritative tones. This leveling of hierarchy has the effect of surfacing more opinions and “hidden” perspectives, making for a richer exchange of ideas and debate.

“We detect a significant difference in speech patterns — more equalizing of the clout in the room, so to speak. And this leads to far more information shared and a greater range of subjects discussed,” he says.

When voting follows a sequential pattern, with experts going around the table to vote one after the other, the quality of the discussions they have is not as high, says Markou. Interestingly, he doesn’t put this down to solely a pressure to conform — that one person’s vote may influence another. Rather, voting on an issue this way also creates less incentive to do the “legwork” of fact-finding during the meeting; experts ask fewer and less complex questions and spend less time together doing so.

“It seems to be a case of: If I know I’m going to hear your vote or decision and your reasons, I’m going to expend less energy debating with you beforehand,” he says. “Whereas voting on something simultaneously, you’re much more likely to ask better questions and uncover way more expertise.”

Implications for Leaders

Markou and Chan’s findings have clear implications for leaders and stakeholders in any business setting, they say. Whatever the context, people charged with making important decisions would do well to reflect on the mechanisms they use to harness and expose diversity, consider new ways to unearth expertise and attack problems from different angles.

“We see that meeting protocols have a profound impact on the quality of the decisions, and that even simple mechanisms can really reduce power dynamics, making people more comfortable about sharing personal information and incentivizing richer debate,” says Markou. “And an excellent place to start is by swapping that round robin for a straightforward show of hands.”

Darden Professor Panos Markou co-authored “How Voting Protocols Shape Committee Discussions and Outcomes: New Product Evaluations at the FDA” with Tian Heong Chan of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

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About the Expert

Panos Markou

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Panos Markou’s research is built on empirically understanding how firms may manage and make better decisions in the face of risks that threaten to disrupt critical organizational processes. More specifically, his research focuses on managing the uncertainty inherent in innovative processes and mitigating high-impact operational and financial risks. He is a strong believer in bridging academia and industry: producing research that is grounded in practice and has the potential for large impact and relevance. To this end, Markou has collaborated with companies in a variety of industries such as the automotive, aviation, banking and pharmaceutical sectors.

Prior to joining Darden, Markou taught at the MBA, EMBA and Executive Education programs at the Cambridge Judge Business School in the U.K. and IE Business School in Spain. He also has several years’ experience working at BMW’s manufacturing facility in Spartanburg, South Carolina and the Research & Innovation Center (Forschungs- und Innovationszentrum) in Munich, as well as at Delta TechOps in Atlanta, Georgia.

B.Sc., Georgia Institute of Technology; M.Sc., Ph.D., IE Business School