Effective Decisions in Consensus

Depending on the size of your organization, it is extremely likely that most people will not be present.  It is neither practical nor desirable for everyone to be involved in every decision.  As group size increases, the necessity for allowing individuals to choose what decisions they want to participate in becomes essential.  These systems also keep group size manageable.

  • After about 8 people, friction increases for group effectiveness.  12 still feels workable, 8 is more comfy.
  • When 12+ want to be part of a discussion, a hub-and-spokes model becomes inclusive and efficient, whereby smaller subgroups meet, and each sends a representative back to a hub group, which is composed entirely of the subgroup liaisons.
  • Frequently, non-attending members are happy to pass along their thoughts to someone who is, and be satisfied that their view will be heard and considered.



Criteria for consulting the whole group:

  • The decision affects a majority of people in the organization now and into the future.
  • The decision affects the vision, mission, and direction of the organization.
  • In not acting on a decision, it is readily imaginable that staff, clients, or shareholders would be hampered in their experience of the vision and mission.
  • The need of our organization to have consensus on this decision outweighs other group needs for our time.
  • The given individual(s) with designated responsibility for a process/decision is unlikely to make a wise choice for the community.


Processes that don’t require consensus:

  • Quick decisions safely considered within the bounds of the group’s values.  Time is of the essence.  Often executed by people with a relevant role, but not necessarily if immediacy is critical.
  • Minor decisions safely considered within the bounds of the group’s values.  There are thousands of decisions that given individuals make, believing the large group to be either uninterested in or already considered within existing philosophical/value understandings.  Judgment calls without major weight.
  • Role/function decisions made by people given the authority to make those decisions by the group.  That person may feel that the decision in their hand at the moment doesn’t fit their granted power, or they may want a second opinion.  This is not appropriate for an action that has deep and long-lasting effects.  Role decisions are trusted because the person in the role is known (or likely) to make wise decisions most of the time. If the person in the role is not trusted, support may be offered, the role’s domains altered, or a consensus process begins around role shifting.
  • Open discussion.  Consensus is not to be mistaken for passionate and interesting discussions about an issue between a couple/few people.  A GREAT many quandaries that require exploration and a decision can take place in less formal and in a more ad-hoc manner.  A seeming impasse may require another perspective.


The Full Map

While such criteria are helpful, a complete structure would also include options for when a decision does not meet criteria.  A flow chart can help guide the path any idea from inception to implementation.  Below is one possible structure.

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Where does voting fit in?

  • Consensus is not a formula.  It is not a majority, or quantitative. Were it a formula of some sort, the intentions of the parties, as well as the process itself, would have strong tendencies toward corruption.  And, people would often walk away from the vote feeling unheard and considered, let alone contribute fully.  Thus, consensus is never put to a vote.
  • A “vote” may be taken by anyone to poll the group’s thoughts or feelings on an issue.  That vote is not a quantitative assessment of whether or not to continue with a decision, but rather a tool to roughly gauge the sense of the group.  Given that it usually has only two points of reference (yes and no); it is of limited utility (primarily a quick test).
  • Votes are challenging as “Group Think” and other social influence elements come into play.  “Oh, wow, I’m one of only two people that feel this way; I’ll just change my mind and go with the group.”  Consensus aims to get people’s thoughts on the table, and hold those thoughts as valuable regardless of the number of people who hold them.  A jury of 12 may be swayed by a single person, whom the rest of the group later determines was correct (12 Angry Men is a famous movie about just that).  Given that, votes are a cautious tool to employ.
  • When a testing leadership style is being used, someone in a role may seek a quick sense of the group via a vote.  Often, such a vote is followed by a request for people to feed that person thoughts.  As is the way with the testing leadership style, the role/leader makes the “final” call.  This process is not consensus, but information gathering for a role/function decision maker.  All of this would be occurring in the Role Decision section of the map above.
  • The idea of “consensus minus 1” (all but one agrees), or some number, is a formal structure clumsily put on top of the ideal it is meant to serve.  Often, it is used to be efficient, which it is.  The ideal is to see the points others offer and address them as the small group sees fit.  It may be that a person(s) does not see the wisdom of moving toward a particular path the group sees as having value, despite efforts to the contrary.  That happens fairly often, and flows into unsticking processes, and/or the person expresses their dissent, such as standing aside or strong objection, yet the decision carries anyway (unless there is a block).


Other Strategies

Republic Consensus

For large organizations or those spread across distance (national clubs, fortune 500 companies, cities, states, nations), consensus of the whole population ceases to be an option. Here a representative form of consensus may be used.  These systems often include models of sociocracy  or dynamic self-governance.

There have been successful communities with several hundred thousand people that used representative consensus, with what, in ideal, the American founders had mostly in mind.  That system has been transformed overtime, primarily with the focus on “I” instead of the “we.”  Ideally, the large group knows the small group holds everyone’s intentions and the values/goals of the community dear.  While individuals may feel strongly in opposition to a small group’s actions/decision, they still hold that the action taken was done with pure intention.

This nature of trust and practicality becomes progressively more necessary as the group size increases.  Newer techniques like “open space technology” allow for larger numbers to be considered.  Very roughly, with more than one hundred people, representation becomes necessary.


Three More Strategies

The Bay Area NVC in San Francisco uses and enormous matrix.  Along one axis are 25 decision categories, these include areas such as marketing expenditures greater than $X, marketing expenditures less than $X, project XYZ, conference scheduling, etc.  Along the other axis is every member’s name.  For each decision category they indicate whether they would like to “be fully involved”, “consulted initially and review proposals”, or “trust the decision of the group.”

At Namaste Solar in boulder Colorado, the organization began using a mandatory consensus model, in which everyone contributed to every issue.  As they grew, they moved to consent model.  At each company meeting, proposals where shared, and individuals can offer a thumbs up, thumbs down, or abstain from voting.  Any issue that received at least one thumbs down would be tabled for discussion by a smaller group.

Another method is to create agreed upon criteria for what decisions are made by consensus, and which ones are “role decisions”.  Role decisions are trusted to the person who oversees that domain.  They can always be challenged.  If so, the role decider and the challenger work to reach consensus, but the whole organization need not be consulted.