Take a minute to envision a different world within your organization. One where every member’s actions are driven by their heart. Where they believe deeply in the value of every piece of work they do, and feel complete responsibility for its impact. It is a place where the driving force behind every action, is neither obligation, nor fear, nor an external motivation for praise or reward, but rather a common belief in the life-affirming purpose of your organization. It is a place where everyone is a problem solver, seeking eagerly to contribute innovation and energy. A world where everyone shows up empowered and inspired with a simple mission: to make life wonderful for the organizations’ shareholders, employees, and customers.
It is not a world free from conflict, but rather one in which conflict is held openly. It is backed by passion for the common vision of the organization and empathy for the varied perspectives on the best way to reach that. This is a world where conflict actually drives growth. Where richness prevails from the blending of diverse beliefs, like the intricate harmony of a jazz quartet, or the complex taste of expensive wine, building vibrancy from dissonance.
It is a place where trust and engagement drive productivity. It’s almost foreign to imagine such an organization. Yet, once you have stepped into one, you will never be the same.
What it is not
Functional consensus is not 50 (or 100 or 200) people sitting in a circle, trudging through tedious discussion, somehow expecting progress. Nor is it a system without goals, performance, and accountability. The vast majority of decisions are made by individuals instead of via a group consensus process; these individuals are empowered communally to act in everyone’s best interest. And, their decisions are open to challenge at appropriate times if the outcome has considerable weight/importance. In consensus organizations, role decisions are critical to efficiency and functionality. Clear structures are essential to guide decisions towards (a) an individual, (b) a small group, or (b) to a proposal to the greater community.
The Significance of ‘How’
Consensus offers no promise or guarantee of creating the right decision. It does support high-quality decisions, but it can fail. In fact, the greatest and largest consensus community in history was wiped out by poor consensus decisions. The benefits of consensus come in part from its outcome (the quality of the decisions it yields) and in part from the impact the process has on an organization’s culture. The process can drive greater innovation, higher responsibility, and stronger relationships than other decision making styles.
We find, again and again, that incorporating the views of the minority often saves us from grievous errors. It leads us away from “slam dunks” and quick fixes to well thought-out, longer lasting, better solutions.
Quality of Decision Benefits:
- More needs are understood. Simply, the more complete our understanding of the needs of the whole, the more likely we are to meet them. Consensus goes beyond simply consulting those needs, or giving them votes; it invites diverse perspectives to engage fully in the decision from beginning to end.
- Perception can be more accurate. Take 100 people. Have them guess your weight. Odds are the average of all these guesses will be closer than almost any individual guess. Why? Because all individuals have wisdom, but are also prone to error. The errors tend to be random, and thus in large groups they cancel each other out. Meanwhile, the wisdom is not random, and it builds in tiny pieces driving the group average towards accuracy. From this statistical phenomenon we often find more wisdom in large groups than in an elite few. It is why websites like intrade.com serve as better forecasters than educated political scientists. Now, take this wisdom and add the possibility of discussion, reason, and creation.
- No power is lost by experts, only shared. Maybe as the director of your team, you have more experience and wisdom than any other member. In a democracy, your wisdom would be diluted; your vote could be outvoted by less-informed individuals. In consensus, no control would be sacrificed. Every decision still requires your full support. In fact, as each member consciously chooses how others will influence their behavior, over time, authority is entrusted to those who prove their wisdom. People in entrusted positions/roles are given the power to make most decisions — see role decisions on the consensus map.
- We avoid getting stuck with narrow alternatives. Consensus surpasses black-and-white thinking. As we engage more individuals, we consider more options. We work with decisions as a spectrum of multiple, workable choices. It is drastically different than a democracy with a vote-in-favor criterion. Consensus is a dynamic and evolving process, not an either/or paradigm.
- Decisions are less sensitive to temporary emotions. Our biological programming allows emotions to arise more rapidly than conscious thoughts. Psychologists suggest that “By the time we are reasoning, we may be rationalizing our prior emotional commitments”. In getting the decision out of our head, and into open discussion, we seek clearer intentions behind all actions. In having this discussion, inclusive of all perspectives, we avoid the potential for confirmation bias of selected groups.
“To live in a world devoid of doubt and ambiguity is seductive, and deeply satisfying, but it’s crazy, and inevitably leads to crazy results”.
— William Falk, Editor, The Week
“It is a common mistake to confuse authority with power”
— Larry Harvey
- Higher responsibility. Decisions are owned by all, and so is the responsibility for their outcome. When mistakes are made, the mourning is communal. We avoid the possibility of individuals working half-heartedly on a path they don’t believe in
- Shift from external motivation to intrinsic. In using consensus, we want to ensure that obligation, guilt, punishment, or reward never drive an individual’s work. Motivation stems from the belief that their work serves a mission that they support, even if that work is flinging fish. Ask yourself, what do you envision as the heart of this organization? What drives people’s actions? In organizations structured around power-over, it can ultimately be the CEO that is the heart. In consensus, we replace that with a shared vision. Considering consensus begs that we consider not only what we want others to do, but why we want them to do it. Certainly, some individuals, at any level/function, may hold more expertise or social power, yet everyone feels safe in speaking, and in knowing that their thoughts will be considered.
- Builds connection and community. Consensus is a process of building relationships. It is dynamic, collaborative, and developmental. In contrast with the separation built into voting, consensus bonds people together. It seeks to affirm that our needs are held by the group, and vice versa. Consensus asks that we surpass hyper individualism; it’s never about what is best for me, but what is best for us.
- Provides a return to modesty. In consensus we recognize our view as one valid perspective amongst many. We detach ourselves from the belief that we have direct access to truth, or the image that we are infallible. Instead we assume that we each have unique and valid views of the world, and have something to learn from other perspectives. Embracing this philosophy provides a plethora of positive externalities. It supports flexibility, adaptability, and growth as a learning organization.
What is lost?
- Time. Creating consensus requires an investment of time. Have you ever been a car that was being navigated by consensus? It is a disaster. Multiple, quick, minor decisions are best made in a directive or consultative style (see decision-making styles graph). Choosing wisely if the benefits of making a particular decision by consensus outweigh other needs for that time is essential. See Step IV. Initially, consensus takes longer, but like a farmer planting fruit trees, the harvest pays dividends into the distant future.
- Comfort. Consensus is founded on the belief that peace is conflict done well. Holding openly the needs of many parties in one discussion can be uncomfortable initially. It requires an ability to stay present and compassionate in the face of tension. To move past thinking in terms of right and wrong. It is not something we are taught or born with.
- Simplicity. Hierarchies are often simple. Decisions have little to no wiggle room, and the scope of power can often be drawn in clear terms (see section IV). The foundation of interpersonal skills needed is less complex and more common. Less effort is needed to create and improve organization processes behind decisions.
When it may fail
“Consensus is the nuanced intersection between relationships and decision-making, if you’re not attending to both, you’ll not be happy with the results.”
- Short term relationships. To be effective, consensus requires trust, long term perspective, and a growing relationship. Some of its greatest benefits accrue overtime in the culture of the organization. It is often not possible or practical with short term relationships, one time customers, clients, or contractors.
- Opposing essential beliefs. Consensus building requires shared basic values and trust. Majorly opposing ideologies, where both sides have intractable value systems, are not likely to be resolved by consensus. Debates on abortion and religious conflicts would fall into this category.
- Money as the sole goal. Consensus requires the understanding of our core needs (joy, contribution, connection, hope and countless other universal elements of life). Money is an important strategy to meet many of these needs. It may meet an individual’s need for stability, comfort, and recognition, or an organization’s need for energy, sustainability, and autonomy. For some individuals though, money is not seen as one strategy, but rather a core/ultimate need. In these cases, consensus becomes more difficult. Discussions on this level are more prone to roadblocks as we often fall into Zero Sum Games– who can win and by how much.
- Two evils. Consensus is not an effective way to make either-or-choices between two evils as members will often struggle to agree which is worse. Consensus can work in times of hardship, but only when multiple options exist.