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spike bullet March 2017 ~ Consensus Building

What is consensus and why is it important?    
Case Study: Matrix management
7 Steps to Effective Decision Making
Case Study: Large software projects
Some things to consider in your organization
Resources (links, books, articles, the lighter side)
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color bulletMarch 2017 ~ Consensus Building

What is consensus and why is it important?

As we move from autocratic decision-making to more mature ways of doing business, learning how to achieve consensus becomes much more important for everyone in an organization.

A few descriptions:

Consensus is a process for group decision-making.  It is a method by which an entire group of people can come to an agreement. The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. [from http://www.actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Consensus.html

Consensus decision making is a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Instead of simply voting for an item and having the majority of the group getting their way, a group using consensus is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports, or at least can live with. [from http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/consensus

Consensus building (also called collaborative problem solving or collaboration) is essentially mediation of a conflict that involves many parties. Usually, the conflict also involves multiple, complex issues. [from http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/consens.htm

Consensus decisions - The word consensus is often thought to mean unanimous agreement but this is not necessarily the case.  Consensus decisions include input from and acceptance by each member of the team.  Consensus decisions have a very high level of team involvement and can lead to strong, well-supported decisions. [from http://hrweb.mit.edu/learning-development/learning-topics/teams/articles/models

Case Study: Matrix management

In one organization where I worked for a good number of years, we strived to make major decisions by consensus.  Before we agreed on that model, we spent time every two weeks for several months discussing the different types of decision models and the benefits and weaknesses of each.  I was responsible for matrix management of staff from 12 different areas of the business so getting 12 different people to agree could be challenging at times.

We found that the process of talking through the various possible models and coming to something we all could live with was very helpful in improving the team dynamics for the entire group.  We all listened to each otherís viewpoint, we all learned from each other and we all respected each other.  All of those things are critical to consensus making.  That doesnít mean that we all agreed on everything that we had to do.  We had many lively discussions where different people had very different ideas about what approach we should use.

Because of our commitment to respect and listening to each other, we were able to see more than just our own view and to gain a great benefit from others who saw something we didnít see.  The process of using consensus and group dialog does take longer than one person issuing an order.

What I learned most in that environment was that the more we considered all the aspects of a decision before we went ahead, the better the end result.  We also made an agreement that we would set a time limit to how long the discussions would take and that a decision had to be reached by <some specified time> so that we didnít become paralyzed by never coming to consensus.  We sometimes got to a place where we went ahead and everyone who was part of the group agreed to support the end decision, even if it wasnít exactly as they originally wanted.  That is important in keeping a group moving forward.

7 Steps to Effective Decision Making:

  1. Identify the decision
  2. Gather relevant information
  3. Identify the alternatives
  4. Weigh the evidence
  5. Choose among alternatives
  6. Take action
  7. Review your decision & its consequences. [from http://www.umassd.edu/fycm/decisionmaking/process/

That all sounds like it makes perfect sense.  Where does consensus enter into the decision process?

Consensus decision making makes sure that alternatives are reviewed carefully, that the various options are carefully considered, that the chosen actions are determined by the entire groupís agreement and that everyone can support the final decision.

In choosing alternatives to pursue, do you make an effort to get feedback from the people most directly affected by a possible decision and make sure that input is considered in the decision-making process?

Consensus is not simply taking a vote with the highest alternative winning.  Consensus allows for honest consideration of competing alternatives, with a foundation of respect for every individual decision-makerís viewpoint and input.

To make consensus decision making work, there needs to be:

  1. an identified set of people who are empowered to make decisions,
  2. a clear time frame when a decision will be made that all agree to, and
  3. an agreement that whichever path is chosen that everyone can support the final decision.

In that way, there is no "winner" or "loser" in a decision Ė it is group decision and everyone wins.

There may also be times when a simple vote is determined to be the deciding factor.  Again, the entire group of decision-makers makes the choice about how to determine the final result.

Case Study: Large software projects

Other examples from my own experience where consensus decision making has had a positive impact:  An organization wanted to upgrade a software system that would change the job of many people in the organization.  Before a final decision was made on how to implement the new system, a group of employees who would eventually use the system were asked to be part of the team evaluating new software.  They were able to have regular discussions about how the new software will change their job and what their new job duties would be.  They were able to test the software and provide feedback on it before it was finalized.  Their feedback was carefully considered all along the project.  Some of the original management thoughts about job duties was changed significantly after employees in those jobs shared their views.

I have seen many computer projects that did not include end users in the decision-making process and when the system was implemented, management was flabbergasted that the staff did not like it or had trouble using it.  Some of those projects ended up as huge financial losses for the company because the system didnít work or didnít do what management wanted it to do.  And, I have seen many successful projects where end users were included in a project early on and helped to make a project successful because they were able to spot problems early enough to get them corrected and they became cheerleaders for the project and helped their coworkers to adjust to the new system.

Making the effort to get the right people involved takes some time and effort in the beginning. I have never seen it fail to end up with a better product that if the right people had not been involved.

If a team has reached consensus, they should each be able to check themselves by reviewing these 4 points:

  1. Iíve heard your position.
  2. I believe youíve heard my position.
  3. The decision does not compromise my values.
  4. I can fully support the proposed decision and its implementation. [from http://hrweb.mit.edu/learning-development/learning-topics/teams/articles/models

Some things to consider in your organization

  1. Pay attention to how decisions are made in your organization: are they by dictate, command, vote, consensus or some other method?
  2. Does everyone know what to expect when a decision needs to be made?
  3. How many people provide feedback or input to major decisions?  What about minor decisions?
  4. How well are decisions received when made by your leaders?
  5. Is there general agreement from the people affected by a decision that they agree with the decision or do they rebel or undermine management decisions?
  6. Notice how people interact with each other in decision-making meetings.  Are they respectful of each other?  Do they truly listen to each other?  Do they learn from each other?
  7. Have you tried to improve the way decisions are made in your area?  Can you notice an area where consensus decision-making might make sense?
  8. Are you willing to experiment with different ways of making decisions?  If so, start some discussion about using consensus decision making for a project and see what you can all learn from it.

  Internet Resources

book graphic  Books

  • Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making: The CODM Model for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement.  Tim Hartnett.  New Society Publishers, 2011.  ISBN 978-0865716896
  • Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making - 3rd Edition.  SamKaner.  Jossey-Bass, 2014.  ISBN 978-1118404959
  • Consensus Through Conversations: How to Achieve High-Commitment Decisions.  Larry Dressler.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2006).  ISBN 978-1576754191
  • Transforming Your Dragons: Turning Personality Fear Patterns into Personal Power. Jose Stevens. Bear & Co; (July 1994) ISBN: 1879181177
  • The High Price of Manhood: A man's action plan for getting along better in the 21st century.  Michael Jay Anthony.  Lulu, 2015.  ISBN 978-1-312-29139-3 (paperback).  ISBN 978-1-329-58227-9 (ebook/PDF).
  • Income Without a Job: Living Well Without a Paycheck.  Michael Jay Anthony, Barbara J. Taylor.  Lulu.com, 2008  ISBN-13: 978-0-557-00377-8.  Website: www.income-without-a-job.com.  Tap into your own creativity and use  your full potential.  Learn how to see opportunities that others miss.   

world wide web - articles  Articles (on itstime.com)

Related newsletter article:
   June 2004 - Successful Stakeholdering
   July 2004 - Working in a Matrix
   March 2003 - Management / Leadership Styles Updated
   April 2003 - Management / Leadership Styles Updated (continued)
   November 2015 - How to Get Things Done
   August 2008 - Secrets of Project Success
   February 1999 - Managers and Leaders

smiley graphic  The Lighter Side  

  • A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus ... Martin Luther King Jr. 
  • Just as they did in Philadelphia when they were writing the Constitution, sooner or later, you've got to compromise.  You've got to start making compromises that arrive at a consensus and move the country forward. ... Colin Powell.  
  • Consensus isn't just about agreement.  It's about changing things around:  You get a proposal, you work something out, people foresee problems, you do creative synthesis. At the end of it. you come up with something that everyone thinks is okay.  Most people like it and nobody hates it.  ... David Graeber

About our resource links:  We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links.   We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.

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Page updated: February 28, 2017      

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