Consensus Decision Making
YOU SHOULD TRY
Consensus Decision MakingGathering consensus takes time, but it works well when a decision will impact lots of people and those people have both valuable insight and the capacity for candid negotiation.
Everyone must agree.
Consensus decision making asks everyone in the group to shape the decision until a compromise is reached that reasonably satisfies everyone. Unlike some other decision making models, consensus strives to incorporate everyone's perspectives, needs, and ultimately their permission.
Consensus has a long history of use in tight-knit communities like faith groups, neighborhoods, and unions. Consensus also tends to be how recently formed organizations first approach decision making.
- Satisfies all constituents
- Fosters strong, united groups
- Equalizes the distribution of power in a group
- Constituents leave fully prepared to implement the decision
- Can take forever
- Nearly impossible for groups with low trust or competing interests
- Difficulty increases as group grows larger
- Subject to compromises that may not serve the group well
- Define the problem or opportunity and capture it where people can see it
- Brainstorm all possible options: write them down, cluster similar ideas
- Take an initial non-binding vote to gauge the feelings of the group
- Have people make a case for options they feel strongly about
- Take another non-binding vote
- Negotiate with holdouts: “What would it take to get you on board?"
- Repeat 4-7 until everyone agrees with the decision
Avoid These Common Traps
Failing to fully define either the opportunity or the proposal
When everyone has a different idea of what they're solving for or what's being proposed, consensus gathering can turn into lots of people talking past one another. Don't skip writing down the problem or opportunity and ask participants to write down their proposals as they're formed and shared with the group.
Not leaving enough time
Reaching consensus on an important decision can take multiple conversations stretched across a good deal of time. If you really want to pursue consensus, start early before a decision is urgent and schedule multiple group conversations.
Failing to come to a consensus after multiple tries
Despite everyone’s best intentions, you still may fail to agree as a group. It's best to specify both a deadline and a fallback plan. E.g. “If we can’t come to an agreement by 5pm, I will make the decision myself.” Knowing that the decision may be taken away from the group can help people overcome minor disagreements.
Defaulting to consensus for every decision
When your team is small, consensus doesn’t take very long. As you grow, you might rely on consensus as a norm without considering the additional time required, the level of compromise it entails, and the autonomy it takes away from specialized teams. As your group grows, check in periodically to see if people are finding this process too cumbersome.
Weak facilitation and participation
Even when everyone is given equal voice, one person needs to own the process. Use an experienced facilitator who will help the group keep the negotiation productive and respectful.
If consensus can’t be reached, fall back to a consultative model, as you will have heard a diversity of opinions that you can draw upon to reach a decision.
If after trying to reach consensus, the matter becomes suddenly urgent, consider a democratic model of open voting.
For small teams that are growing quickly, consent can be a great transition away from consensus.