Consent Decision Making
YOU SHOULD TRY
Consent Decision MakingConsent works well when speed is needed, when the proposal is clearly defined, and when the impact of the decision is limited and reversible.
No one objects.
Consent means the absence of objections. Similar to consensus, consent invites group participation in the decision making process. But instead of granting each member the power to mold the proposal in pursuit of a compromise, consent urges the group to accept a “good enough” solution. After a formal decision making process, a decision is ratified when there are no meaningful or “paramount” objections.
Consent originated from the consensus tradition of Quakers, was adopted by the Sociocratic movement of the mid-20th century, and then formalized by Gerard Endenburg in the 1970s. Consent has become increasingly popular among engineering and technology firms over the last decade because it attempts to combine both speed and inclusiveness.
- Fast and consultative
- Encourages iterative, “good enough” solutions
- Doesn’t require agreement
- Promotes objective debate
- The decision making process can rush teams toward a suboptimal solution
- The formal process can feel unfamiliar and initially uncomfortable
- Can ignore team cohesion in the decision making process
- Can be harmful if used on wide-impact, long-lasting decisions
- Gather your group for a formal consent-based decision making meeting and identify who in the group is bringing forth a proposal
- ELECTIONS: Elect both a Facilitator and Recorder, someone to keep the conversation moving and someone to capture what is proposed and objected
- Review the rules:
- No interruptions – only one conversation at a time, and only one speaker at a time
- Aim for ‘Safe to Try’ – rather than rejecting a proposal in favor of finding an ideal or long-term solution, embrace “good enough” short-term solutions
- Follow the process – the prime benefit of consent, speed, is lost if the process devolves into consensus-seeking discussion
- STATE THE PROPOSAL: The person with a proposal starts by describing a challenge/opportunity that falls within the group's authority and offers a proposal to address it. A proposal can add/edit a role on the team, a rule for the team, a project on the team’s plate, or an overarching strategy the team follows.
- QUESTION ROUND: The group takes turns asking clarifying questions and for each, the proposer has an opportunity to respond (or not respond). Example: “Who do you think this will most impact?”
- REACTION ROUND: The group takes turns offering reactions to the proposal. The proposer listens but is not expected to respond to each reaction. Example: “I think the problem you’ve identified is real, but the solution you’ve offered doesn’t seem to address the root cause.”
- RESTATE THE PROPOSAL: The proposer may revise or clarify the proposal based on the previous questions and reactions. The group listens but does not respond.
- OBJECTION ROUND: First, the group takes 2-3 minutes to silently generate objections (this is called “Harvesting Objections”). The group then takes turns raising their most severe objections to the proposal. Objections are only considered valid if the proposal will cause harm to the group or obstruct it from reaching its goals. These are so-called “paramount objections.” Objections are captured without discussion or debate.
- OBJECTION ROUND (contd): The proposer addresses each paramount objection one at a time and works with the objector to revise the proposal to resolve the objection and find a safe-to-try or “good enough” middle ground. The proposal cannot move forward until all objections are resolved.
- RATIFICATION: Once all objections have been addressed and no objections remain, the proposal becomes accepted and should be captured by the Recorder and shared wherever the team keeps their rules/roles/projects.
Avoid These Common Traps
Discomfort with the formal process
The consent decision making process can feel overly rigid, dogmatic, and foreign to cultures that have only practiced consensus or autocracy. Practice the process until everyone understands why each step matters and then allow your group to try new formats.
Individuals feeling rushed to judgement
The consent process can be challenging and stressful for people who need time or conversation to formulate their opinions. If this happens, you can create a “review period” for any non-urgent proposal, say 48-72 hours, that allows participants to consider the proposal, talk it out with colleagues, and generate their objections.
Confusion around what is and what isn't a valid objection
Consent requires a “paramount objection” to reject a proposal, yet the definition of a “paramount objection” is often subjective.
Instead of debating the definition, ask questions like, “Will this cause harm?”, “Can you live with this proposal for now?,” or “Is this safe to try?” to help frame what is and what isn’t a paramount objection.
Staying quiet for fear of slowing down the process
Consent is designed for speed, so much so that it can feel as if speed is the ultimate objective. Participants can withhold their reactions and objections for fear of slowing down the process, but the group loses their valuable insights. Ask participants to slow down, put themselves in the shoes of others on the team, and think of reasons why they might object. By explicitly slowing down the process and depersonalizing the objection, participants should be less timid and more forthcoming.
If the decision will impact a large number of people, is likely irreversible, and/or your choices are unclear (e.g. we missed our revenue goals and have to make a difficult financial decision), try a consultative approach.
If teams can’t agree on what is or isn’t a “paramount objection” and the decision is non-urgent, consider shifting to consensus and focus on reaching a compromise. However, if the decision is urgent you may need to shift to an autocratic model to settle a protracted debate.
If the team gets hung up on the process and the work required to enact the decision is minimal (ie it’s a simple rule change), you can try a democratic approach with a majority rules vote.