Wikipedia defines consensus decision-making as “a group decision making process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections. Consensus is usually defined as meaning both general agreement, and the process of getting to such agreement.”
Consensus “...structure that moves a group towards unity” is the Quaker’s definition of consensus decision-making. I liked this definition the most.
The problem with "consensus management" involving many stakeholders, is that it takes a long time; and the quality of the decision is typically low due to the duration of the process, the unstructured nature of the process, and the necessary compromises that reduce things to the lowest common denominator.
When we look to our best practice research with fast teams, we see an alternative form of decision-making; one we called managed consensus. The operative word is "managed." The process is faster and it generates better quality decisions. Accomplished by getting smaller groups to reach agreement and then involving the larger group after the small-team has moved the ball forward.
Consensus is supposed to be good because it is said to be “inclusive, participatory, cooperative, and egalitarian.” Great objectives for any management system, but in practice we’ve observed, especially since the HR movement of the 1990s, it slows down organizations, to the point of “decision constipation” and nothing gets done.
Perhaps the best example of this was the launch of GM’s Saturn business, in the late 1980s where we saw consensus “gone wild,” with over 100 “work unit modules” (as they were called)--each module with 20 people--who together where “empowered” to run the business. They miss-understood the quality-circle concept they observed in Sweden and Japan, resulting in chaos and a 2 year slip in product development.
Typically, consensus management means a group of people attempt to convince one another that their position is the right one. We see a lack of leadership, focus and direction as the group meanders around through the discovery process of trying to converge on the decision. The HR department tells us this good since it means people are “buying-in” to the decision.
As this unstructured process goes on the decision window closes and then slips by. Time is sacrificed to the group’s need to reach agreement and feel, “part-of” the process. The cost of delay, usually out weights the value of this egalitarian process.
We’ve often said that, “It is better to be roughly right than exactly wrong.” When teams reach agreement quickly, they have time to iterate going forward in order to improve, yet when teams delay and then make the wrong decision it can have catastrophic consequences.
Eventually, in my animation... my “dots” reach a conclusion that they all agree on, but at the cost of time and delay.
The alternative is not top-down dictatorship, rather what we call “managed consensus.” This concept grew out of watching high performance management teams continually getting the benefits of consensus management, but doing it quickly.
First, consensus requires leadership. For some reason, “Triads” of three people need to agree in order to create the foundation for critical mass. Don’t know what, perhaps this is a topic for another study, but we’ve observed that it takes three people to create a catalyst for movement.
The Triad build a model of the decision alternatives. This is the framework for the larger group to scrub. This is the beginning of group convergence on the goal. The larger group scrubs the model, and through this process gains better understanding of the decision variables. The scrubbing process is structured and focused. It permits ideas to be shared in the context of the structure and view-points to be heard. This in itself creates that, “Buy-in” the HR people talk about.
Further, the Triad leadership team engages the stakeholders in defining how to execute the decision. This is in the form of a schedule. This group planning process is essential to getting everyone on “the same page” in terms of who, what, when, and where.
This is really a true form of inclusive participatory management, where all the players get to provide inputs and insights, but in the context of the structure defined by the leadership Triad. The result is better and faster decisions and a process that is more true to the core values of the consensus process.