When consensus doesn’t work

Over at how to save the world, Dave Pollard has written a thought-provoking piece on consensus entitled When consensus doesn’t work. It comes complete with a ‘will consensus work?’ flowchart that highlights some of the issues we raised in our When not to use consensus post.

He touches on some situations in which consensus does not work. Most of these are cases in which it should never even have been tried (and yet groups do try!). But one thread of his argument that’s relevant to groups who do meet the basic criteria for using consensus decision-making is our innate conservatism and how it prevents us making radical change:

There is another situation when consensus is unlikely to work: When the degree of change needed to achieve the goal is necessarily radical. It is in our nature to be resistant to change, and, while change is possible when there is agreement on its urgency or importance, or when the change is easy or fun to make, the more drastic the change needed, the more reluctant people are to agree to it. I have seen too many occasions when a consensus-seeking group opted, after exhaustive discussion, for a decision that was too modest to achieve the needed result, because getting the whole group to agree even in substance on radical change was just impossible. This is particularly true in businesses faced with change-or-die situations: groupthink seems to set in, with the participants trying to reassure each other and persuading themselves to stay the course, usually with tragic results

Now a “modest” decision as part of a conscious and longer process of change, that’s fine (and chimes with the information gap theory we blogged about a few days ago). But Dave’s right isn’t he? We’re often faced with the chance to do something bold, creative, radical and decisive and we opt for less. But is this a criticism of consensus as a decision-making practice or just of people in general? Does consensus support us less to make radical change than other methodologies? I don’t think so, at least not in terms of other participatory methodologies. Clearly a visionary dictator (not saying it’s a nice vision) can make a unilateral decision to make radical change. But the issue is whether when we come together as a group we create a dynamic that blocks change.

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Looking at the Climate Camp here in the UK, it more or less pulled itself apart, partly at least, because it was unable to agree a way forward when proposals for significant change emerged. The result of that collapse was that change was forced on the collective, but happened in a way that cost it more in terms of energy and cohesion than if it had consciously opted for change and managed that process.

I’m fortunate enough to have worked in groups that were faced with significant change and found a way to make decisions to support that change. One of the shared characteristics of the groups that did that successfully was a lot of underlying trust in each other. Another was humour – being able to laugh at the sudden fragility of the group when faced with change. Another was commitment – being so profoundly moved by an issue that changes had to be made and it was just a matter of time until everyone did the individual and then collective processing that made it possible.

I remember one meeting in which a campaign of direct action was agreed, although the legal consequences for those involved could have proved very significant indeed. This was a real change for the group – a step into unknown territory. At the next meeting the decision was reversed because we hadn’t caught up emotionally with what we’d decided idealistically. Eventually we did catch up, reversed the reversal and all lived to tell the tale. It sounds messy, but it needed to happen. We needed our wobble, our dip back into conservatism. We needed to acknowledge our weakness and humanity and to do so in a space where that was OK and wasn’t pounced on as ‘failure’.

Good consensus helps groups build those kind of spaces and groups – critical and supportive in the right way at the right times. Human and idealistic. So whilst I agree with Dave that what we see in consensus groups is often a default to conservatism, I think that consensus used well is a fantastic tool to tip us over the edge, collectively, into radical change.

Hat tip Dwight Towers (again!)


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