Can consensus really be E-A-S-Y?

“What about consensus decision-making in hierarchical organisations?”. It’s a question that comes up regularly.

Most of my work around consensus decision-making is in grassroots, flat structured organisations. And that seems to be the natural home of consensus because of the anti-hierarchical values that thrive in that setting. But it’d be foolish to close our eyes to the fact that consensus, and the desire to work by consensus, exist elsewhere. There are hundreds of management consultancies that deliver training in consensus, for example. But is it the same thing we talk about on this blog, a close relation, or something very different?

Then today I read Learning Tree International’s ‘Perspectives on Project Management’ blog, lured in by the title How to Use the E-A-S-Y Approach to Consensus Decision Making. It’s a short and surprisingly good post (surprising only because of my prejudices that we activists have the monopoly on consensus).

Why the E-A-S-Y approach? Here’s a snippet:

An effective way to reach consensus is to use the E-A-S-Y approach:

  • Elicit comments or explanations (oral and written) from all team members
  • Ask  open-ended questions (what, where, when, which, who, how, why) about the topic
  • State the obvious – summarize . . . write it down
  • Your opinion as the project leader is important, but is not likely to be as important as the collective wisdom of the project team.

Consensus, self-organising and clear identity

For weeks (if not months), I’ve been meaning to go back to a post I read on emergence. Today I started the journey, leaping from one stepping stone to another and now have two streams of thought competing for attention – one around strategy and the other around groups and consensus. I’ll stick with this last one here as it’s been a week for thinking about consensus.

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers’ The Irresistible Future of Organizing is all well worth reading, but the following excerpt chimed with a post I wrote on Tuesday:

All organizing efforts begin with an intent, a belief that something more is possible now that the group is together. Organizing occurs around an identity–there is a “self” that gets organized. Once this identity is set in motion, it becomes the sense-making process of the organization. In deciding what to do, a system will refer back to its sense of self … The self the organization references includes its vision, mission, and values. But there is more. An organization’s identity includes current interpretations of its history, present decisions and activities, and its sense of its future. Identity is both what we want to believe is true and what our actions show to be true about ourselves. Because identity is the sense-making capacity of the organization, every organizing effort–whether it be the start-up of a team, a community project, or a nation–needs to begin by exploring and clarifying the intention and desires of its members. Why are we doing this? What’s possible now that we’ve agreed to try this together? How does the purpose of this effort connect to my personal sense of purpose, and to the purposes of the large system? Think for a moment of your own experiences with the start-up activities of new projects or teams. Did the group spend much time discussing the deeper and often murkier realms of purpose and commitment? Or did people just want to know what their role was so they could get out of the meeting and get on with it? Did leaders spend more time on policies and procedures to coerce people into contributing rather than try to engage their desire to contribute to a worthy purpose? Most organizing efforts don’t begin with a commitment to creating a coherent sense of identity. Yet it is this clarity that frees people to contribute in creative and diverse ways. Clear alignment around principles and purposes allows for maximum autonomy. People use their shared sense of identity to organize their unique contributions. Organizations lose an enormous organizing advantage when they fail to create a clear and coherent identity. In a chaotic world, organizational identity needs to be the most stable aspect of the endeavor. Structures and programs come and go, but an organization with a coherent center is able to sustain itself through turbulence because of its clarity about who it is. Organizations that are coherent at their core move through the world with more confidence. Such clarity leads to expansionary behaviors; the organization expands to include those they had kept at a distance–customers, suppliers, government regulators, and many others.

This work of establishing identity and deep connection is fundamental to true consensus, where group cohesion allows consensus to flourish and groups to creatively navigate difficult decisions with relative ease and with that unique combination of autonomy-within-co-operation that consensus offers.

I’ll come back to the strategy stream some other time…

Introducing consensus to non-consensus groups

It’s common for people who value consensus to want to make the meetings they have as part of their everyday lives more consensual. So the question of how to use consensus in more  traditional, often hierarchical, settings comes up regularly. Saturday’s Transition Leicester group was no exception and it’s spurred me to share a few thoughts:

Saturdays group's initial thinking (click for a clearer view)

Down, down, deeper and down: Consensus requires some level of sharing – shared values, shared goals, or both. The deeper the sharing the deeper the consensus that can be reached. Many ‘alternative’ groups – action affinity groups, co-operatives have very deeply held shared values and consensus is a powerful tool for them. It becomes a method of not only making decisions, but of building a group that strives for deep understanding of equality, and deeply challenges oppression in all it’s forms. But in the workplace, for example, that level of sharing might be far more shallow. So realistic expectations are important.

Consensus in this setting is probably going to be far more functional than the transformative consensus happening elsewhere. However it should still be able to transform poor meetings to useful ones and challenge some of the assumptions of power and leadership that go unremarked in most organisations.

What’s in it for me? My biggest single tip to anyone wanting to introduce all or some of the ideas of consensus where it might not naturally seem to fit is to offer a clear, practical rationale. Consensus as a transformative-decision-making-process-that-radically-challenges-societies-norms probably won’t go down well with the boss. But consensus as a tool-to-increase-ownership-of-decisions-and the-quality-of-outputs might pique a bit of interest.

So, make sure you let people know what’s in it for them. Can you improve the quality of the ideas generated? Can you ensure that decisions are implemented more proactively? Can you cut down on the amount of time spent remaking decisions that were poorly made the first time around? Can you leave staff and volunteers feeling increasingly valued, with inevitable consequences for job satisfaction? The answer to all of these should be ‘yes’.

When it’s working well, consensus decision-making involves:

  • clarity on the decision being taken and the process being used
  • good listening and a feeling of being heard
  • broad discussion that actively explores possible concerns and looks to include diverse opinion
  • co-operating to find a solution that works for everyone
  • reflection – revisiting proposals to ensure they’re as strong as they can be
  • the final safety check of the ‘test for consensus’ which allows for shades of agreement and has the ultimate safety valve of the veto (aka the block, the major objection)
  • clear actioning of tasks
  • an on a process note it slowly but surely builds the group into a better functioning, cohesive unit

This makes it a highly pragmatic way of making high quality decisions.

But does it take more time? At first, probably. However you’re trading time for quality and possibly saving time in the long run. If you make a poor decision it’s poorly implemented, or not implemented at all. So you waste time chasing up the people who took on (or were given) action points. You waste more time having a repeat discussion at your next meeting because people have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision. And the result is at best half-hearted.

I’m not advocating consensus for all decisions. Don’t waste time using consensus to make unimportant decisions (as long as they are genuinely unimportant to everyone!), or choose between a range of bad options. Toss a coin, roll a  dice.

I’m also not advocating it for all groups in all settings. If it’s used to create the illusion of ownership, beware. People will soon see through that and lose, not gain, trust in the organisation. There has to be a genuine commitment to power-with rather than power-over, to participation and transparency. And of course, it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Consensus gives people a taste of being respected, listened to, and valued. ‘Ordinary’ meetings won’t ever seem the same again.

More posts on consensus decision-making