Consensus decision-making: guiding groups to good decisions

We talk a lot about consensus on this blog. Supporting groups to navigate the sometimes less than clear waters of consensus is a large part of our work. Over the last year or so I’ve spoken to several fellow consensus trainers about work we’ve done together from the 2005 G8 protests onwards. One of the reflections we’ve shared is that the emphasis seems to have fallen on consensus process as opposed to consensus as a state of mind, a set of values. That was not deliberate, but it seems quite clear that some groups that have tried to use consensus have done so in the absence of clear and shared co-operative values. At that point they’re off the edge of the map of good consensus, and there be dragons.

As part of our contribution to re-establishing balance, we’ve just uploaded two new consensus decision-making guides to our Resources page. We hope there’s a suitable focus on that state of mind.

One is an abridged version of two of our most popular blog posts on the history and evolution of consensus, with the information brought together in one place. The second is an introduction and overview of what consensus is, how it works, common misconceptions, alternatives for those that can’t commit to consensus and some places to go for further information. There’s a third guide in the pipeline, aimed at facilitators of consensus.

These guides will undoubtedly evolve. Your feedback is a part of that evolution. We’d love to hear from you – what’s not clear? what’s missing? We’d also love to include more case studies of when consensus works and doesn’t, so if you have experiences to share, please get in touch.



Building a strong grassroots foundation…

We’ve not been reporting back on so much work of late. It’s not that were not working, just that we’ve been working more on one project – facilitating a dialogue between the Fairtrade Foundation and their grassroots campaigners.

The Foundation wants to offer campaigners membership – a place in the formal governance structure of the organisation – in recognition of their amazing energy and efforts in building awareness of fair trade here in the UK. Rhizome has spent the last few months gathering campaigner responses, talking to other membership organisations and testing options and facilitating an emerging consensus using the Crowd Wise process.

Although the initial brief was for a fairly traditional consultancy approach, we pitched a few other ideas at the Foundation. These included using a combination of techniques such as Open Space and World Cafe at regional or national level to initiate a conversation, uncover the issues and suggest ways forward. We suggested coupling these with Crowd Wise to test out possibilities and build towards a widely owned outcome. We settled on a fairly traditional opening process using discussion groups, phone interviews, phone conferences and a web survey to elicit concerns, excitement and other responses, followed by a series of 5 regional events at which we’d employ Crowd Wise.

We kept campaigners and other stakeholders informed of every step through a dedicated project blog, which allowed those not able to make an event to follow and interact with the process.

It all culminated in a short report earlier this week, and in a report back workshop at the Foundation’s annual Supporter Conference, today.

For Rhizome the work created an exciting opportunity. Our paths had crossed that of Perry Walker a few times of late. You may have noticed his biography appear on our Who We Are page as we invited him  on board. Perry’s a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and developed Crowd Wise (amongst other things). And alongside Perry we were able to test Crowd Wise in a new situation – a series of 5 connected meetings. We’ll talk more about what we learnt from that soon.

The Foundation seem happy with the outcomes even though they differ significantly from the initial proposal they had developed. They also found the process valuable and plan to share their reflections with colleagues in other countries.

One interesting reflection that I heard today from a veteran Fairtrade Town campaigner was that he had been surprised at the regional event that he attended that many other campaigners weren’t interested in the offer of a governance role. Then he remembered that when he was less-than-veteran he had also been focused on more immediate and more directly campaign-related concerns.

This was one of the strengths of the process – it brought campaigners of all stripes and experience together in a way that challenged their assumptions and asked them to step into each other’s shoes.

Near-consensus alternatives: Consensus Oriented Decision-Making

Here’s the second in a series of posts on near-consensus alternatives. In this post we’re talking to Tim Hartnett, facilitator, mediator and counsellor about Consensus Oriented Decision-Making (CODM, pronounced co-dem). Tim has developed CODM and has outlined the method in his recent book Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making: The CODM Model for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement.

Tell us a little about CODM – what is it and how does it differ from the consensus decision-making we’re more used to here at Rhizome?

CODM is a seven-step process for building consensus in groups. It provides an outline for facilitators or group members to conduct a participatory and collaborative decision-making process. It could be considered a version of the consensus decision-making model Rhizome members are familiar with, but it offers more detailed guidance on the different stages of the process. CODM combines the basic consensus decision-making model with the best practices of group facilitation, mediation, and nonviolent communication.

One significant difference seems to be the separation of the process of discussion and dialogue and the final decision rule (ie: the agreed mechanism for expressing the will off the group – majority vote, supermajority vote, consensus, unanimity and so on). Can you say a little more about that?

The CODM model is applicable in groups that require full consent as their final decision rule. But yes, it is also very usable in groups that have other standards of how much agreement is necessary to pass proposals. CODM focuses on consensus as a “process” of group decision-making, and it strives to advance the procedures and techniques of that process so that agreement levels are maximized regardless of what decision rule a group uses.

What drove you to develop CODM? Was it flaws in the current practice and theory of consensus? An attempt to bring consensus to groups for whom formal/simple consensus wouldn’t be appropriate? None of the above?

I teach the CODM model to two main audiences: the general public and those with experience in the formal consensus model. To the general public, I am trying to help groups learn both the value of building consensus and the tools for a successful consensus process. CODM is a model that can be applied to a great variety of groups, large and small, diverse or cohesive. So it is a model that can bring consensus decision-making into much wider use.

Is that primarily because of CODM’s flexibility around the decision rule?

CODM makes consensus-oriented decision-making applicable to a wide variety of groups not only because it offers flexibility around decision rules. Just as importantly, it gives detailed steps for how to successfully conduct a collaborative discussion. The basic consensus model offers only the vague steps of discuss objections, make modifications, and re-test for consensus. The CODM model articulates these tasks into much greater detail, making the model easier to understand and use.

You were telling us about your two audiences…

To groups already familiar with the formal consensus model I offer CODM as a way to help hone group process for greater success. The detailed steps can clarify the path to consensus. They provide a template for facilitators, a backbone structure to improvise from as you facilitate each unique situation.

I also enjoy helping groups identify when the formal consensus model may be negatively affecting their group dynamic. In such cases, CODM can help a group regain efficient functionality, while retaining a consensus process. I have seen some very well-intentioned groups suffer (and even disband) because of dynamics related to their version of consensus. So it has been very gratifying to be able to help such groups become more flexible and begin to thrive again.

So the detail in CODM supports us to be more rigorous in our practice of consensus with groups?

Yes, CODM helps groups to be more successful using consensus. Thus, groups can more rigorously use the process. When groups have trouble using consensus, they often slide into using alternatives. Sometimes, for instance, a group will form a steering committee to handle many decisions because it  too difficult for the whole group to conduct an (often chaotic) consensus process on multiple issues. But if a group has a more clear and efficient process, they can continue to practice whole group decision-making, and not delegate that authority to a steering committee.

There are many other ways groups that struggle succeeding with consensus begin to make decisions outside of an honest group consensus process. For instance, an ethos of people “doing their own thing” may evolve. While this might support individual autonomy, it may also be a result of unsuccessful attempts to cooperate. A more effective process can help a group bring more issues to a true consensus.

Can you give us an example of CODM working to its full potential so we can get a feel for the challenges it can help a group deal with, and the kind of groups using it?

One group asked me to facilitate an important meeting wherein a proposal to change the group by-laws was to be presented. A subcommittee had drafted new by-laws, and they intended to follow a formal consensus process to gain the group’s approval. They planned to present the proposal, answer questions and then adapt it in response to feedback. But they were very worried that some members of the group would be resistant to the whole idea. Prior to the meeting there were already people talking about blocking the committee’s proposal. I suggested that the group use the CODM model instead. The CODM steps offered three valuable contributions that I think proved very useful.

First, we started with an open discussion that articulated all of the needs that new by-laws might hope to address. This gave the group members a chance to understand all the concerns that needed to be addressed prior to presenting any proposal.

Second, when it came time to begin developing a proposal, the CODM process offered a way for options to be developed collaboratively. As different group members contributed ideas, the resulting proposal was a joint project, owned by the whole group, and not the work of a subcommittee. This lessened the resistance some members were feeling about being shut out of the development process. It is true that many of the ideas originated from the subcommittee’s draft. But the CODM process allowed them to be pieced together in a way that gave everyone a sense of ownership. Each part of the newly proposed by-laws were also directly related to needs the group had identified, giving everyone a shared understanding of the rationale for each item.

And finally, the CODM process guided the group to develop several alternatives. For instance, there were two versions of proposed requirements for official group membership (should there be an “inactive” membership status?). The group considered each of these versions in turn, brainstorming how the drawbacks of each might be successfully addressed. This kept the group working together, trying to improve each option, one at a time. Only after this was complete did the group start evaluating which option better met the needs of the whole group. Delaying the evaluation phase helped the discussion avoid becoming adversarial. Everyone understood the potential of each idea before anyone started comparing them.

In the end, the feared resistance to new by-laws never materialized. The CODM process prevented an adversarial dynamic from developing between the subcommittee and other group members. It shepherded the group toward a decision that everyone understood and felt ownership toward. The result was not only full agreement, but a fully collaborative process.

I have to ask: what have been the biggest problems you’ve encountered with CODM?

The biggest challenge people have in using CODM is assessing whether or not to use short-cuts to the process. Not all decisions require full consideration of several alternatives before a decision is made. The CODM model encourages the use of short-cuts whenever the group desires to move more quickly through the steps. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to know when it will work to speed through a step and when more diligence will prevent problems later in the process. For instance, the full CODM process calls for posting a complete list of identified stakeholder needs and concerns. With major decisions, such a list can keep everyone fully aware of the criteria for a successful outcome. But if the list is short and relatively obvious, then putting it up on a poster may be overkill. If you know the CODM process well, you begin to get a stronger intuition about when short-cuts can be taken successfully.

Perhaps the most common critique of consensus, from its friends as well as it’s foes, is that it’s too time-consuming to be practicable. What’s your experience of CODM – appreciating that there are some short cuts, what can we expect in terms of how long it takes, compared to groups working by formal consensus?

As you mention, groups using CODM are encouraged to use short-cuts as necessary for them to reach the desired balance between time efficiency and thorough deliberation. When the full process is employed, competing proposals are developed one at a time. This may take more time up front, but it shortens the time needed to choose between proposals later, because it ensures that each option is well understood before it is decision time. An aggravating waste of time in many meetings occurs when people argue against proposals they don’t really understand yet. CODM can successfully prevent this. But if the CODM process is used more thoroughly than necessary, a group may spend time on steps that an appropriate short-cut would avoid. That is a danger when a facilitator is first learning to use CODM and is not able to assess when a short-cut might be advantageous.

From a facilitators perspective what are the other main challenges of facilitating CODM? For those of us used to formal/simple consensus how would we need to adapt our facilitation?

Those familiar with formal/simple consensus facilitation can gain two valuable things from CODM without needing to change the style or tone of their role as facilitator. First, CODM will give them a stronger understanding of the building blocks of real collaboration. It is like learning music theory after having learned to play music by ear. You may do many of the same things you always have. But you will better understand what to do when things start falling apart. And you will have more tools up front to prevent the common problems in group deliberations.

Secondly, the CODM model is defined by the process it outlines, not the decision rule a group uses to complete its decisions. There is an important distinction between a consensus “process” and a full-consent “decision rule”. Some facilitators have a hard time loosening the ideology that has invariably wed these two concepts. The fact that we use the word “consensus” to refer to both the process and the outcome does not help. But when facilitators begin to think flexibly about this distinction they increase their ability to help a greater variety of groups in a greater variety of situations.

Help us loosen that ideology. What’s your experience: do you feel that groups using the CODM process and then a voting decision rule are reaching decisions that are as deeply collaborative as the consensus groups you’ve worked with (and by that I mean those that use consensus process and decision rule)? Does the vote become more of a formality because the process has forged deep agreement?

My experience is that a good process is what generates that wonderful, organic sense of “we don’t even need to vote, because the answer is clear to us all.” I have seen that good process (and the resulting harmony) occur in groups with all different kinds of decision rules. And I have witnessed some awful process in all types of groups as well. That’s what confirms for me that how you discuss things is ultimately more important than whether you require full consent.

 I enjoyed the book and am learning from it. I’ve already changed my thinking about consensus. But it was the final chapter of the book “Going for full agreement” that I found most challenging and interesting. You offer some well-honed critiques of a unanimous approach to decision-making. Can you say a bit about that?

Those who believe that requiring full consent is the ideologically superior decision rule in all cases will be challenged by the observations I make in this chapter. Their sacred cow is examined quite closely. In all fairness, the book should include a similar chapter on the drawbacks of adversarial debate. It does not, simply for the reason that most people interested in consensus decision-making already understand these problems. But unfortunately, not everyone practicing consensus decision-making understand the problems that requiring full consent can create for a group that cannot achieve it successfully.

My overarching goal is to help groups make decisions as collaboratively and as efficiently as they need to function well. When a group can successfully reach full agreement, requiring it can work fine, and the CODM model can help ensure success. When groups are larger, more diverse, pressed for time, or otherwise challenged, the full consent rule has presented some real problems. I think it is important to honestly assess these difficulties. Sometimes changing the group’s decision rule can solve problems that otherwise threaten a group’s survival. The CODM model offers a way to be flexible in final decision rules while still employing a consensus-oriented deliberation process.

One of the things that stands out for me throughout this chapter is the language of ‘voting’ that you use throughout. Let me give you an example – you talk about the possibility that for some people some of the time holding true to their own opinion and being outvoted in a majority vote situation can be more satisfying than consensus, because they get to hold to their own view whereas in consensus they’re asked/expected to vote to help form a group view.  Many consensus facilitators would say that consensus has no element of voting, of mine versus yours, it’s about co-operation through and through….

Voting is simply the act of having each group member indicate their preference in some way. There is nothing inherently competitive about it. It is just a way to gather information. Unfortunately, the discourse on consensus has often contrasted “voting” with “consensus” as if the “test for consensus” is not a form of voting. The legitimate contrast is between the different decision rules: majority vote, super-majority, full consent, etc. A common fallacious contrast, however is often made between “majority voting” and “consensus process”. This pairing contrasts a decision rule with a dialogue/deliberation process, an apple and an orange. It is more clear to contrast fruits of the same kind.

“Majority voting” and “requiring full consent” are both decision rules. Groups can and should contrast these options to find the one that works best for them. I am neutral on this topic unless I see that a group is unable to successfully use the decision rule they have chosen. If majority rule decisions are undermined by the minority, there is a problem. Likewise, if a group can’t move forward on popular ideas that need action, there is also a problem. The problem may be solvable by improving the process. If not, the problem may be addressed by changing the decision rule.

“Consensus process” and “adversarial debate” are both dialogue/deliberation processes. Most of the criticisms leveled at “majority rule” are really criticisms of “adversarial debate”. In this contrast I am not neutral. I advocate that a consensus process be used as much as possible. While there is some value to adversarial debate, I believe all of its goals can be better achieved with a cooperative approach.

So the choices a group needs to make are: one, do we use a consensus-oriented process or an adversarial process; and two, at the end of our discussion how do we finalize decisions (with a vote requiring which threshold of agreement or consent)? These two choices can be made independently. For instance, a group may use a consensus-oriented process paired with a majority vote. Likewise, a group could engage in prolonged adversarial debate, conducted in search of satisfying a requirement for full consent to pass proposals. The chosen decision rule does not dictate the conduct of the process. And voting (whether you tally “agreement” or “consent”) occurs regardless.

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Near-consensus alternatives: Crowd Wise

Near-consensus alternatives: Crowd Wise

In our last post on consensus we talked about near-consensus alternatives.

Here’s the first in a series of posts that explore near-consensus alternatives. By near-consensus, I simply mean methods that share some of consensus’ analysis if the problems of traditional majoritarian decision-making and are trying to explore ways to deepen dialogue and produce results that work for a larger section of participants.

So let’s look at Crowd Wise. I’ll be co-facilitating a course with Perry Walker, originator of Crowd Wise, in the near future, so Crowd Wise seemed like a good place to start

How did Crowd Wise evolve?

PW: Six or seven years ago, I met Peter Emerson of the de Borda Institute, based in Belfast. For thirty years, Peter has single-handedly flown the flag for consensus voting, which is the type of voting used in Crowd Wise. This form of voting involves people putting a series of options in order of preference. Those preferences are then turned into points. If there are six options, and you vote for all of them, your first preference gets six points, your second preference gets five points, and so on. At that stage, I had a sense that there was a really interesting approach in what Peter was doing, but I couldn’t work out what it was. Peter and I managed to get a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust , and I then got a further grant from the Democratic Innovation Fund of the Ministry of Justice. This enabled us to run a number of trials. I slowly realised that while the consensus voting seemed very powerful, the way in which Peter incorporated it into an overall process did not work for me. So I gradually stripped that away and built my own process around the method of voting. I used to have a postcard that said, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes that I think I’ll make another one”. Fortunately, I managed to make enough mistakes in these trials that I was able to work out how to help others avoid them. A process that felt right slowly emerged, and that process is Crowd Wise.

Crowd Wise is consensus voting, but many proponents of consensus see voting as its antithesis. Tell us more….

PW: I wouldn’t say that Crowd Wise is consensus voting. Consensus voting is the form of voting that Crowd Wise uses. Crowd Wise also involves discussion – or ‘deliberation’, to be a bit more technical. Now the voting and the deliberation are closely entwined. People who disagree with each other nonetheless have an incentive to talk to each other. The proponent of a particular option will seek to persuade the other person to give that option a higher preference in the consensus vote than they originally intended to. Indeed, the form of voting means that people who disagree may have more of an incentive to talk to each other than people who agree. And that same incentive also encourages that talk to be constructive.

I understand the incentive to talk to someone to persuade them of my argument. But what’s the incentive to listen to theirs? Many people would assert that that’s not the norm in argument and debate within our culture. Why does Crowd Wise foster a constructive response?

PW: I’m supposing that everyone wants to advance their preferences. So everyone wants to influence people who support options different to those that they prefer. And I think most people accept that it’s a good thing to listen to somebody, when you want that person to listen to you! Saying all that enables me to respond to the second part of the statement. When ‘proponents of consensus’ describe voting as the antithesis of consensus, what they have in mind is majority voting, known in British politics at First Past the Post. Now, because this is by far the best known form of voting, people tend to equate it with voting as a whole. The Seeds for Change website, for example, says “voting creates a majority and a minority – a situation in which there are winners and losers”, and only remembers to qualify this system of voting as majority voting in the next paragraph. In sum, then, I entirely agree with proponents of consensus that majority voting is the antithesis of consensus. But rather than conclude that all forms of voting are to be avoided, I have discovered a form of voting that does not have the drawbacks of majority voting.

What are the main similarities and differences between Crowd Wise and consensus as it’s used in many non-hierarchical activist networks?

PW: Doing a little bit of research for this interview, I have been struck by the extent of the differences. The end, in terms of reaching general agreement, is pretty much the same, but the means are very different. I see that the Rhizome website is happy to use the Wikipedia explanation of consensus decision-making, so let’s go with that. Wikipedia says that:

The basic model involves collaboratively generating a proposal, identifying unsatisfied concerns, and then modifying the proposal to generate as much agreement as possible. After a concerted attempt at generating full agreement, the group can then apply its final decision rule to determine if the existing level of agreement is sufficient to finalize a decision.”

The differences with Crowd Wise begin right at the start of this basic model. Crowd Wise starts with a range of options, with six a typical number. In addition, the ways in which these options are generated vary a great deal. At AFC Wimbledon, the options were generated by a working group of twelve or so, drawn from a much larger electorate of the 1500 members who own the club. At an event in 2009 at the University of Gloucestershire, the six options were generated in advance by people who were not part of the summer school for whom the event was held. Now it is true that Crowd Wise involves looking at concerns, but the way in which this happens is different from traditional consensus decision-making. In the case of the University of Gloucestershire event, which was about the future powers of parish and town councils, these concerns were identified by the proponents of the various options, who then amended their options to make them more appealing to the electorate.

Furthermore, in Crowd Wise, there is no question of an individual blocking a proposal, or even standing aside. For the way in which people formally give their view is by voting, and the most hostile they can be to any option is to rank all the options, and to put it last. You could of course devise a voting system that allowed people to express the strength of their opinion, whether in favour of their best option or against their worst option. But what you would then lose would be the incentive for people who disagree to talk to each other.

There is another difference where Crowd Wise could be at a disadvantage. This has to do with the decision rule. The possible decision rules for traditional consensus decision-making seem to be pretty clear. The conclusions to be drawn from the final consensus vote (usually the second vote, sometimes the first) are not always as clear. Sometimes they are.

In 2010 I ran an event for Transition Town Lewes (TTL), which wanted to select a new governance structure. The two options that came top, well ahead of the rest, were very similar. Both involved setting up a Steering Group which initially comprised the contacts for their existing working groups, and then invited other members of TTL to put themselves forwards. They differed slightly in how people to join the steering group were chosen from among the people offering themselves. It was an easy decision for TTL to decide to combine those two options. By contrast, the six options used by AFC Wimbledon were all stories about how the club could evolve. I was asked to interpret the voting results to work out which strategic criteria took priority. I said that the main conclusions were:

“There was a strong desire to retain ownership by the fans. This applied to the ground as well as the club. There was a desire to get back to Merton (the London borough that was home to the original Wimbledon club), with Kingston (where the club are now) in particular and south west London in general as acceptable but second best. Wimbledon fans are cautiously ambitious. They do not want ambition to jeopardise fan-ownership, and balance it against the wish to return to Wimbledon or Merton.”

In other cases, the interpretation relates more to the mathematics of the voting. With majority voting, it is at least clear who has a majority. With consensus voting, there is no rule that tells you what score by the option that comes top, or combination of scores, is good enough. It’s a question of feel. I have never found that to be a problem, but it could be, especially in situations of conflict.

The final difference relates to ethos. Consensus decision making as usually understood puts stress on having a shared ethos, on the importance of the common good, of listening, and so on. I have never found it necessary to emphasise any of these points with Crowd Wise.

Because they happen naturally or because Crowd Wise has different foundations?

PW: I hope because they happen naturally. I gave reasons why I thought people would listen to each other above. But I am probably being a little naïve. I am sure that there are settings where the extent of conflict or the nature of the participants, say where they simply want to maintain their initial position, means that these things do not happen naturally and need to be encouraged. Furthermore, in a way that I do not yet fully understand, it is the desire of the supporters of the different options to win the vote, to have their option come top, that fuels the identification of consensus.

That sounds counter-intuitive, and you say you don’t fully understand it, but is there any more you can say at this stage?

PW: One example of this was the Crowd Wise event on the future powers of local councils which is on the back of the Crowd Wise briefing . In this case, the proponents of the different options adapted their options, after talking to the 60 members of the audience (the electorate) in ways in which made the options closer together. That in turn may have paved the way for five out of the six proponents deciding that they would do better in the vote, and not sacrifice anything fundamental, if they merged their preferred option with other options.

Now, it may be the case, that if the make-up of the audience had been different – very polarised for example – that the options would not have evolved in this way. But I have not had any examples of that happening in any of the fifteen or so events and projects using Crowd Wise that I have run so far.

Where does Crowd Wise get results when other forms of consensus don’t?

PW: All methods have settings in which they work and settings in which they don’t – there is no one perfect method that always works. I think Crowd Wise might get results when other forms of consensus do not in four circumstances:

  1. When the people taking the decision are not an affinity group. The attendees at the Summer School all had the same sort of job – parish council chair or clerk. But they did not know each other well. The members of the AFC Wimbledon all have their support for the club in common, but that is not the same as having a shared ethos.
  2. When there is naturally a range of options, as, for example with participatory budgeting.
  3. When you want to involve lots of people – like the 1500 members of AFC Wimbledon.
  4. When you don’t have much time – the event at the University of Gloucestershire only took a couple of hours.

Read our other posts on consensus