Consensus Decision Making
Everyone must agree
Gathering consensus takes time, but it works well when a decision will impact many people, and those people have valuable insight and the capacity for candid negotiation.
- Slow – Fast 10% 10%
- Independent – Collaborative 95% 95%
- Hierarchical – Egalitarian 95% 95%
- Private – Transparent 95% 95%
Consensus decision-making asks everyone in the group to shape the decision until a compromise that reasonably satisfies everyone is reached. Unlike some other decision-making models, consensus strives to incorporate everyone’s perspectives, needs, and ultimately their permission.
Consensus has a long history of use in tight-knit communities like faith groups, neighbourhoods, and unions. Consensus also tends to be how recently formed organizations first approach decision making.
- Satisfies all constituents
- Fosters strong, united groups
- Equalizes the distribution of power in a group
- Constituents leave fully prepared to implement the decision
- Can take forever
- Nearly impossible for groups with low trust or competing interests
- Difficulty increases as group grows larger
- Subject to compromises that may not serve the group well
- Define the problem or opportunity and capture it where people can see it
- Brainstorm all possible options: write them down, cluster similar ideas
- Take an initial non-binding vote to gauge the feelings of the group
- Have people make a case for options they feel strongly about
- Take another non-binding vote
- Negotiate with holdouts: “What would it take to get you on board?”
- Repeat 4-7 until everyone agrees with the decision
Common Mistakes, Challenges and Traps
Failing to come to a consensus after multiple tries
It’s best to specify both a deadline and a fallback plan. With everyone’s best intentions, the team still may fail to agree as a group. Consensus takes time. Set the rules for success and state: “If we can’t agree by 3pm, we will shift to a democratic vote, or I will make the decision myself”. Knowing that the decision may be taken away from the group might accelerate group decision-making.
Not dedicating enough time
Reaching consensus on an important decision can take multiple conversations stretched across a good deal of time. So don’t wait until it is urgent. If you REALLY want to pursue consensus, start early and schedule multiple group conversations.