I was working with a client this weekend, the board of a quasi-professional association, and we were discussing ways to build better support for decisions. I introduced them to the consensus decision making model I use, something which is adopted from the work of Sam Kaner. They liked it and I agreed to write it into the report I was doing for them. Thought I’d share it with you readers as well…
Voting certainly has its place, but if you are looking for sustainable decisions, where unity and long term support for a decision are important, a consensus decision making model can often work better.
For consensus decision making to work it helps to have an issue with the following characteristics:
- Passion or real or potential conflict, meaning that the issue is truly important
- A diversity of opinions and people involved, meaning that you can draw on creative resources for getting to consensus.
- Complexity, meaning that the issue has to be bigger than a yes/no decision.
- Other time pressures that make resolution important. Even though consensus can take more time, having a pressing need for a decision helps clarify what’s important and makes everyone a stakeholder in the outcome.
Consensus means that there is broad support for the decision. It essentially means that the decision of the group will have the support of the group to varying degrees. It also means that if there are key areas of disagreement, the groups commits itself to finding alternative ways to turn EITHER/OR questions into BOTH/AND solutions.
It is important that you make an agreement regarding what can happen should the group fail to come to consensus. My preferred alternative is to state that the group will use consensus until they reach an absolute impasse, at which time the group will decide the issue by a method chosen by consensus. So, if the group is stuck and everyone agrees to using voting to solve it, you may do so. This commitment keeps the group focused on meeting the needs of all participants, valuing everyone’s input and opinions on the subject at hand.
Consensus works bets when participants can indicate their support for a proposal with a range of opinion. Using a scale of 1-5 is the simplest way to do this. You may think of the scale this way:
1 = Absolute support, no reservations
2 = Solid support with some reservations
3 = Satisfied enough to move forward and support the decision
4 = Substantial issues remain to be discussed
5 = Significant issues remain, and support for the decision is absent.
The process works like this:
- Issues that come up for decision should be phrased as an open ended proposal. The process is not served if people come to the conversation with hard and fast positions. Openness is the first order.
- The issue can be discussed either in a round table format or another method but it is important that every participant gets a chance to ask questions and make statements about the proposal.
- When people feel the need to poll the group on support, ask the question.
- Begin counting with the ones and go down to the fives.
- For those that are four and five, the question becomes “What would it take for you to become a 2-3 on this issue?” The discussion can proceed then towards resolving specific issues.
This is a straightforward process, but leads to very sophisticated decisions, with time spent focusing on the most important issues that need resolution for everything to move forward.