Sunday, March 14, 2010

Deciding How to Decide

I recently got a request from Rebecca Krantz, a friend in Madison WI who is also a process consultant. She asked me my thoughts about a number of questions regarding consensus, and I intend to use my responses to her as my next four blog entries. Here's what she wants to know:

1. How to choose a decision-making process (in what contexts should groups adopt consensus, and in which contexts shouldn't they)

2. So you want to make decisions by consensus? (basic definitions of what this means and choices the group has in how to go about it)

3. Consensus decision-making from soup to nuts (highlights of the key steps—agenda setting, initial discussion, delegation/committee work, proposal generation, conflict resolution, decision-making)

4. But who seconded the motion? (recommendations for how minutes should be structured for consensus process meetings)

In this entry I'll tackle the first question, though I'll limit my focus to the appropriate uses of consensus.

There are many forms of decision-making and they all have a place. Where consensus really stands out as a superior choice is when the following conditions obtain:
o The group intends to be around for a long time.
o The group values maximal buy-in with decisions.
o The group wants to foster and nurture a cooperative and relational way of being in the world.
o The group values how it makes decisions as much as what decisions it makes.

It's useful, I think, to distinguish between how a group normally makes decisions and the choices it has about decision-making in particular cases. In this context, I am not promotional of groups dabbling in consensus on a case-by-case basis—if a group is not using consensus as its normal decision-making process, I recommend that it not use consensus at all. My reasoning is that doing consensus well is not easy, and you're much less likely to achieve solid results by dipping in and out of it. Better to leave it alone if you're not going to make the investment.

That said, I feel differently about the reverse dynamic. I think it's fine—even advisable—that a consensus group occasionally rely on alternate methods for making particular choices (when, for example,
choosing what color to paint the Common House bathroom, what name to give the new dog, or what to serve at Thanksgiving dinner). The key here is deciding, by consensus, that you'll settle that particular matter another way (whether by majority vote, by Ouija board, or by letting the person with the next birthday choose).

Don't use consensus unless you're willing to invest in learning it (Hint: it's way more than just reading a book or attending a few Quaker meetings).

One of the keys to getting good results with consensus is understanding the potency of four main ingredients:

a) Common values
What the group stands for (why it exists and what its trying to do in the world) is the bedrock upon which all sound decisions are built. A consensus group needs to know what those values are and members need to be prepared to labor with one another over how to sensitively apply them in the case of the specific issue at hand.

b) Work appropriate for the group
For consensus to thrive, it's essential that the group discuss what kinds of concerns are appropriate for plenary consideration and then be disciplined about not tackling topics outside that scope. Often this means working through the parts that are plenary worthy, and then rigorously offloading the remaining pieces to an appropriate committee or manager.

c) Willingness to engage
Good group meetings are based on a contract among members. Each individual is making a promise to bring their full attention to the topics that the group has collectively agreed to discuss. If the issue matters to you personally, you need the support of others to find your way to the best solution. If the issue does not grab you, you can play a crucial role as a bridge-builder among the stakeholders. Everyone has a role to play on every topic.

d) Belief in the process
After years of working with groups, I've come to appreciate that most of us have been conditioned to focus on what's not working ahead of what is. In the context of meetings, we tend to focus on what's not getting accomplished ahead of what is, and there's a cultural norm to have low expectations about meeting output (that what will happen is more likely to be something to endure than something to endear). If you expect poor results, you are already most of the way to manifesting that experience. Alternately, if you expect good results and believe that consensus will work, then you have already greatly enhanced the likelihood of manifesting that experience.

If I haven't discouraged you yet, consensus may be the right choice for your group. It's terrific for bridging different styles and different perspectives (not the same things), and when practiced with skill and sensitivity I think it's unbeatable for building group cohesion and raising energy.

One of the biggest complaints about consensus is that it takes to long (decisions are made by exhaustion, or by the folks with the largest bladders). However, the accounting for efficiency is often deficient—you need to measure the quality of the implementation, not just the time devoted to meetings. It's no bargain making a decision in 15 minutes if the implementation subsequently sucks and you have redo the work, perhaps because the right people weren't in the room, the decision was rushed, or there were too many assumptions about the actual agreement or who had authority to do what. With consensus, the group is often investing extra time in plenary (being careful to get the decisions right) with the expectation of reaping substantial dividends when it comes to implementation.

When you have the kind of group that can't afford to go fast, consensus may be the right choice for making choices.


Don said...

Thanks for this blog.

The subject brings up for me the question about how does/can "consensus decision making" look different in intentional of strong communities then in other groups.

More specifically, when does the process of building consensus start. Often I see "consensus decision making" being a decided upon process within a meeting rather than a part of the relationships within the culture of a community. So perhaps in an intentional community we could imagine that most decisions are not about new issues, and that the culture encourages ongoing conversations about values and issues and the sharing of individual differences between what I want and what we need.

So when there is a need for a group decision, the process can be organic, and during a meeting while making individual concerns, etc. visible, the majority of the consensus process can have already been accomplished and decision making is not time consuming.

Your thoughts?

Don Benson

Becca Krantz said...

Yes, thanks, Laird for these posts!
This one helps me clarify that consensus process probably is right for one of the groups I'm about to start working with (a cohousing group that wants training in consensus process) and not right for another group I've recently started working with (the board of directors of a neighborhood center). For the latter group I'll probably be advocating that they improve their process in related ways -- e.g. by making sure committee work is adequately scoped in plenary first, and using gradients of agreement instead of voting, with sensitivity to when a high level of alignment is needed, and when not.

Becca Krantz