Friday, December 3, 2010

Lack of Consensus on the Meaning of "Consensus"

I had a dialog this past week with a dude who's put together a book on group dynamics, and one of the main thrusts of his writing is an attempt to redefine "consensus" as a process that fosters inclusivity and collaboration, yet does not say anything about how groups ultimately make decisions. Shoot me now.

While I can sympathize with the frustrations that many groups experience when first trying to work with consensus (it takes so long; stubborn minorities can hold the group hostage; there are too many meetings), you can't convince me that if a group ends a log jam by resorting to a majority vote that it will feel the same as a decision made by consensus, just because you were careful to use a collaborative and inclusive process in the discussion phase, and take time to listen compassionately to the upset of those who got outvoted.

The interesting case is when there's an issue that does not resolve easily, and there's a division in the group about how to proceed. If you're using consensus, the group needs to labor together until you can find a course of action that no one has objections to. If you're voting, you only need to find a course of action that most of the people support, and once it's clear which way the wind is blowing, the majority can start to coast (they're going to prevail) and the minority only has a narrow window in which to change people's minds, or live with not getting their way. The minority has a strategic choice to make: is it better to cut bait ,or to risk political capital by continuing the conversation in the hopes that they can pull it out after being down in the bottom on the ninth.

The good thing that this author is trying to address is that our culture sorely needs more cooperative processes, and he's wanting to preserve the good that's been learned about how to do that, while at the same time relieving groups of the frustration that's often experienced in trying to cross the finish line with no objections. He reported to me that his range of work is broad: with nonprofits, small businesses, local government, public meetings, and families. (Short of large corporations, it's hard to think of anything he doesn't work with.) Mostly groups are open to trying something that's more inclusive, yet they have no training in consensus and are not likely to get great results using it right out of the box. Knowing this, the author has reached for a paint-by-number approach that is relatively easy to follow, and doesn't require unanimity (actually, consensus doesn't require unanimity either; it requires that there be no principled objections, but that's the subject for a future blog).

I can see how he got there, and I'm fully supportive of highly collaborative and inclusive processes—I'm just objecting to labeling that "consensus," which is a specific decision-making process that has arisen out of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and been adapted to secular groups through vigorous work pioneered in the anti-nuclear protest groups of the '60s and continues today. I am not happy about his attempt to water down a concept that so many have worked so hard to refine and develop as a specific antidote to competitive democracy.

Further, the author and I disagree over tactics. While we're both interested in promoting a more cooperative world, he's offering "consensus lite" and I'm aiming higher. I want to get as many people as I can excited about learning how to disagree about something that really matters and yet create responses that everyone can live with and brings people closer. Where the author's strategy is to give as many people as possible an early taste of something better, my strategy is to train as many facilitators as possible, so that more groups get an early experience of something great.

At least were playing in the same league, if not on the same team.

1 comment:

Quentin said...

I read it every tme. Much, much thanks.....Quentin