Thursday, June 7, 2012

Consensus Challenges: When Do You Know Enough To Act?

I'm in northern California this weekend, conducting a facilitation training, and the teaching theme is consensus. Two weeks ago students were asked what aspects of consensus were most challenging for them to understand or deal with well, and I got lots of replies. Today I'm launching a blog series in which I'll attempt to address a number of the issues that the students identified:

I. When do you know enough to act?
II. Closing the deal
III. Wordsmithing in plenary
IV. Redirecting competition
V. Bridging disparate views
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go

• • •
While it's easy to agree on the goal of gathering as much relevant information on an issue as possible before making a decision, it turns out to be surprisingly nuanced knowing when you have enough information to act. That is, at what point does the perceived cost of delay (in order to gather additional data) outweigh the risk of making a mistake in acting without it?

I figure you never know everything, so the question becomes when do you know enough? This is about risk assessment (the consequences of making a mistake because you acted precipitously) and also about where the group stands on the spectrum of risk averse (the world is a dangerous place) versus risk tolerant (the world is full of opportunity). What looks like a prudent action to the latter can appear as recklessness to the former; what appears as prudence to the former comes across as overprotective to the latter. There is no right answer or single best approach. The group will simply have to discern the balance point case by case.

Fortunately, when the group has a relatively stable population it learns from experience and you don't have to start from scratch each time. Over time, you'll develop a sense of what has a chance to fly without reexamining the entire range of options. 

When it comes to risk assessment, there are a number of potent questions to ask:

o  What happens if things go badly? 
Sometimes, when you really look at it, the bad thing isn't that bad, and it makes sense to not be so cautious. Other times the cost of getting it wrong is unacceptably high, and it's wiser to gather more information—or to figure out how better to limit the damage in the event of failure.

o  What is the cost of delay?
This is the obverse of Act Now coin. It may manifest as frustration, dissipated energy, or a loss of momentum. Sometimes that's more expensive than making a mistake.

o  Is the decision reversible?
This can be an important consideration in assessing the cost of a poor outcome. It's one thing to be embarrassed by a mistake; it's another to be stuck with it.

o  To what extent can we gather information about what others have done in similar circumstances, and how well to do we think their experience applies in our situation? 
Even where we think this is possible, do we have the time, resources, and motivation to do the work? It's not particularly helpful to pine for information that's inaccessible or to wait for data that no one has the availability or inclination to gather.

In the end, there is no guarantee of success and you have live with the reality that you are susceptible to failure through taking an action and also vulnerable to failure through not taking an action. You can pick your poison, but you can never be totally safe.

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