Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Consensus Takes Forever (but Doesn't Have to)

One of the most prominent complaints about consensus is the perception that it takes too long to get things done.

In thinking about how to compose this essay, I was reminded of an old Mad Magazine cover that featured a spoof on piracy. Across the top was the teaser "Seven Ways to Quell a Mutiny." Underneath that, in a more discreet font, was the secondary teaser: "Eight Ways to Start One."

Trying to be more up-tempo than mischievous, I will reverse the numbers for this essay, offering seven roads to consensus hell, followed by eight paths by which good results can be rescued from the voracious jaws of poor process.

This pickle (of trial by meeting) comes in a variety of flavors; here are seven:
• Stubborn minorities can too easily monkey-wrench the process
• It takes too long to hear from everyone
• Too many things require plenary approval to go forward
• When key people miss meetings all the work has to be redone when they return
• Forward progress is paralyzed by the emergence of serious distress
• Decisions are weak, devolving to the lowest common denominator, which translates into high input and low output
• The person with the thickest skin (or strongest bladder) prevails, rather than what's best for the group

OK, that was the house of consensus horrors. Here are eight tools with which exorcise those demons:

1. Culture Shift
Consensus is designed to thrive in cooperative culture, but most of the people attempting it have been raised in competitive culture. In order to get good results users need to understand that it takes unlearning combative responses in the face of disagreement. This takes effort and awareness. Without them, consensus devolves into unanimous voting and it can get ugly.

2. Working Volatility 
No matter how respectful and constructive an environment you create, or how mature the participants, there will be times when people enter non-trivial distress, and you'll need agreements about how to engage in those moments, as well as the skill to deliver on those agreements. Again, these are not typically skills that most of us were raised with—but they can be learned. You can't afford to let reactivity paralyze the group.

3. Finding Agreement in a Haystack
Most of us have been conditioned to think first about how we are unique from others, before we think about how we are similar. Because we tend to find what we're looking for, mostly we see disagreement before we see common ground. In fact, some people have trouble seeing agreement until it's waved right under nose. Finding agreement in a jumbled haystack of opinion should not be dependent on good fortune; it should be the residue of learning to look for it.

4. Skilled Facilitation
It can make a night-and-day difference having a facilitator who can create and maintain a collaborative container in which meetings occur, reminding people of their cooperative intentions when the going gets tough. While the need for this diminishes as the group gets more savvy about how to function cooperatively, in my experience have a sufficient diet of early successes can be crucial to feeling sufficiently nourished to stay the course--and a skilled facilitator can provide the bridge to those successes.

5. Corralling Repetition
One of the main ways that poor behavior can suck the air out of the room is by tolerating repetitive comments—both by the original speaker (who probably isn't confident they've been heard the first time) and by others making the same point (but who are unwilling to let the first iteration diminish their chance at the microphone). This is definitely fatiguing for the group, as no new information is being exchanged. To address this phenomenon, groups need to establish agreements about speakers being disciplined, authorizing facilitators to interrupt repetition, and then backing up the facilitators when they do.

6. Redirecting Cross-Town Buses
Repetition's evil twin is talking off topic. If you think of the work needed on a issue as bus traffic, you want to be traveling uptown and downtown, hopefully by an efficient route. What you don't want to be doing is traveling cross-town, which is lateral to the goal and not toward it. Whenever people are allowed to talk off topic, they're inviting the group to work ineffectively, splitting the group's attention. Addressing this malady requires discipline from the participants and firm facilitation.

7. Distinguishing Discussion from Problem Solving

One of the ways that groups frequently get bogged down is by dancing back and forth between identifying what a good proposal needs to address (the point of the Discussion phase of the consideration) and developing a proposal (the point of the Problem-Solving phase). They are not the same thing! The Discussion  phase is expansive, in which advocacy can be given full voice. The Problem-Solving phase is contractive, in which you are looking for ways to bridge among the interests identified in the Discussion phase. One key here is insisting on joining statements once you get to Problem Solving—the time for advocacy has passed. Another key is making sure the minutes are good enough to be able to fully inform people who missed the meeting what happened, so you don't have to backtrack when you return to a topic.

8. The Gentle Art of Delegation
Finally, it's crucial that the group have a clear sense of what kind of work is appropriate for plenary and then be disciplined about ending when the level of detail drops below that standard. When you have completed all the plenary worthy aspects of an issue, it's time to delegate any remaining details to a manager or committee and move onto the next topic. For this to work well the plenary needs to be crisp in its hand-offs, making sure that teams are given clear guidance about what they are to do, what resources they have at their disposal to do the work, what factors they are to take into account, when the work is to be completed, and reporting requirements. When handled cleanly, effective delegation can relieve the plenary of an enormous amount of work that it never should have tackled in the first place.
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I'm not saying that consensus is easy. But neither it doesn't have to be that hard (or take forever).

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