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Is Consensus a Four Letter Word in Decision Making?

By: Alexis Gonzales-Black on January 28th, 2018

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Is Consensus a Four Letter Word in Decision Making?

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Now that my book is being published, I wanted to reshare this post which originally appeared in the Thoughtful Org blog.  It answers a perennial question I encounter -- "How can we get away from using consensus as a default for all decisions?"

In today's complex institutions almost every decision today has to be "socialized," "agreed upon," or some way part of a "consensus."  It's what seems fair, and it suggests that a particular goal and plan has widespread support.

What is wrong with this? Consensus as a strategy is often overused and misused and can lead to unintended consequences, such as:

  1. Shifting accountability. When there isn’t clear decision-making authority, and decisions are made by a group of people, it’s easy for folks to point fingers at others if the result isn’t positive. People will go around and around on who said what and why they did or didn’t really support it, and who’s fault it is, instead of focusing on taking ownership for their role and learning from the decision.
  2. Mediocre Solutions. When we focus on the knowledge that we share, we overlook key information unique to individuals. When each person is a valuable sensor with valid data from their role, why does it make sense to out-vote them, rather than integrating pieces of information that help us fulfill the purpose of our work?

Instead of defaulting to consensus, responsive operating systems ask you to get clear about your roles and authority. Once you have clarity you can choose from a number of different decision making strategies, including:

  1. Tell: You will use the data and authority in your role to make an autonomous decision and inform the circle of the decision after it’s been made.
  2. Consult: You get input from the circle before making the decision, but you still retain the authority to make the final decision.
  3. Agree: You make the decision together as a circle, either using consensus or voting. (This method should be used sparingly for the aforementioned reasons)
  4. Observe and Advise: Another role in the circle will make the decision, but you will provide data and experience to influence the decision.
  5. Delegate: You offer no influence and let another role take ownership of the decision.

About Alexis Gonzales-Black

Co-founder of Thoughtful Org Partners