A key leadership skill is the ability to achieve consensus around decisions. My observation is that nearly everyone wants to make good decisions and to achieve a consensus among team members, but most seem to be stymied trying to achieve both objectives simultaneously. I advocate a 4-Step Process that I evolved from, Dr. Willard “Bill” Anderson, one of my mentors at NASA Langley Research Center.
Making decisions by consensus has many benefits. First of all, including the widest variety of inputs should create the most information content and minimize the probability that the best decision is outside the ones being considered.
Secondly, if all team members understand the decision requirements, decision process, and the ultimate decision, any required execution should be enhanced.
Team morale can be positively impacted by team member inclusion in the decision process. Additionally, in many organizations much time is wasted as team members wonder about decisions and decision processes and even participate in background chatter. If everyone knows that they will participate key decision making, the distraction of such gossip is minimized.
Definition of Consensus
Prior to exploring the decision process for achieving a consensus we should first understand what it means to achieve a consensus. There seems to be some pre-conceived notions. Let’s look at some pertinent definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary definition:
Note that a consensus decision is NOT required to be a Unanimous Agreement or a Majority Vote. A key understanding toward driving toward a consensus decision is to insure that everyone understands that we are not necessarily driving toward unanimity or majority rule.
What a Consensus Decision does require is Group Participation in the decision and Closure around the decision.
Consensus Decision Process
This Consensus Decision Process (CDP) is a formal sequential set of steps. It is important that everyone participating in the process be made aware of the steps prior to initiating the process and should, in fact, be aware of where the team is in the process at any particular time. The importance of everyone within the consensus process being made aware will be made clear below in the CDP Step Clarity section.
Let’s review and amplify each of the steps in this process.
The leader of the group must communicate to the entire group, hopefully while in the same room, what decision is required and what process will be followed to make the decision. Everyone in the group must be clear on what is needed and how the decision process will proceed.
Examples of how the decision will be made could be any of the following:
Note that the leader will need to exercise care in choosing the process and educating team members on the decision process. Many teams will tend to default either into trying to achieve unanimity or voting with simple majority rules. Although there might be times with either are desirable (see link for for an example of unanimity), but frequently this is not ideal. My presumption is that most times the leader will choose to make the decision herself. However, there are many benefits of delegating the decision to others in the group such as: training, leadership development, or recognition.
Polls or votes should be used cautiously as that would fulfill individual prior conceptions of a consensus process and set precedents for future decisions. Additionally, what is needed is a variety of viewpoints and it is unlikely that all viewpoints or perspectives will be represented proportionately within a group. Likewise it is probably that experience, judgment, technical background, seniority, and vested interests will vary widely among team members. Relying on votes may be a measure of any of these characteristics rather than yielding the best decision for the circumstance.
This step involves the stimulation of discussion and collection of inputs from the group. The goals are to: (1) create as much useful input of data (raw and unprocessed) and information (data that has been processed, categorized, and assessed) as possible to assist in the decision making process; and, (2) get everyone involved in the decision process.
This input collection step is the most challenging for the leader and requires talent, interpersonal skills, and extemporaneous group management experience. The quality of CDP requires the leader to be effective in each of these areas.
Many groups of diverse individuals have challenges that need to be managed. For example, some people are loud, fast talkers, and dominate the conversation. It is hard for others to get a word in otherwise. The leader should allow these people to make their inputs but if they dominate the conversation too much or become too repetitive, the leader must tactfully find a way to say: “Let’s give someone else a chance to make inputs.”
During the data collection stage it is important that inputs not be judged prematurely. All ideas in the early stages of brainstorming are good ideas. There are personality types that will shut down if they or a colleague have their ideas are prematurely dismissed. It’s important to emphasize there are no bad ideas or inputs at this stage.
Engineers can be notorious for taking the “devil’s advocate” approach and trying to shut down discussion on new ideas that are immature, especially if they appear to be in conflict with their pre-conceived solution. If they are aggressive, other people in the group will cease to participate in the brainstorming process.
One of the best people I know for drawing people out during brainstorming sessions is my friend, Dr. Andreas von Flotow, the founder and president of Hood Technologies Corp. Andy earned his PhD alongside me at Stanford, became a professor at MIT, and founded his company in the early 1990's. He is very bright and creative besides being a terrific entrepreneur. Frequently during brainstorming when someone proposes an interesting idea, he will go to the board and attempt to diagram a summary until the proposer is satisfied that Andy fully understands it. Then Andy will put his considerable talent and creativity to work trying to make the proposed idea successful. He will fully develop the proposal and then put into the queue for future processing.
I remember one time we were brainstorming the best way to mechanize a certain device. I blurted out a 'half-baked' idea and Andy took it up and wrestled with it for about 10 minutes trying to find a way to make my input useful and relevant. Ultimately I suggested (begged him) that it be put in the discard pile. However, I never once thought that Andy (or anyone in the brainstorming group) wasn't taking the input seriously and fully considering it without judgment. It encouraged me and others to keep noodling, rather than shutting down. Actually, an idea I proposed about 30 minutes later was instrumental in helping Andy to find a solution. The power of positive reinforcement during brainstorm therby fully illustrated.
Some people think are fast thinkers and can make quick inputs. Others are slower thinkers and prefer to consider ideas prior to making inputs. Many of us use both charcteristics and the results can be interesting. A recent book ["Thinking, Fast and Slow" by David Kahneman] explored the benefit of exploiting both fast thinking and slow thinking and learning to recognize the characteristics of each. The leader must become adept at understanding the types of inputs that are being made and adjust the conversation and process accordingly.
No matter how well you try to draw out people in a group during the input collection stage, some members of the group are going to be shy. Drawing them out in the group could be difficult.
I have observed that some of my best inputs can come from slow thinkers or shy talkers on the team. So even though results oriented managers would like to complete the CDP as quickly as possible, for important decision processes I delay the decision. I announce that the decision will be made in X days (or sometimes weeks). It gives time for slow thinkers to noodle on the idea. It also gives time for the shy talkers to back-channel information to the leader.
When the group re-convenes the leader can draw out the slow thinkers and can represent the viewpoints of the shy talkers (giving credit as appropriate). This allows the entire group to get the benefit of these sources of information.
The decision should be processed exactly as described in Step 1. If the leader announced she was going to make the decision, than the leader collects the data and makes the decision. If the decision was supposed to be assigned, it is preferable for the decision to be made as indicated.
I have seen cases where the leader loses confidence in the decision maker(s) and decides to over-rule the decision or refuses to allow it to go forward for fear the result will not be what the leader wants. In either case, this path is obviously disastrous for future team dynamics, morale, and learning. It would be much better to retain the decision upfront that to withdraw it midstream.
The most important part of Step 3 is the communication clarity. It is essential that the decision be clearly communicated and should include the following:
After the decision is announced and clearly communicated, everyone on the team is expected to support the decision. In a sense the price of Step 2 (everyone participates) is that when we are done, we all support the decision (Step 4) even if the particular decision was not the outcome for which we individually advocated.
Truly effective leaders are able to engender support and trust even when making difficult decisions that might be in opposition to individual views within the group. One of the goals of the CDP is help the leader achieve this objective.
I have observed in many organizations the debilitating results of constant debate and behind the scenes the undermining of progress that results when not all team members accept the decisions. It makes the leader appear weak, destroys team cohesive, and squanders productivity.
If members of the group continue to debate the decision or not support it, it is important that those members are reminded that such debate is no longer permissible. In mature teams experience in CDP, other team members would help with such advice and it wouldn’t totally be the responsibility of the leader to get the appropriate behavior from dissenters.
I have always tried to make it clear that our organizational values are that we vigorously participate in decisions but once the decisions are made we just as vigorously support them. If individuals are unable to accept this premise than it is a violation of our values and such members are at risk of being ‘voted off the island.’
Key Roles of the Leader
The leader has several key roles within the CDP:
I belive best practice for using the CDP is to start by writing down the CDP steps on the meeting room's white-board or show it on one of the kick-off slides. Indiccate that "We are now at Step 1 where we describe the decision." Once that is complete point to the list and indicate that "We are now at Step 2 where we collect inputs." Keep reminding people we are at Step 2. Once that phase is complete and it's time to announce the decision, refer to the list again and indicate "We are now at Step 3." Once the decision has been announced it's important to pull up the list and explain to the group "We are now at Step 4 - We all support the decision!"
It may seem a little hokie, but it helps to reinforce the participation model and I have noticed that it helps get people entrained in their roles. When debate comes up after the decision has been made others in the group help remind that dissenter that we are at Step 4, time for dissent and debate is over.
Many times I have noticed after implementing the process with a group for the first time people come up to me afterwards and say that was great. They really enjoyed the meeting(s) and deliberation(s). The formal healthy process of brainstorming and decision making can be envigorating.
CDP Step Clarity
It is essential that everyone in the team understand on which step the CDP currently resides. Lack of such clarity could contribute to huge problems within the organization. Let’s study the situation and observe the implications of ‘step misalignment’ amongst team members.
Team behaviors before a decision point (Step 2) include the following:
Expected team behaviors after the decision has been made (Step 4) include the following:
So let’s look at the situation where we have a strong, normally participative individual within the team but who is unaware of at what Step the CDP is at due to poor communication:
If the team is in pre-decision behaviors (Step 2) and the individual is using post-decision behaviors (Step 4) because he/she believes the decision has been made, the individual will be perceived as withholding information, not participating, and perhaps harboring hidden agendas.
If the team is in post-decision behaviors (Step 4) and the individual is using pre-decision behaviors (Step 2) because he/she believes the decision has not been made, the individual will be perceived as subverting the decision, continuing the debate, and harboring hidden agendas.
This situation can be summarized in the following matrix showing what the perception of the team will be if an individual is in a different status in the process than the rest of the team:
So clearly it is essential that everyone on the team is on the same page and knows which step the team is at in the process. If an individual is misbehaving, one explanation is the that the person is unaware of where the process is at that time. The leader should start with this premise during any clarification or reminder.
Changing a Decision
Just as making and supporting decisions following the CDP is a critical part of organization success, reconsidering or changing a decision is essential for organizational health. Clearly organizations must adapt and the ability to adjust decisions based upon changing circumstances has to be ingrained within the culture. So how does one reconcile Step 4 of the CDP, always supporting the decision and not allowing continuous debate, with the ability to change decisions?
I advocate using the CDP process in an appeal format. It’s fairly similar to the judicial system. One can appeal a decision if and only if there is new data. One can’t appeal just because of disagreement with the outcome.
So if a team member proposes to challenge the decision, the first consideration is whether there is any new data. If the answer is no, then the leader and team remind the challenger that in Step 4 of the CDP we support the decision.
If the answer is yes, there is new data. Then the best approach is to run the CDP with the group (or sometimes a subset of the group) asking the question: Is there sufficient new data to reconsider the decision? After executing all 4 steps of the CDP, one of two outcomes are obtained: Yes, there is sufficient new data to reconsider the decision; or, No, there is insufficient new data to reconsider the decision.
If the original decision is to be reconsidered, than convene the group and re-run the CDP process with all of the data including the new data. Once a consensus has been arrived with the CDP, announce and execute the decision. This reconsideration process allows organizations to simultaneously be agile with respect to new information while having a culture that makes and executes against its decisions with maximum team alignment.
The best organizations are ones that efficiently and effectively makes decisions and are able to quickly achieve team alignment to execute its decisions. The Consensus Decision Process (CDP) is designed the facilitate these goals.
Properly executing the CDP with experienced and talented leaders will maximize the quality of inputs, provide better quality decisions than default ‘design by committee’ methods, and provide better decision execution. It promotes opportunities for team members to proactively participate in the future thereby contributing to organization morale and health. Greater participation also usually makes it easier to achieve buy-in and support from diverse teams after decisions are made.
I remember within one of my organizations as I was teaching this process I had several lower-level employees come to me and indicate that the process was working well with working-level teams, but the senior administrators in their individual business unit seemed to be unaware and/or were ineffective in running the CDP. I was encouraged to do some remedial instruction with the senior executives. I observed that once this was achieved that particular business unit was recognized both for being effective and for nurturing employee morale. As a result, many employees were requesting transfers to this business unit.
Note: There is a quiz for reviewing the CDP at link.