Power and Pain of Consensus

I trained for facilitation work in the lineage of Sam Kaner, the author of “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.” Kaner’s company, Community at Work, stresses consensus in all decisions.

Both conventional wisdom and the company name might indicate that Kaner’s work and research are aimed at the nonprofit sector. But his company has served the likes of Charles Schwab, Hewlett-Packard, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Visa. Facilitators trained in Kaner’s methods, myself included, have worked in business entities large and small on every continent on the globe. While his is a technical methodology for professional facilitators, all leadership requires some capacity to facilitate groups and teams to get work done.

Mainstream, action-oriented leadership thinkers tend to hate the idea of consensus, opting instead for rapid-fire, quick-decision meetings. The efficiency of pushing quickly for a clear path forward is hard to resist; however, it often steps over or forces underground the kind of resistance that will kill a new idea or initiative — but usually not until most of the time and money are spent.

Consensus is really hard and it means everyone has to agree, which is all but impossible. Striving for consensus is, however, a worthwhile and high-value investment in time. The discussions needed for those who are doubtful or uncomfortable with a potential strategy or new direction reveal critical information that might otherwise not be taken into account. Taking the time in the ideation and planning stages allows valid concern and even open opposition to have a voice. So why, if I am clear about a project or strategy that I want to get off the ground, would I want to provide time and attention to those I may view as worrywarts and naysayers? Here are my top five reasons:

♦ Risk mitigation. Time spent fully developing the list of things that could kill a project is foundational to building a risk mitigation plan.

♦ Stakeholder management. People who feel they have no voice are likely to become either passive or overtly oppositional, neither of which moves the initiative forward.

♦ Conversion opportunities. While you cannot count on it, the folks who most strongly oppose an initiative can become its staunchest supporters — if they feel their concerns have been heard and addressed.

♦ Shine a light. The conversations are going to happen. Better to have them in the meetings where they can be vetted and handled rather than in the hallway “meeting after the meeting” that consists of only the naysayers.

♦ Better decisions. When it is time for the leader to make a decision, she will have heard all points of view and have a better idea of what will be needed to bring the strategy about or the project over the line.

Pat Lencioni describes this process in his landmark book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” During the team offsite, the new CEO exclaims clearly that “consensus is horrible.” Noting that if everyone does not agree at the beginning, consensus devolves into a never-ending attempt to please everyone, something that (assuming it is even possible) usually waters down any project until it is useless.

And he is right. If everyone were fully onboard, there would be no need for the project or the meeting. Consensus is about addressing the concerns on the team to a point that they are manageable and those involved can fully commit, despite reservations and concerns. As Lencioni puts it, “disagree and commit.” This is a critical distinction. Consensus is not about getting full agreement on every point in a plan. It is about fully engaging and, where possible, addressing the concerns of those whose commitment is required so that the team can create a sustainable and powerful commitment.

Whether the issue at hand is a major project, a new strategic direction, a simple process change or a cultural decision that impacts the entire team, stepping over the open debate invites dissenting points of view, and looking for accommodation will send naysayers underground and out into the hallway to be heard. And when it comes to organizational change, resistance is anything but futile.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, August 15, 2016.