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Reaching Consensus, Not Gridlock
 

Think you can't manage by committee? Often, you have no other choice. Here's how to do it well.

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People often say that you can't make good decisions as a committee, but the reality is that important decisions are made via consensus all the time. Great leaders often make sure their executive team has buy-in to major decisions. Most board votes are all-in, and great partnerships are often built on a foundation of give-and-take.

At its heart, consensus is an agreement. In the context of a decision, it is mainly an aggreement to support. That means that not everyone has to agree on the decision, but everyone agrees to support it no matter the outcome.

Consensus is also something that you don't get at Moment One. It's something that has to be built. So what can you do to build true consensus?

Be open to not having consensus

No one should support something unconditionally, so it's important to acknowledge when you don’t have consensus. When we were acquiring the social game company Zip Zip Play, there were a lot of skeptics on the executive team and the board. It was the biggest acquisition PopCap had ever done, and it was right before we ourselves were about to go public or sell. It was very important for me to acknowledge the dissenters early on, and not to steamroll or ignore the various comments, pieces of feedback, or hurdles. That allowed the dissenters to support me when it came time to make the decision.

Listen to people before asking for support

Whether people agree or disagree, they need to be listened to. Otherwise, the best you can get is tacit support. At worst, you’re giving people ground to actively work against you.

In 2005, I started running our newly-built web team. While I had been the CEO, running the web team was my first real "management" job. I started by announcing that we were going to be metrics-driven and wrote down our targets.

I didn't try to build a consensus, and got a huge negative reaction from most of the team. Had I spent the time, proposed some thoughts, and really listened to feedback, I'm confident that we would've jumped to that same strategy much sooner, and in a deeper and more authentic way.

Ask explicitly, publicly, for support

PopCap is at its heart a game company. We've often struggled at the edges of what that means, specifically when it comes to technology. We have a lot of great people, but no unified technology base to solve some of our hardest problems, and no CTO to unite the engineers.

Armed with 1/16th of a failing computer science degree, I jumped in. Everyone was in agreement as to what the problems were, and nearly everyone agreed that someone had to make some decisions. But beyond that, the group was stymied without a leader.

I facilitated the group to nominate someone to be the decision-maker. If the rest of the staff didn’t support that choice, it would have been bad. So I made sure to go around the room and ask if people would support the nominee, and also to ask what they needed to see or hear to give that support.

Remember that it's a process, and that's okay

Consensus building is one of the most powerful tools a leader has. If people can agree to disagree but support a decision regardless, you’ll have fewer politics, more accountability, and everyone everyone’s commitment to solving the hardest problems together.

Last updated: Feb 28, 2013

JOHN VECHEY is a co-founder of PopCap Games, creators of Bejeweled, Peggle, and Plants Vs. Zombies. Vechey blogs about wealth, simplicity, spirituality, and video games. Follow him on Twitter at @johnvechey.




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