Most of us have tried to make an important business decision through consensus at some point in our careers. How hard was it to get the group to agree on everything?
My bet is that it was nearly impossible and extremely frustrating. No matter what, one person, not a group of people, makes the final decision.
Trying to get everybody to agree on something gives way too much power to the 16 percent of the people who are ninjas at disrupting agreement to draw attention to themselves. These ninjas are known as laggards, according to The Innovation Adoption Curve.
When you ask the group to come to consensus on something, you empower the laggards. They use a variety of tools like "we tried that before," or they inject information into the process at the worst possible time. You know who they are. They suck the life out of possibility for sport.
No matter how many of their questions you answer they always have more questions. Every time you get close to a decision, laggards bring up a new argument that will make the group hesitate. The way to avoid this pitfall is to rethink the traditional definition of consensus and start using a working definition of consensus.
Next time you have a meeting and need to make a decision, write the following three statements in a prominent place before the meeting begins. Let everyone know that a decision will be made according to the following working definition of consensus:
- The process we use will be explicit, rational, and fair.
- Each participant will be treated honorably as we go through the process.
- We can all "live with and commit to" the outcome.
Let's dive into what each of those three statements means:
1. The process we use will be explicit, rational, and fair.
This addresses process satisfaction. The people involved in the decision-making must be able to see and understand the process, step by step, that they are going to use to make the decision(s). They must come to the conclusion that the process has been well thought out, made sense, and fairly considered the needs of the affected stakeholders.
2. Each participant will be treated honorably as we go through the process.
This addresses personal treatment satisfaction. Each and every participant in the process must feel like they had ample opportunity to make their thoughts known and that they were heard and understood. And each participant must believe that they had ample opportunity to hear the views of the others.
3. We can all "live with and commit to" the outcome.
If participants are satisfied with numbers one and two, they will embrace number three. If the decision process was explicit, deemed rational and fair--and participants believe they were treated honorably throughout the process--then rather than ask if they "agree" with the outcome, ask them if they can "live with and commit to" the outcome.
The implication here is that even if the outcome did not go as any one individual had hoped, they are willing to align with the team and do whatever they can to help implement the decision as if they agreed with it.
How to use this approach.
At the outset of any strategy, problem solving, budgeting, or design process, outfit those involved with the working definition of consensus. Take the time to draw out and seek agreement on the decision process.
Be attentive to treating people honorably as they go through the process. Make sure each step in the process is time bound. Then, at the appropriate time, propose the decision and ask if anyone can't live with it.
Caution them that you're not asking if they agree with it. In my experience, nine times out of ten, everybody will say yes. And saying yes means you are committing to do everything you can to implement the decision. This hack will enable you to make better decisions faster and keep all the critical stakeholders engaged.