In my article on the Five Types of Decisions, I explained that consensus is used only for Type 3 decisions (“We talk, We decide). The reason is that some decisions need everyone’s support in implementation. Some examples where consensus is strategically important include:
Agreeing on fundamentals like mission, vision, technical architectures, and decision rights.
Many people have a poor understanding of the word consensus.
Consensus means that each person agrees to support the IMPLEMENTATION of the decision, regardless of whether or not he/she agrees with the decision.
There two critical factors necessary for obtaining consensus.
Factor #1 – Membership in the Decision Team
The above definition has a key corollary: membership is defined and known so that each member of the group knows who is in and who is out of the implementation group.
For large groups, you need to define and develop the core team, extended team, and the network of relationships in the organization.
Factor #2 – A Clear Signal that the Individual Will Support the Decision
There needs to be a way to recognize the 100% agreement of project participants. Each member of the group must visibly signal their agreement to support the implementation. The signals can range from verbalized statements to physical signals. (I like to use the “thumbs up or thumbs down” technique.)
An Example of Consensus Reaching
My firmness over the definition of consensus helped to create a turnaround for a strategic IT initiative in an international bank. By the time of my involvement, team members were feeling like they were on a deathmarch project. They were most interested in surviving the situation, rather than the strategic success.
Since I had a fresh perspective on the project’s status, it was easy for me to see the lack of good requirements. (Poor requirements are the number 1 reason for project failure, thus any strategic thinker should pay attention to requirements.)
To test understanding, I wrote this question on a whiteboard, “We all fully understand the system requirements.” I then defined consensus and asked them to signal with a “thumbs up” gesture if they agreed.
Every group member – except for one individual – signaled they agreed (they understood the requirements). The one member who did not agree received considerable verbal abuse from her peers. After the group explored (and debated) her concerns, I wrote a new question and tested for consensus, “We will spend 15 minutes testing for understanding of requirements.”
Although some participants initially thought the return to requirements exploration was a waste of time, the benefits of doing so were quickly identifiable to the open-minded individuals in the group.
The team revisited the requirements and found they were incorrect and incomplete. Two days later the group was still evaluating and testing for requirements. In their hurry for avoiding the distasteful requirements task, they had sidestepped an important part of the project. The truthfulness and courage of the lone dissenter helped the organization move the project forward into the necessary area of gaining a firm
understanding of requirements (albeit painful and unpleasant). The organization was able to avoid considerable waste in its project by recognizing the absence of critical information on project requirements.
Benefits of Consensus
Consensus is an important tool because
- It assures that people will align their actions with their decisions. It is a basic discipline that surfaces and removes obstacles to full implementation.
- It supports commitment, defined as the willingness to invest resources in the face of uncertain outcomes.
What are your experiences with reaching consensus?
- Strategic Thinking (Part 1): A Fight with Ambiguity (leadingstrategicinitiatives.wordpress.com)
- Fast and Effective Decisions Drive the Strategic Initiative (leadingstrategicinitiatives.wordpress.com)
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