IIFAC Blog

Success factors for using consensus [Free guide]

Consensus does not just happen. Certain conditions must prevail in order for a group to reach a clear agreement that (almost) everyone will support.

IIFAC’s recently published, free Guide to Consensus Process mentions five factors that can increase the odds that your group can effectively use this approach for making key decisions.

  1. Commitment to learning a new way to discuss and decide important issues.
  2. Training. Get help to avoid falling into the common mistakes made by groups who lack a solid understanding of how the process works.
  3. Shared vision and joint action. The group needs to have some sort of common purpose and an intention to take action together. Otherwise, why bother with consensus?
  4. Membership is defined and stable but not closed. Consensus functions best when there is trust and caring among the members of the group. These conditions are more likely prevail when members know who else is in the room.
  5. Good facilitation. As a professional facilitator, I am biased on this issue! But I am also a participant in many meetings and have seen the damage that can be done when no one takes responsibility for preparing an agenda, keeping the discussion on track and at the appropriate moment, carrying out the decision-making process.

To learn more about what consensus is and how to use it effectively, download IIFAC’s free Guide to Consensus Process.

Need help using the consensus process in your group? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching or training needs.

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Consensus can be confusing [Free guide]

Consensus means different things to different people – and this can be confusing.

For some, consensus signifies “general agreement.” This vague assertion does not tell us how this alleged agreement was reached or the level of commitment it represents.

Sometimes “consensus” is used as a synonym for “majority vote”. As explained in a previous post, this is NOT how consensus works! In fact no votes are taken when making a decision by consensus.

Others believe that consensus implies a warm, fuzzy state of group harmony. In my experience, groups that use consensus effectively welcome a diversity of opinion, when necessary engage in heated discussions and work hard to discover common ground, if it exists. In short, consensus can be a strenuous process that does not assume pre-existing harmony.

To learn more about what consensus is and how to use it effectively, download IIFAC’s free Guide to Consensus Process.

Need help using the consensus process in your group? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching or training needs.

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Consensus process does not mean that everyone decides everything

This common misconception that “we all decide everything together” is a recipe for frustration and failure. True consensus process does not mean endless meetings and little forward momentum toward common goals.

Key concept: Decide on strategic goals and then get out of the way.

Once the whole group reaches consensus about vision, values and strategic priorities, then the tactical decisions about how to get there should be delegated to those responsible for implementation.

Give these teams a budget and the tools to succeed. Establish clear limits about what kind of decisions need to be brought back to the whole group (for example, expenditures over a set limit, changes in policy or direction, issues requiring legal counsel, etc.) Otherwise, move out of the way and let people get on with the work!

Often “everyone decides everything” is a symptom of lack of trust among the individuals in the group, but, believe me, trust is not built by micro-managing day-to- day decisions.

Sometimes it is a sign that at least some of the members want to spend more time together. Great! Have more parties, hikes or cultural outings – not more meetings!

Creating and sustaining an effective group is a challenge under any circumstances. Clarifying your decision making structure is an important piece of the puzzle.

If you think consensus might be useful for your group, read my recently published book Introduction to Consensus
and send me your thoughts and questions!

Let´s keep striving to find ways to make decisions that move us toward the world we want to live in.

Need help using the consensus process in your group? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching or training needs.

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Should my group try to make decisions by consensus?

The short answer is: Maybe.

Here are some conditions that work against the successful adoption of consensus process:

  • Leadership values control over collaboration, that is, the leaders do not want to share decision-making power.
  • Membership in the group is not clearly defined so it is hard to know who decides.
  • High turnover among participants prevents building trust or momentum.
  • Facilitators and/or participants are untrained in the process, leading to confusion and/or distortion of the method.
  • The group does not intend to make and implement decisions together, preferring to debate, discuss or study issues without any need to take action.

Turning this list on its head, you can identify some of the characteristics that suggest when a group might benefit from consensus process:

  • Leadership and members are committed to learning and practicing the method.
  • Initial training and on-going coaching is available.
  • The group has a clear purpose that unites the members.
  • Membership is relatively stable and new members receive training in the process.
  • Meeting facilitators understand and support the consensus process.

To learn more about what consensus process is and how to apply it, read my recently published book, Introduction to Consensus.

Let´s keep striving to find ways to make decisions that move us toward the world we want to live in.

Need help deciding if consensus is a good fit for your group? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Consensus is not voting by majority rule

This comes as a surprise to those of you who are accustomed to voting and then, if more people are for the proposal than against, declaring “consensus.”

If the vote is very close, say 51% to 49%, the only conclusion that one can reach is that almost as many were against the proposal as for it. This situation is a sign of deep polarization, not widespread agreement.

Even if the margin of “victory” is higher, say 80% of the votes cast, the result tells us nothing about how committed those who voted in favor are to implementing the decision.

Finally, reaching consensus does not necessarily mean 100% unanimity. This decision-making rule offers a more nuanced set of options than simply being “for” or “against” a proposal.

More importantly, before the decision is taken, the process calls for participants to both advocate for their preferred solutions and listen attentively to the concerns of those who have different perspectives and then make a good faith effort to resolve those differences.

If you find these ideas intriguing or challenging, you can learn more in my recently published book, Introduction to Consensus.

Let´s keep striving to find ways to make decisions that move us toward the world we want to live in.

Need help clarifying the difference between making decisions by consensus and voting? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching or training needs.

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Meeting mistake 5: All talk and no action

This is the fifth of five messages about common mistakes that that make meetings boring and unproductive. You can see the complete list in our new, free guide: Excellent Meetings at Work.

Mistake 5. All talk and no action

Workplace meetings are not just for talking… and talking… and talking without arriving at a conclusion. To avoid the waste of time and energy caused by interminable speeches, you first must define the objective (as described in Mistake 1). What do you want the group to accomplish in this session? Generate ideas? Evaluate options? Make a decision? Without clarity about the purpose, you will not know when to end the discussion and move on to another topic – or end the meeting.

But before changing the topic or ending the meeting, it is important to summarize what has been accomplished so far, define the next steps, specifying who is responsible seeing that those things happen and by when.

Example of too much talk and no action: Allow a few people (you know who they are) to dominate the discussion, repeating their points of view over and over again, without proposing any new perspectives or solutions.

Example of effective control of the verbose: Respectfully but firmly interrupt the participants who repeat themselves, summarize the essence of their contribution and then invite someone else to speak.

Benefits of correcting this mistake

  • Saves time
  • Encourages sharing “air time”
  • Can prevent participants from becoming impatient
  • Focuses the discussion
  • Keeps things moving

In practice: In the meeting meetings include the key points of discussion (not every word said), as well as the commitments made for follow up on the topics discussed. Send the minutes to all participants immediately after the meeting and then review and update the list at the next meeting.

Facilitation tip: Establish the ground rule “No one speaks twice until everyone who wants to comment on a topic has the opportunity to do so” and another that says “Seek a solution”.

After hearing a variety of opinions about the subject, ask, “Does anyone have a proposal?”

Need help focusing discussion in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Meeting mistake 4: No written agenda

This is the fourth of five messages about common mistakes that that make meetings boring and unproductive. You can see the complete list in our new, free guide: Excellent Meetings at Work.

Mistake 4. No written agenda

If you want your staff to arrive on time, ready to contribute to the objective announced in the invitation, you must prepare an agenda in advance and, when possible, share it at least 24 hours before the meeting.

Characteristics of a poorly prepared agenda: Too much time devoted to listening to reports. Lack of background information about a key issue and/or no one prepared to present it. Unrealistic number of items on the agenda.

Characteristics of a well prepared agenda: Items are prioritized, with the important, urgent and/or controversial topics at the beginning, not at the end. Related topics are grouped together. Topics that do not fit on the agenda, either for reasons of time or because the needed preparation has not been done, are posted in a separate list of “pending items”.

Benefits of correcting this mistake

  • Shows how the stated objective will be reached.
  • Greater realism regarding use of time in the agenda can overcome reluctance to attend meetings.
  • Prevents detours in the conversation.
  • Seeing topics being addressed in a systematic way builds confidence in the process.

In practice: Schedule time to plan the agenda, preferably several days before the meeting. If necessary, consult with others to choose and order the priority items.

Facilitation tip: Check off or cross out items on the agenda after they have been discussed.

Having the agenda visible at the start of the meeting sends the message: We are here to work!

Need help creating agendas for your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching or training needs.

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Meeting mistake 3: Beginning and ending late

This is the third of five messages about common mistakes that that make meetings boring and unproductive. You can see the complete list in our new, free guide: Excellent Meetings at Work.

Mistake 3. Beginning and ending late

In many organizations lack of punctuality at the beginning and end of meetings is so common that it has become the norm. Some participants arrive at the scheduled time… and then have to wait for those who are late. The latecomers may not realize that they are really needed at the meeting. Or perhaps they think that the other things they have to do are more important. Meanwhile, time is wasted, the energy in the room dissipates and the opportunity cost of convening the group rises with every minute that goes by.

The leader is responsible for clarifying the starting and ending time of each meeting – and then respecting that commitment.

Example of a poor message regarding punctuality at meetings: At the announced starting time, you, the leader, have not arrived.

Example of a clear message regarding punctuality at meetings: Stand at the meeting room door, greeting each participant as they arrive. At the scheduled time, close the door and start the meeting.

Benefits of correcting this mistake

  • Builds a culture of respect for others’ time
  • Improves efficiency and effectiveness of meetings
  • Allows participants to schedule activities after the meeting with greater certainty

In practice: If in your organization or team, lack of punctuality is the norm, you will need to send a clear message that the rules have changed –and repeat it as often a necessary until the change takes root.

Facilitation tip: Prepare the room in advance. Make sure all the needed materials (printed matter, flipchart or whiteboard, projector, screen, markers, etc.) are on hand before the participants arrive.

Your team has other things to do besides attending your meetings. Respect their time!

Need help with punctuality in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Meeting mistake 2: Invite the wrong people

This is the second of five messages about common mistakes that that make meetings boring and unproductive. You can see the complete list in our new, free guide: Excellent Meetings at Work.

Mistake 1. Invite the wrong people

It is not necessary or useful to invite the whole team to every meeting. When the meeting objective and the topics on the agenda are of no relevance to them, people easily become distracted, begin to check the messages on their cell phone and stop contributing to the conversation. Another error is to not invite those most passionate about the issue, or who have information that is key to the discussion, or who will be responsible for implementing the proposal.

Example of inviting the wrong people: Oblige all the teachers in a school to attend a discussion that only affects those in the science department.

Example of a focused invitation: Ask all those who will be teaching the new science curriculum to attend the meeting. Anyone else interested in the topic is welcome, but not obliged to attend.

Benefits of correcting this mistake

  • Justifies the investment of the participants’ time
  • Makes better use of the experience and knowledge of those invited
  • Avoids problems that could arise later because key stakeholders were not consulted

In practice: Explain both in the invitation and also at the beginning of the meeting why this particular group has been called together and what is being asked of them today.

Facilitation tip: If the agenda includes topics that are relevant only to some of the group, schedule these after the issues that involve everyone. When you reach this stage of the agenda, make it clear that those who are not needed in this part of the agenda are free to leave – without having to apologize!

Each person in the meeting room should be able to answer the question “Why am I here?”

Need help getting the right people in the room? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Meeting mistake 1: Unclear objective

This is the first of five messages about common mistakes that that make meetings boring and unproductive. You can see the complete list in our new, free guide: Excellent Meetings at Work.

Mistake 1. Unclear objective

If the objective or main purpose of the meeting is not clear, participants will not grasp why they should attend. Or you might invite the wrong people.

Example of an unclear objective: This is a meeting of the Administration area.

Example of a clear objective: The intention is to analyze the proposed new billing policy and prepare our comments on it.

Benefits of correcting this mistake

  • Makes it easier to plan a results-focused agenda
  • Helps prioritize the use of time
  • Ensures that the right people are in the room
  • Keeps the discussion on track
  • Increases the probability of meeting the objective

In practice: Explain the objective at the beginning of the meeting and how each person is expected to contribute to the discussion. Are you asking them to generate ideas? Provide feedback? Make a decision? Make sure these expectations are shared.

Facilitation tip: Write the objective on the white board or flip chart and keep it visible throughout the meeting.

If you cannot clearly define the purpose of the meeting, cancel it!

Need help defining meeting objectives? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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