IIFAC Blog

[video] Three ways that consensus process forced me to grow

Consensus demands a lot from those who practice it. The process itself requires us to change some of the bad habits —vices really— that get in the way of reaching agreement with others.

In this short video I describe three personal challenges that I had to overcome in order to participate effectively in consensus decision-making processes.

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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Does every decision require consensus?

The short answer to the question “Does every decision require consensus?” is “No, of course not!

The even shorter answer is “It depends.”

Groups implementing consensus process for the first time tend to want everyone to decide everything. While understandable, this is an unsustainable expectation. It leads to too many meetings, long discussions about trivial details and, eventually, disenchantment with the whole process.

Here are two ways to avoid this common mistake:

  • Bundle all the routine, uncontroversial decisions (e.g., approval of minutes of previous meetings, proposals that have been previously vetted by a committee, etc.) into one item on the agenda (sometimes called the “consent agenda”) and approve them all together. If one of the issues turns out to be more controversial than expected, it is removed from the “bundle” and treated separately.
  • Delegate. Once the group has reached consensus on the broad concept and any constraints (such as budget, etc,) related to a proposed course of action, it can leave the decisions about how to “make it happen” to those empowered to implement it.
Need help clarifying the decision-making process in your group? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Leadership in groups that use consensus [FREE GUIDE]

Many groups choose to use consensus process because they want an alternative to the organizational model in which the “leaders” decide everything. They seek a more horizontal structure which honors everyone’s contribution.

These good intentions often result in one or more of the following, unhelpful scenarios:

  • Inhibition. Members are afraid to speak their mind or make proposals because they do not want to be seen as “taking control.” So they hold back and the group muddles along without the benefit of their insights and opinions.
  • Lack of inhibition. Members who are accustomed to “being in charge” in other contexts continue to behave as if they are the anointed leaders. Often unaware of the ways they shut others out of the process, they speak forcefully, listen little and assume that they are “right.”

The real promise of consensus is not that it creates “leaderless groups” but that it fosters groups that are FULL OF LEADERS.

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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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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