Consensus vs. Consent

Collaboration is the new killer app in business.  Books like Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, or Lisa Gansky’s The Mesh, remind us that the wisdom we learned in kindergarten applies to business and community development.  Sharing is good.

Collaboration leads to better results through deeper emotional investment and improved resource allocation.  It turns win/lose scenarios into win/win situations.  But be warned, managing collaboration requires special leadership techniques.

Get Schooled on Collaboration

The old school “command and control” techniques don’t work for nurturing collaboration.

You can lead the horses to water, but you can’t force them to collaborate.  Collaborative leaders must create environments that draw people in and motivate them to contribute to a shared goal.  If you are a new leader, or an experienced leader learning to do things in a new way, I urge you to understand the difference between consensus and consent based decision making.

Consensus, in short, is shared agreement.  Consensus decision making seeks to maximize agreement.  The most extreme version of consensus decision making seeks unanimity by bringing forth total agreement by all involved.

To the novice leader, consensus seems socially correct and highly democratic.  It is defended as the best practice  because it allows everyone to participate. Discrimination is avoided and everyone feels their opinion is valuable.  But for the most part, consensus building is extremely resource intensive, slow, and costly.

Avoid it when you can.

Everyone Has an Opinion

Everyone has an opinion on everything these days.  We have become a society of “over-sharers” as a result of the explosion of communication technology.   Alas, all opinions are not equally valuable.   And to be blunt, some opinions are nearly worthless relative to a given goal.

Yes, the essence of collaboration is inclusiveness.  It is the glue that creates the container in which collaboration takes place.  But there is a difference between inviting people to be included and inviting them to include their opinions.   It is a classic mistake not to know the difference.

Consensus decision making is often the result of inexperienced leadership that is unable to properly manage inclusiveness.  The outcome can be long expensive endless meetings that drain the energy out of the participants.

Consent based decision making is a better choice.

Getting Consent

Consent based decision making seeks to reveal and address dissent, but specifically requires that dissent be rooted in experience, proven instinct, or specialized knowledge.  It assumes implied acceptance and seeks to address trustworthy forecasts of failure as a means to make good choices.  Consent is preferable to consensus because it creates an atmosphere of inclusion without enabling over-sharing.

As an example, I’m known for ending a group decision making session by saying, “OK, given all this input, it is proposed we (take some action) unless anyone here feels strongly that it is a really bad idea.”  I assume consent unless I hear a justifiable opposing view that warrants further exploration.

Simply put, consent is opt-out where consensus is opt-in.

There are many decision making processes that foster the sharing of ideas across personality types, social context, or company departments.  Find a few you like and use them to bring out the wisdom of the group.  It doesn’t matter which ones you use, only that you quickly move from information gathering to proposing and then to deciding on action.

The process I personally use can be summarized in seven steps.

  1. Identify topic
  2. Request relevant information
  3. Invite action proposals
  4. Address dissent
  5. Modify action proposals
  6. Take action
  7. Monitor outcomes

Collaborative Leadership

Good collaboration requires good collaborative leadership.  A key outcome of collaborative leadership is that the collaboration participants take ownership of the project.  They choose to become emotionally invested in the outcome.

Collaboration frees those skilled in collaborative leadership to manage multiple projects.  Collaborative leadership becomes a form of meta-management that guides the constituents of any project in self-leadership.  Collaborative leadership can be highly leveraged and cost effective for this reason.

Today is my 17,281st of life and I am excited to see collaboration becoming a staple modality in business.