When consensus is dangerous

by Adrian Segar

consensus-animateImagine a group of people who need to make a decision about something. As the size of the group increases, the chance that everyone will be happy with what is decided falls exponentially. Unless there’s unanimous agreement, the group will use — either explicitly or tacitly — some kind of rule that determines whether a specific decision is acceptable. Groups often use tacit rules when the consequences of the decision are minor [“Harry, you feel strongly we should do this but Kerrie & I don’t care either way, so let’s go with your approach”] or when “consensus” is only a pretense [“Well, I think we should do this. Any objections? OK, it’s decided.”]

So, you may wonder, if a group wants consensus, where consensus is defined by an explicit decision rule, then what decision rule should be used?

Danger, Will Robinson!

The moment we start trying to define consensus with a rule that tells us whether we have got it or not, we diverge from the core reason to seek consensus.

The value of consensus is in the process of seeking it — not a “yes, we have consensus!” outcome as defined by a decision rule.

There is no magic formula that will create the maximum likelihood that consensus, however we define it, will be obtained.

The best we can strive for is what Hans, Annemarie & Jennifer Bleiker, who have trained over 30,000 public-sector professionals over the last 40 years, call Informed Consent, which they define as follows:

Informed Consent is the grudging willingness of opponents to (grudgingly) “go along” with a course of action that they — actually — are opposed to.

The concept of consensus becomes dangerous when we use process that forces a fake “consensus” outcome on a group. An example of this is what is sometimes called 2-4-8 consensus, as quoted here:

2, 4, 8 consensus is an excellent tool for prioritising in large groups. This exercise will take time, but will help a group reach a decision that everyone can live with! It’s usually best to impose tight time limits at every stage of this discussion!

  • Draw up a list of proposals in the whole group.
  • Form pairs. Each pair discusses the list of possible proposals and is asked to agree their top 3 priorities (it could be any number, but for this example we’ll use 3).
  • Each pair then comes together with another, to form a group of 4. The 2 pairs compare their lists of top 3 priorities and, after discussion, agree on a joint top 3.
  • Each group of 4 comes together with another to form a group of 8. Again, each group takes its 2 lists of priorities and reduces it to one list of 3.
  • Repeat until the whole group has come back together and has a shared list of just 3 priorities.

—from Consensus in Large Groups

There is nothing wrong with using a decision process like this to pick top priorities in a group. But picking a group’s top priorities is not the same as reaching consensus.

You can’t please everyone
Seeking consensus, however you define it, is difficult for large groups. Techniques like Roman voting can help us determine how close we are to informed consent, and can pinpoint who cannot go along with a proposed decision and why. The journey towards informed consent is what we should concentrate on if we are to reach a “consensus” that everyone can live with.

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