Testing consensus using Roman voting

Testing consensus using Roman voting

Here’s part 2 of The Right (Way) To Vote series – posts on voting at events. Feel free to read Part 1, on hand and stand voting.

How should groups make decisions? Common answers to this question include “by voting” or “by discussion and then the boss gets to decide.” But what if we want a decision method that provides consensus, or as near consensus as we can get?

An individual making a decision may agonize over it. But when more than one person is involved, the decision-making process can turn into an argument. So groups need a way to test their agreement, discuss concerns, and arrive at a decision that all can support.

Forcing a yes/no vote about a proposal hides the degree of support for the resulting vote. Sometimes the level of enthusiasm for a decision is tepid, or a minority of those voting are adamantly opposed. Serious problems can surface later when it’s time for implementation.

A better approach is to publicly discover the degree of consensus about a proposal. If doubts or opposition are uncovered, addressing them is possible before a final decision is adopted.

Testing consensus using Roman voting

My favorite solution for gauging the strength of consensus is Roman voting, as described by Esther Derby in Self-facilitation Skills for Teams by Esther Derby:

The Romans indicated their will in the gladiator’s arena with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. A modern modification of Roman voting helps groups arrive at a decision.

Thumbs-up = “I support this proposal.”

Thumbs-sideways = “I’ll go along with the will of the group.”

Thumbs-down = “I do not support this proposal and wish to speak.”

If all thumbs are down, eliminate the option. On a mixed vote, listen to what the thumbs-down people have to say, and recheck agreement. Be cautious about choosing an option if the majority are thumbs-sideways: This option has only lukewarm support.

This technique generates consensus. Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean complete unanimity. Consensus means that everyone must be willing to support the idea, even if it’s not his personal first choice.

Sooner or later, you’ll have a situation where one person withholds support for any option. Manage this situation before it happens. At the start of the consensus process, set a time limit:

“We’ll work really hard to reach consensus until the end of this meeting. If we don’t have agreement by that time, we will turn the decision over to _________, or take a vote, or __________ (a technical expert, coach, manager) will decide.”

Most people don’t hold out to be obstinate; they are responding to a deeply held value or belief. Often the lone holdout will move on, but not at the cost of relinquishing an important belief. Respect the belief, use your fallback decision-making method, and move forward. However, when a group seldom reaches consensus, but instead relies on voting or deferring to authority, it’s a sign there are deeper issues at play.

Silence when someone asks, “Do we all agree?” does not signal consensus! Instead, try testing consensus using Roman voting. Do you test consensus on decisions made at your meetings?

Photo attribution: Flickr user vegaseddie