AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Managing to Consensus


Copyright 2004 AXIS Performance Advisors. If you use thisin any way, please cite the source.

Managing to Consensus

Moving Multi-Stakeholder Groups toward Agreement

by Marsha Willard

Courtesy Ambro,

Courtesy Ambro,

In our last newsletter we described a number of applications of “multi-stakeholder processes” for solving problems, innovating across traditional boundaries,and making broad policy and design decisions. In this issue, we’ll describe strategies for facilitating these complex conversations and share some specific experiences from some of our recent work in this area.

Working with groups of diverse stakeholders is never a simple process and is often complicated when participants bring very different views of a situation, have varying levels of knowledge, or hold strongly held positions or biases. The effort required to bring these collections of stakeholders to agreement usually pays off, though, because of the impact they can achieve.When you have everybody in the room and they all agree on a course of action,the wheels really start to turn.

While every situation has its unique needs and characteristics, there are several key steps that all multi-stakeholder processes share. This article highlights six of these steps and shares some experiences in applying them to the Unified Green Cleaning Alliance.

Table 1

UGCA at a glance

Who: The Unified Green Cleaning Alliance – 40+ users, purchasers, formulators and manufacturers of commercial cleaning products.

What: The UGCA was convened with support from an EPA grant to identify a set of agreed upon criteria that can be used to distinguish environmentally preferable or eco-effective cleaning products. The process was complicated by the number of issues and considerations we needed to examine as well as the diversity of interests represented by the group’s members.

When: The group met six times for half day work sessions during Fall of ’02 and Spring of ’03

Where: Washington and Oregon

Why: Ensure that cleaning products standards have input and buy-in from all key stakeholders including users, formulators, purchasers and environmental groups.

The six key tasks are:

1. Establishing direction and scope

2. Determining membership and participation

3. Identifying stakeholder needs

4. Educating participants

5. Managing group processes efficiently

6. Getting agreement and closure

1. Establishing Direction and Scope

A consensus process is best founded on a framing question. A framingquestion not only clarifies the purpose and outcome of the process, butalso determines the scope of the conversation and the key stakeholders whoshould participate in it. While it sounds simple, framing a defining questioncan be challenging, as it should leave no room for confusion, ambiguity,misinterpretation or diversion.

Well before the UGCA convened, the facilitator and project manager met to set this foundation. The proposal accepted by the EPA described our intent to “develop a consensus on criteria for sustainable cleaning products.” Using the proposal as a foundation, we teased out the particulars of our intent to provide definition to the process. There were a series of questions we grappled with in order to further define our intent. What would be the outcome or product of this process? Which cleaning products would be included in our consideration? What issues would we include in our scope of consideration? How would we define sustainable? As we framed answers to these questions, we not only brought clarity to the task, but managed the scope of the project, determined the information we would need to share with participants, and outlined the basic contents of the final report.

The final version of our framing question:

What criteria should be considered when distinguishing environmentally preferred or sustainable commercial surface cleaning products and how can these products be verified, evaluated and identified with respect to these criteria?

2. Determining Membership and Participation

The second step in a consensus process is determining the stakeholderswho should be involved. An examination of the defining question should suggestthe stakeholders that will have an interest in the project. The challengein establishing participation in a consensus process is to be inclusiveenough to get adequate representation, without including so many peoplethat you burden the process. You also need to make sure that the peopleselected to participate either have authority to make decisions on behalfof their constituents or organizations or have a very strong link to thosethat do.

While other consensus projects had dealt with cleaning product criteria and standards, none had included as broad a mix of stakeholders. UGCA sought specifically to include formulators (the companies which produce the cleaning products) and cleaning contractors to assure that the resulting criteria were accessible, realistic and forwarded product design. To manage within our time frame and budget, however, we limited the scope of participation to organizations based in the Pacific Northwest. We were surprised by the attention and interest the project generated from around the country and were challenged to include people from outside the region in what we had defined as an open process. Limiting membership in the alliance created the concern that our conclusions would create a geographically unique set of criteria and confound attempts to establish nationally recognized standards in the market place. In reality, no matter where the line is drawn in defining participation in a consensus process, someone is bound to feel left out. Our solution to the situation was to invite non-Northwest stakeholders to attend the meetings as presenters and discussion participants so that they had influence over the process, but limited voting and official input into the final report to our original Northwest members.

3. Identifying stakeholder needs

Many participants come to processes like this ready to advocate for predeterminedsolution ideas. Many stakeholders are, in fact, charged by the groups theyrepresent to forward particular positions. A consensus process, however,is not about debate or about trying to convince the group to support a particularidea or path. Consensus is about creating new solutions that meet the needsof everyone in the group. In order to achieve this, you must begin witha clear understanding of the needs represented by group members.Needs are distinct from positions. Positions are created in response toneeds and frequently represent but one way to meet that need. By approachingconsensus from the basis of participant needs, it enables the process toboth satisfy its participants as well as be creative in its outcomes.

At the first meeting of the UGCA we grouped the participants by stakeholder representation (formulators/manufacturers, purchasers, users, NGO’s, etc) assuming that their interests in the project would be similar. We asked the members of each group to generate answers to the question, “What would you describe as a successful outcome of this process?” This exercise was important for several reasons. It allowed participants to voice their needs and concerns right at the beginning. So often consensus processes get off track because participants feel unheard or issues get by-passed in the process. This exercise not only gave each participant equal voice, but also helped them frame their needs in ways that were easier for the rest of the group to hear and address.

In addition the process produced a vision that guided all subsequent conversations. The list of ideas became our “north star” by which we navigated. If the discussion took a tangent, we could use this list to determine whether or not the discussion was moving us toward our vision of success. The process also provided us with the metrics for assessing the group’s performance and the success of the project. We knew that the most successful outcome was one that matched the picture the group had generated.

Table 2

Sample UGCA Needs

This process would be successful for me if it. . .

  • Standardized MSDS information
  • Made cleaning products easier and safer for workers to use
  • Identified health hazards
  • Made product labels easier to read and understand
  • Addressed packaging issues
  • Allowed for third party certification
  • Is grounded in real science
  • Resulted in cost-effective products
  • Increased the number of available products

4. Educating Participants

A diverse group of stakeholders usually means varying levels of familiaritywith the issues under discussion. In providing information to consensusparticipants the facilitator needs to attend to three critical considerations.First, there needs to be an accurate assessment of the group’s learningneeds. Presenting information that is irrelevant or that is redundant withwhat participants already know, is a tragic waste of valuable time. Secondly,the facilitator must determine the most efficient and effective means ofdelivering the information. The most efficient means (distributing readingmaterial before a meeting, for example) are frequently not the most effective.Thirdly, the information presented should be free of bias so as not to prejudiceperceptions or be seen as promoting particular positions.

The issues under consideration for the UGCA were highly technical in nature. While a good portion of the participating members brought extensive knowledge, many were unfamiliar with the science and research behind the issues. We used several strategies for determining the learning needs of the group. The focusing question and stated objectives of the project suggested the need for training on certain topics, while the multi-voting process (see next section) allowed participants to reveal gaps in their knowledge. Using primarily these two methods we were able to craft an information plan suitable to the group.

While some information was posted on the website for review by participants, we were reluctant to ask members to devote much time out of the meeting to reading. Our members were already volunteering significant time to the project and we were being careful not to exceed the time we had estimated. For these reasons and because we were more interested in the dialogue the learning would generate, we arranged for speakers to present during our meeting time. We mitigated the redundancy for some members by inviting them to present, leveraging the expertise we had in the group.

A true consensus reflects the ideas and creativity of the participants. For this reason we were especially careful not to introduce bias into our education and information programs. We mitigated the potential for bias in several ways. First we based our assessment of the learning needs on the framing question, the tasks to be accomplished and participant requests to assure relevance and balance. Secondly we chose a balance of presenters. For controversial topics such as certification options, we included three presenters representing three different perspectives. We also accepted proposals for presentations from members as well as from any interested party throughout the entire project. Thirdly, we used the presentation and ensuing dialogues to expose the limits in the knowledge base where it existed. As this is an emerging field, we were careful to distinguish between “known” facts and data and “suspected” or conjectured information.

5. Managing Group Processes Efficiently

Time is the biggest enemy of consensus processes. Consensus requiresthorough dialogue and deliberation but it comes with a fairly high timecost. Participants easily lose patience with irrelevant tangents, unnecessarydiscussion or rehashed conversations. It is critical to have effective groupprocesses that keep the conversation moving and focused.

The UGCA faced a formidable task trying to sort through the plethora of possible criteria for defining sustainable products in the short time we had budgeted. Since the scope of the project did not allow the luxury of addressing each and every criterion to the level of detail that it may have warranted, we needed a process for prioritizing the ones that the group deemed most worthy of consideration. We achieved this through two strategies: use of a straw man starter list and a multi-voting process.

By beginning with a “straw man” list of suggested criteria, we were able to fast-forward the process and avoid having to devote hours to building a list from scratch. We presented our list and asked the group to review it by answering three questions:

    • Is there anything on the list that shouldn’t be?
    • Is there anything on the list that should be modified?
    • Is there anything that isn’t on the list that you want to add?

The resulting list contained over 40 criteria. We were anxious not to waste the time of the group discussing each item as we suspected that there was broad understanding and agreement on many of them. In order to quickly determine where the common ground lay and to prioritize the issues that needed review, explanation or debate, we employed our second strategy, a multi-round voting process. The list was transferred onto a set of columned charts (see a sample, Table 3, at the end of this article). The first column contained the criteria. The next four columns were reserved for each of four rounds of voting and the last column provided space for questions or comments. Each voting member was given 10 dots per round and asked to distribute them among the criteria they thought should absolutely be included in any standard for sustainable products. They also were given the opportunity to “qualify” their votes with comments or questions. Each round took only a few minutes to produce a record of the criteria that had wide support for inclusion and those issues for which participants had concerns, questions or suggestions for modification. Each round surfaced the next most relevant or important issues. This process assured each member’s concerns and preferences were efficiently and accurately recorded and that our time was spent dialoguing about what was most important and urgent to the group.

6. Getting Closure and Agreement

In the end, there is always the report. Creating a document that accuratelyreflects the views and conclusions of a large group is a difficult task.The standard approach is to generate a draft for review and comment of allparticipants. The challenge is incorporating the varying (and sometimesconflicting) comments generated by the reviews.

Following the lead of standard consensus processes, we distributed a draft report for review by our members in advance of the final meeting. We intended to use the last meeting for comment, revision and approval of the document. Our draft document was long and detailed. We recognized that it would have been taxingly tedious to review it segment by segment. We also realized that our meeting time was inadequate to complete the review by this method. To handle this efficiently, we sent the draft out before the meeting and invited comments. The comments helped us identify the sections that were most important or controversial.

When the group convened, we gave each voting member a set of three colored cards ­ red, yellow and green. We then projected the 15-20 priority sections one at a time and asked the participants to indicate their level of support for the content and wording of each section by holding up one of the three cards. A green card indicated full support for the section or statement and agreement that it should be included in the report. A red card indicated staunch opposition to the statement and a yellow card indicated that there was a question, comment or concern the holder wanted resolved before giving support. In this way we could in a matter of seconds take a read on where the group stood on each section. It also allowed participants to see the level of support and made it easier to address opposition and concerns when a participant could see that he or she was clearly in the minority. Where red or yellow votes could not be resolved in the discussion, the group agreed to include the perspective as a minority view in the report. In this way we efficiently processed a long and complicated document.


Managing multi-stakeholders to consensus is never an easy task, but itis one that is increasingly important to creating lasting and supportedsolutions to environmental issues. Our experience indicates that the keyto success is in an effective, well facilitated process. Creating an experiencein which all participants feel informed, acknowledged and engaged dramaticallyincreases the likelihood of success. The UGCA not only achieved its objectives,but built relationships among its members and excitement about the actionsrecommended in our report. We achieved our outcomes within our tight timeframe, and did so with minimal controversy and dissention.

For more information on the project, please visit the documents archivedon the Zero Waste Alliance web site at

Table 3 Sample Criteria Ranking Chart



Round 1 Votes

Round 2 Votes

Round 3 Votes

Round 4 Votes


 HH#1 Must not be toxic to humans  The product in its undiluted form must not be toxic to humans. Productspackaged in closed loop, no chemical contact containers must be tested asused.


Need to define toxicity and levels of toxicity
 HH#2Must not be human carcinogenic  The product in its undiluted form must not contain any ingredientsthat are known to be carcinogens


 What about suspected, probable, etc. These should be includedMfgs need a list
 HH#3Must not be teratogenic
(causing birth defects)
The product in its undiluted form must not contain any ingredients thatare known to be teratogens.


 HH#7Must have a low potential to be absorbed by the skin  The product in its undiluted form must have a low potential to beabsorbed by the skin. Products packaged in closed loop, no chemical contactcontainers must be tested as used.


Need to define “low potential”

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