AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Building Consensus

Copyright 2000 AXIS Performance Advisors

Building Consensus

by Marsha Willard

Courtesy tungphoto,

Courtesy tungphoto,

Decision authority is at the heart of empowerment. Most people know how to make decisions for themselves or by themselves, but in a team environment the process gets more complicated. How does a group of people make decisions? How do you process and honor the input of all team members? How do you keep from getting stuck in endless debate? How do you assure that everyone is on board and ready to support a team decision? This process ­ which we call consensus ­ is one of the toughest team learnings.

After watching teams struggle with this issue, we’ve collected a number of strategies and tools to help teams with their decision making responsibilities.This issue of the Advisory will give you a framework for building a decision making foundation and for determining how best to approach and work through the team decision process.

Building the Foundation for Consensus

While there are several strategies for reaching consensus, all of them are predicated on a set of assumptions about a team. First and foremost it is assumed that everyone on the team shares the belief that it is their collective job to contribute to the success of the organization. Beyond that, the specific “legs” that support effective consensus building are common ground, commitment and capability.

Before asking a team to take on decision authority, check to make sure the team fundamentals are in place. Use the following checklist to assessy our team’s readiness for consensus. If more than three of these items are missing, consider doing some team or skill building before you ask a team to take responsibility for any significant decision.

Common Ground — ­ Does the team share a common vision and sense of purpose?

o We agree on who our team’s “customers” are and what they expect from us.

o We all agree on what our team’s purpose (core tasks and responsibilities)is.

o We operate from a common set of values.

Commitment — ­ Is the team committed to it’s mission and to each other as team members?

o We are all committed to the successful achievement of the team’s goals.

o No one works toward personal goals at the expense of the team.

o We are committed to each other’s success and compensate for one another when one of us falters.

o We are committed to fulfilling the agreements we make with each other and with others outside of the team.

o We respect the views of our team mates even when we don’t agree with them.

Capability ­ — Does the team have the necessary skills to manage group process?

o Each of us is open to changing his or her point of view.

o We listen attentively and respectfully to each other.

o Each of us is good at expressing our own needs.

o We have an open, honest climate; we can talk about anything.

o We trust and respect one another.

o We encourage discussion of differing opinions.

Options for Making Group Decisions

If your team is ready to handle decision authority, the next step is to consider the options for making decisions. Teams frequently fall into the trap of assuming that every decision should be made by consensus. A team operating under this misguided notion will likely spend all of its time in meetings! You need to approach this important team function more deliberately. For each decision or decision type a team has authority for,answer these two questions:

· Who should make a specific type of decision?

· How should the decision be made?

Who decides?

The whole team doesn’t have to decide everything. There are certain decisions where it just doesn’t make sense to involve everyone. You have three basic choices for establishing responsibility for a decision.

· Individual. Select one person from the team to make decisions  in cases of emergencies or when you need a “point-person.” A point person is useful for such issues as scheduling vacations, tracking measures,planning team meetings, etc. It is also appropriate to authorize a single person when that person has much more relevant knowledge on the issue than the others.

· Subgroup. A subgroup of the team is appropriate to use when a decision requires representation of the team’s diversity but when involving everyone is impractical or too time-consuming. For example, teams often create selection subgroups to handle initial hiring decisions like eliminating applicants or screening for interview.

· The whole team. Take the time to involve the whole team when the issue is one that everyone needs intimate familiarity with or that requires the support of each person to carry out. This should also be used when a critical decision is being made requiring multiple perspectives or broad expertise­ as in the case of designing a new product or service.

How to decide?

In addition to deciding who should be involved in a decision, you should establish how it will be decided. Teams commonly use consensus for important decisions that impact the whole team. Consensus does not mean that the decision was everyone’s first choice, however. Consensus means that all team members have voiced their opinions and now are willing to support the decision.This means no “meeting after the meeting,” you know, those corridor sessions where people bad-mouth a decision that was made.

Striving for consensus is a good idea, but sometimes it is not worth the time. If you have a large team, it may not be reasonable to assume that all will agree on everything. In reality a team has four different options for making a decision. The chart below defines each of these options and summarizes the advantages and disadvantages to help you to decide when to use each one.

 Decision Option Advantages Disadvantages
 Consensus:Every view or position is heard. All team members agree to support the decision.  Ensures buy-in of all members which increases the likelihood of successAlso benefits from the input from all perspectives  Is time consuming and often contentious and hard to do
Voting:Decision determined by majority (must first define majority) Familiar, time-honored, efficient.Considered “fair” by most.  Creates winners and losers.
Participative or representative:Those responsible for making the decision are obligated to ask for and take into account input from the team. Efficient in that it doesn’t tie up the whole team, but still has the advantage of their input. Sometimes takes time to gather input and there is always the danger of missing someone.Requires good communication.
Unilateral:One person (or group) is empowered to make a decision without consulting others. Most efficient. Good for emergencies. Open to abuse of authority.

Five Steps to Building Consensus

For those situations where consensus is appropriate, adopt a process that assures efficiency without sacrificing effectiveness. Our experience has taught us that there are five critical steps in a consensus building process. Feel free to modify each step to suit your team’s circumstances,but beware of skipping any steps. It will only come back to haunt you in the end.

1. Determine the deadline and boundaries. Begin by clarifying the parameters or constraints of your decision. When does reason (or outside pressures) tell you the decision MUST be made? What are your deadlines?How much time do you need to allow a thorough process and how will you schedule your time so that you reach a satisfying outcome? What are the non-negotiable boundaries or conditions within which the decision must be made? Are there budget constraints, contractual obligations, legal requirements, etc., that must be honored?

2 Determine stakeholder needs. Next identify all those who will be impacted by the decision and determine what each party needs out of the decision. What are the needs of your customers, your organization as well as the individual members of your team? What MUST be satisfied in order to achieve a successful decision?

3 Gather data. Become as educated as necessary about the issue to assure the best outcome. What information do you need before you can make an informed decision? Have the needs of all stakeholders been presented?Are there some assumptions that you need to test before you proceed?

4 Identify the options. Only now should you begin discussing the alternatives. Most teams make the mistake of starting with this step and end up in endless haggling or with erroneous conclusions. Consider your full range of options (beyond the favored ones you came in with). How well does each option meet the full set of needs generated in the previous conversation?

5 Plan for action. The work doesn’t end with the decision. Be sure to plan your follow through. How will you implement your decision?Who else needs to know about it? Do you need a fall back position? How will you know your decision was a good one? Do you need to revisit the decision?If so, when and under what circumstances?

Tools for Reaching Consensus

The steps provide a process but may not be enough to keep you from getting stuck in endless debate or analysis-paralysis. The following are tools you may find useful in moving your consensus process along.

The 5 Whys (Especially useful for step 2 of our process)

Too often groups begin their decision process by debating various solution options. The energy in this approach is focused on trying to convince, sell and change minds. Sometimes it works, but more often it creates win/lose situations or complete deadlock. Begin instead by asking people to explain the need that they are trying to meet. Discourage them from rationalizing their solution idea by asking them “why” they hold the position they do. What need does their idea meet or what problem does it solve for them? Sometimes you must ask why several times to get at the heart of the need. (The Japanese believe it takes asking why at least five times before the core of an issue is uncovered.) Do the same for the team as a whole.Ask what common purpose the decision must serve.

Interrelationship Digraph (Useful for step 3)

Sometimes before you can intelligently talk about solutions, you must have a good understanding of the problem. Use an Interrelationship Digraph to help sort out symptoms from causes in your problem analysis. Follow these steps to identify the critical few root causes:

1. Write a question on a board or flip chart which represents the problem you are analyzing: What problems are we currently experiencing (or are anticipating in the near term) which our solution or decision must resolve?

2. Have the participants write their answers on adhesive-backed notes,one answer per note.

3. Pick one person’s note to put down on the chart and then ask for any other notes with similar or related answers. Stack the similar answers on top of each other with a summarizing label on top (e.g., “lack of trust”might summarize many of the individual answers).

4. Repeat the previous step to get one more stack of similar answers.

5. With only two sets of answers on the board, draw an arrow between them indicating which primarily leads to the other. Draw the arrow from the cause to the effect. Do not draw arrows both ways!

6. Add another set of answers and consider whether their is a relationship between the three sets of answers. Draw arrows as appropriate.

7. Continue this process until all the answers are on the board, making sure that each time you add a set of answers, you consider its relationship to all the other answers on the board. Using different colored pens can help in interpreting the inevitably messy chart.

Example Interrelationship Digraph


If after discussing the direction of arrows, the participants still disagree which way the arrows should be drawn, which is a cause or effect, you should validate your assumptions with others before finalizing the chart.

8. When all the arrows have been drawn, count the number of arrows coming in and out of each set of answers. Those with the largest number of arrows coming out are the key causes. Problem solving will have greater impact if it addresses the causes rather than the effects.

Brainstorming (Useful for step 4 of our process)

Brainstorming is a well-known method of generating creative ideas. Tobe successful, you must separate the creative process from the analytical one. If people start commenting on ideas as they are being generated (“That’ll never work”) then the creative process will stop.

There are variations on brainstorming. In addition to the free-for-all most people are familiar with, you can also go around the room, having each person give an idea. (This creates more balanced participation.) You can also give people some quiet time to think before talking, which helps the more deliberate team members contribute.

A popular variation is to use adhesive-backed notes which are assembled into affinity diagrams. Every one writes ideas on the stickies, one idea per note. Then these are posted anonymously and organized into categories before analysis. Using this type of process separates the person from the idea and helps to balance participation.

If your team is computer-literate, investigate groupware which can help automate these processes.

General guidelines for brainstorming:

· Have people write their ideas down before everyone starts sharing them. This prevents the first person who speaks from determining the direction of the ideas.

· Generate as many ideas as possible. (Research indicates that the first 15-20 ideas are the ones everyone has already heard or tried.Go for more than 20 to increase the likelihood of innovation.)

· Don’t comment on the ideas as they are generated. Even favorable comments can damage the process as it might shut down a person who had a differing idea.

· Encourage people to piggy-back on earlier ideas. Variations are just as creative.

· Be sure to include some really wacky ideas. Admittedly they seldom make the final cut, but they are surprisingly valuable at sparking usable ideas.

Matrix/Weighted Criteria Chart (Especially useful for step 4 of the process)

A weighted criteria matrix can be especially helpful in deciding from among a number of options. List the options across the top of the matrix.
List the criteria or needs the options should address along the side. Weight
each criteria from 1-10, spreading out your ratings. Compare each option
to the criteria and give it a score (either a 1-10 scale or use only a 1,
3, or 9). Multiply the scores by the weight. Add up the columns to get an
overall score for each option.

Weighted Criteria Chart — Example



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