Collaborative Leadership Blog

Why True Consensus Matters

The 9 member senior leadership team was making a strategic decision about the vendor for installing a new supply chain software system costing millions of dollars. Two members disagreed vehemently with the choice of the vendor. They debated for about 2 hours before the CEO got fed up and called the question. The team voted 7-2 for the vendor. 18 months and major cost overruns later, the new system went on line, only to experience a number of failures within the first few weeks. The two members who voted against, at the next meeting, said “I told you so. If you had listened, we would have told you about our previous experiences with this vendor.” The company lost millions of dollars, 2 years, and credibility because they had a “can live with” consensus decision-making rule.

There are many who believe that consensus is groupthink, a failure of “leadership”, or is the suppression of dissent. There is always disagreement on teams. The question is whether you speed-bump those who disagree, in the interest of time, or actually listen and work through the differences. A 100% true consensus, no reservations decision-making rule is the gold standard for collaboration. It requires teams to work through their disagreements, and in the process strengthens trust and accountability, and in my experience, always results in better decisions.

The real issue is not if there is value in consensus-based decision-making, but whether we have the commitment to honor and respect everyone’s point of view. Also, the question is how to create this rule. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the statement, “we don’t believe you can have team consensus on anything.” That view can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We know that teams make better decisions than individuals most of the time, so let’s see how to make it happen.

  • Form a Collaborative Team: Teams need to play by the same rules, or Operating Agreements. The Collaborative Team Governance Process helps teams create them
  • Rules for Making Operating Agreements: The key to the success of this process is team members agreeing that whatever their decision-making agreement is, they will all agree to that by 100%; focus it on strategic decisions
  • A Facilitated Process: The process needs to be facilitated by an objective 3rd party
  • 6 Decision-Making Rules: There are 6 decision-making rules to choose from: one person decides; minority rule (<50%); majority rule (50%+1); super-majority (80-20); “can live with” consensus (90%); and 100% true consensus, no reservations
  • How to Disagree: The team will also need to agree on how they will disagree; no running over people who disagree
  • Patience & Persistence: Patient is critical; frustration will be high; the value of the process for the team is that it builds trust and mutual respect; persistence in the face of frustration will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of each other

The payoff from this process is both short and long term. Building true consensus results in high trust, ownership, mutual respect, and accountability among team members. There are no more “I told you so’s”. No more 7-2 decisions. As one client said, “I can’t believe we operated the other way for so long. There’s no going back.”

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*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, and the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of the forthcoming book: The New Age of Collaboration: Leadership for the 21st Century, 2020. edward.marshall@duke.edu