One thing is certain when you work on any project: decisions need to be made.
Almost equally certain is that someone will mention the need to build consensus. After all, agreement from more people means better outcomes, right?
Thanks to collective points of view, experiences, and knowledge, a team may be better than any individual at providing different perspectives, brainstorming, and evaluating risks. Yet, group dynamics also can cause errors and indecision, which can affect a project’s schedule, budget, or even overall effectiveness.
Not all groups or decisions benefit from group decision-making. But when group decision-making is needed, consensus is one way to go.
Contrary to common belief, consensus does not mean that everyone agrees. It is not the same as unanimity. Consensus means that everyone in the group agrees that they can support and live with the final decision – even if (especially if!) it is not their first choice.
So, when should you seek consensus?
Your team members trust each other and are committed to the project. Consensus-building is possible among team members who share similar levels of expertise, maturity, and knowledge, especially if they assume equal amounts of risk in the project. The group doesn’t have to agree, but should share the attitude that “we’re all in this together.” If there’s a power imbalance within the group, or there are any number of new members, consensus may not be possible. (It may be more of a consensus arm twist.) You may need to consider different models for decision-making if your project team isn’t cohesive or represents varying levels of experience.
You have a skilled facilitator. Consensus-building does not happen on its own. It requires an experienced individual who manage the conversation and group participation to useful outcomes. It’s helpful if this person is a neutral party. Think of a facilitator as a referee (minus the running) who is guided by practice, reminds everyone of the ground rules and intervenes when someone breaks them. This individual holds the process accountable.
Your facilitator is prepared. Again, consensus-building doesn’t happen on its own. More often than not, the facilitator will need to prepare themselves and the group for consensus-building activities. Prepare a solid agenda, select activities appropriate for the time allowed and the make-up of the group, and get ready for work. Recognize that consensus-building means listening, discussing, and evaluating.
You’ve collected adequate information. Good decisions can’t be made without good information. And, let’s face it, sometimes there’s insufficient information. Consensus works best when the facilitator and/or project manager is able to collect and communicate options or alternatives. Consensus is more likely when data can be gathered so that the group can properly assess project needs, project scope and risks.
Your team has time. If you’re racing against the clock, this is not the time to build group cohesion and work toward consensus. Consensus-building requires time: time to prepare, time to facilitate, time to discuss, time to weigh and eliminate options.
Once you’ve decided that your situation is ideal for consensus-building, the process can still be challenging. Be willing to reach into your toolkit. Use a consensus-building tool to get a team to support a decision:
Building consensus is time-consuming and sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s worth the effort in the right situation.
In what kinds of projects will you try to gain consensus?
Your partners in leadership.