Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 28;   July 8, 2020: Multi-Expert Consensus

Multi-Expert Consensus


Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact.
A meeting held in a long conference room.

A meeting held in a long conference room. Meeting geometry can affect the group's ability to come to consensus. This geometry can be problematic if the people who hold the dissenting views are seated together at a distance from the center of the action. That configuration sets up an adversarial environment.

Resolving complex issues sometimes requires expertise from across such a wide array of knowledge domains that no single person can make the relevant decisions. Examples include the choice of a vendor to execute a complex project, or whether and how to make an acquisition that will increase dramatically the size of the enterprise. To make such decisions, most organizations assemble working groups with representatives from across the organization. Together they cover all relevant knowledge domains. They discuss the issues, gather information, and follow a process that leads to a joint decision or recommendation.

Consensus is a common pattern for making such decisions. Ironically, though, some of these groups don't develop a meta-consensus — a consensus about what the consensus process entails. For these groups, trouble can arise when one or a few of their members hold opinions that differ from the rest, preventing the group from reaching a high-quality decision with all of its personal relationships undamaged.

Definitions of consensus processes are widely available [Bressen 2007] [Sandelin 2007], though among these definitions there is some variation. For example, most consensus processes allow a single person to block a decision, but process definitions might differ in what they regard as valid uses of the right to block a decision.

It's therefore useful to define carefully a consensus process for groups whose members consist of experts from a variety of knowledge domains that cover the solution space of the problems they're addressing. I offer a few of the essential design elements below.

Know how to offer blocks
In consensus decision making, a block is a choice by a group member to oppose the proposal under consideration. It can prevent the group from adopting the proposal. Blocks are especially important for multi-expert consensus processes, because a single individual might be the group's only source of expertise for a particular knowledge domain related to the proposal at hand.
The basis of the block must be an argument that the proposal under consideration is inconsistent with the group's values, charter, interests, or purpose. Inappropriate uses of blocks are those based on personal or parochial preferences or objectives.
Offering a block can be a courageous act. I use the term offering because a block offered in good faith truly is a gift to the group. It causes the group to stop and take account of the objections raised by the person offering the block. A block provides information to the group. It's a way for a member to advise the group of a perceived deficiency in the proposal.
Know how to respond to blocks
When a dissenter offers a block, the group is well advised to respect the block. They should hear the dissent with a view to adjusting the proposal, if appropriate, to take account of the dissent. This is especially important in multi-expert consensus processes. To disrespect — or to reject — the dissent of the group's only expert in a given domain entails elevated risk of a bad decision.
In healthy situations, groups work to remove blocks by adjusting proposals. In less-than-healthy situations, groups work to remove blocks by pressuring the dissenters, or failing that, by ejecting dissenters. When pressuring behavior appears, the issue is no longer the proposal. Rather, the issue has become group health. The group must first address the issue of psychological safety and the abuse of the consensus process. Until those issues are addressed, decisions regarding the original proposal are unlikely to be constructive.
Know when to express reservations
A group member can express reservations about the proposal without blocking it. Expressing reservations is a stance that enables group members to register concerns openly, to enable the group to consider modifications to the proposal to account for those reservations. The group can in any case move forward, whether or not the dissenter's reservations are fully addressed.
Expressing To disrespect — or to reject —
the dissent of the group's only
expert in a given domain entails
elevated risk of a bad decision
reservations is another sort of gift to the group. It enables a member to raise issues that might trigger thoughts on the part of other group members who might not otherwise have considered the dissenter's perspective. Indeed, some of those other group members might then discover reservations of their own, or they might consider offering a block, or they might consider altering a block they might have been intending to offer.
Expressing reservations thus affords the group new opportunities to explore adjusting and strengthening the proposal.
Know when to recuse yourself
Occasionally a proposal creates a conflict of interest for one or more group members. There are two kinds of such conflicts that can arise in expert work groups. The first is a proposal that personally benefits the group member, or someone close to the group member, directly or indirectly. The second is the dual of the first: it personally harms the group member, or someone close to the group member, directly or indirectly. In either case, in my view, the affected group member is obliged to withdraw from the decision process.
Personal harm or benefit need not be financial. It can be political. For example, the benefit might be harm to a political rival of the group member. Or it might be in the form of an expansion of responsibility — and therefore increase in political power — for the group member.
In some cases, a recusal can leave the group with a void in its coverage of important and relevant knowledge domains. Recusal then necessitates recruitment of a replacement group member for discussions of the proposal that created the need for recusal.
Even so, the group member is not obliged to disclose the reason for the recusal. This condition is intended to prevent group members from failing to recuse because they fear the consequences of disclosing the reason for the recusal. Questioning why a member recuses himself or herself is therefore deprecated, because it discourages good-faith recusals.

Finally, everyone must understand that making a comment like, "I told you so" based on the consequences of any decision reached by consensus, whether for good or ill, is a performance issue. Everyone who participated in the consensus decision must support the ultimate decision. If any participants felt they could not support the decision, they were obliged to block it. Choosing not to block it is a commitment to support it. Go to top Top  Next issue: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Bressen 2007]
Tree Bressen. "Consensus decision making," in The Change Handbook: The definitive resource on today's best methods for engaging whole systems (2007): 212-217. Available here. Back
[Sandelin 2007]
Rob Sandelin. "Basics of consensus," Northwest Intentional Communities Association (2007). Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A group of Emperor PenguinsWhat Do You Need?
When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
A studio publicity photo of Alfred HitchcockSuspense Is Not Your Friend
Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated ideas effectively, avoid suspense.
An investigator from the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviews a witnessWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: I
When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
Tree rings, "documentary" evidence of past environmental conditionsOn Reporting Workplace Malpractice
Reporting workplace malpractice can be the right thing to do. And it's often career-dangerous. Here are some risks to ponder before reporting what you know.
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Jardin des Plantes, ParisCapability Inversions and Workplace Abuse
A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable about the work than are the people doing that work. In some capability inversions, abusive behavior by the unit's leader might be misinterpreted as bullying.

See also Workplace Politics and Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.