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 decisionreservations 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. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
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