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The C-word: Consensus

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How many times have you heard the C-word – you know, Consensus?

In a corporate environment you hear that this or that team or committee will meet to reach a consensus on this or that topic or decision. Is consensus-building always a good paradigm for decision-making?

I remember a quote by Margret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the UK…

Consensus is the absence of leadership

What is the case against consensus decision-making?

The case goes like this… If teams are assembled to plan initiatives, agree on direction, and agree on the means of achieving goals they will act together to take the hill.  But perhaps, maybe, the opposite occurs.

Once a corporate culture rewards consensus building then the majority of people in the company or on a team recognize that the straightest path to success in that organization is to conform to prevailing views or conventional wisdom as opposed to challenging them.  And the prevailing views may be those foisted on the team or company by the obsolete  icons of the past, the loudest people in the room, the team bully, or the worst case the cadre of corporate sociopaths ( read about the 1 in 25 here)

Does it does matter who is right? Or has the truth or can demonstrate its veracity?  Do you just “agree with the majority” – even though you disagree – just to “get along” and conform to the corporate policy of “consensus decision-making”?

Anyone who has seen the classic movie “Twelve Angry Men” from 1957 knows what I mean

In that movie,

12 Angry Men explores many techniques of consensus-building, and the difficulties encountered in the process, among a group of men whose range of personalities adds intensity and conflict… The jury of 12 retires to the jury room, where they spend a short while getting acquainted before they are called to order. It is immediately apparent that they have already found the defendant guilty and intend to return their verdict to the court without taking time for discussion–with the sole exception of Juror number 8 (Henry Fonda). His is the only “not guilty” in a preliminary vote.

The jurors get to the jury room, its hot and muggy, and they all have other things to do later that day. The initial consensus is that the guy is guilty.  They vote and there is one hold out of “not guilty” – that’s juror number 8 – played by Henry Fonda.  As the movie progresses, Juror number 8 fights the consensus of the other 11 jurors and eventually wins them over through careful analysis and challenges to already held beliefs about the situation of the case.

Consensus Decision-making is really a pact

In a sense, there is no such thing as a consensus decision.  Rather,  it is a sort of pact among all the individuals on the team. It is a pact to say that it is more “socially acceptable” and “politically correct” to take the position of the majority or of conventinal wisdom than for strong and decisive people to stand up and say what they believe to be the correct.  (Twelve Angry Men)

At what point does “the pact” undermine the team’s ability to make quality decisions – especially when it comes to pivotal decision that affect the competitiveness or future viability of an organization?

The corporate culture of consensus decision-making where dissent is discouraged is a huge cost to any organization in a competitive environment. Why? Ideas are lost or suppressed. Reasoned argument against the consensus is discouraged. When dissenting arguments are discouraged then the depth of reasoned argument is diminished. One is not “encouraged ” to “think it through”. The loss of reasoned dissenting argument in not available to inform similar decisions in the future.  There is no history or record of the process of decision making.

If you find yourself in a “culture of consensus” you might want to think about how this affects the quality of decisions and the loss of potential ideas that this implies.

Decision-making on the US Supreme Court

If you want an alternative model to “a culture of consensus” consider the decision-making process of the US Supreme Court.

In brief (read the full story at the link below)

The justices typically meet on Wednesdays and Fridays to vote on cases heard that week as well as consider new motions or petitions. Only justices attend these closed meetings, and the most junior justice will send for needed materials and take notes as necessary.

After voting, the most senior justice in the majority is responsible for deciding who will write the court’s opinion while the most senior justice on the minority side will also assign the dissent writer. In some cases, individual justices choose to add their own statements explaining why they voted for either viewpoint or express their disagreements with the way the majority opinion was written. But it is solely the majority opinion that will represent the decision of the court.

In his book, “The Supreme Court,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist explains the decision process: “Each member of the Court has done such work as he deems necessary to arrive at his own views before coming into the conference; it is not a bull session in which off-the-cuff reactions are traded, but instead a discussion in which considered views are stated.”

Justices have no timetable for when an opinion has to be issued, and they may spend months considering and honing opinions. Justices may also be pulled away to attend to other business in their assigned judicial circuit as opinions are hammered out, further lengthening the process.

Opinions and dissents are often written with great passion for their viewpoints, with justices occasionally trading barbs about each other’s views on an issue. Clashes tend to arise over individual methodologies of interpreting the Constitution coupled with differences in basic judicial ideologies.

According to court writings, justices can be swayed to one side of an argument or another as the opinion starts to take shape. Drafts are circulated as decisions evolve and a court opinion may have to be rewritten several times in order for a majority to retain all of its voters.

Justices will then briefly appear in the courtroom to announce the court’s opinion, occasionally reading portions of the opinion’s text. Dissenters are also given a chance to comment, an event that can produce exciting moments in the court’s chambers if justices choose to explain their position on a case.

Admittedly, some companies do not have the time to follow such a process.  But the point should be clear.  The Supreme Court is not a culture of consensus.  Each member of the court reaches a decision independently based on research and their own thought processes and experience.  They come to the conference prepared with a preliminary decision which is not influenced by the other justices… “Each member of the Court has done such work as he deems necessary to arrive at his own views before coming into the conference; it is not a bull session in which off-the-cuff reactions are traded, but instead a discussion in which considered views are stated.”

With regard to dissenting opinions… “Opinions and dissents are often written with great passion for their viewpoints, with justices occasionally trading barbs about each other’s views on an issue. Clashes tend to arise over individual methodologies of interpreting the Constitution coupled with differences in basic judicial ideologies.

And the rest of the process… “Drafts are circulated as decisions evolve and a court opinion may have to be rewritten several times in order for a majority to retain all of its voters… Dissenters are also given a chance to comment, an event that can produce exciting moments in the court’s chambers if justices choose to explain their position on a case.

The Take

So, what’s the value of decisions to your company?  Are you on a committee to make a decision about office furniture or are you making decisions on your corporate competitive strategy, investment priorities, or similar?

When the stakes are high on a decision think carefully about the viability of consensus-based decision-making where the quality of the decision may be traded for “political correctness”, conventional wisdom, or conformity.  Perhaps, when the stakes are high consider adapting some form of the way the US Supreme Court makes decisions.  This may lead to a better outcome for your organization.

Resources

Read some related articles:

Group-think – How to avoid common decision-making traps.
https://frrl.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/group-think-how-to-avoid-common-decision-making-traps/

How the Supreme Court makes decisions
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/indepth_coverage/law/supreme_court/history_process.html

The Supreme Court of the United States
http://www.supremecourt.gov/

Read about decisions at Western Union
https://frrl.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/of-telegraphs-telephones-radios-and-organizational-momentum/

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Written by frrl

August 2, 2011 at 4:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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3 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on dustytoaster and commented:
    Follow the path, or get canned.

    dustytoaster

    November 15, 2014 at 9:36 pm

  2. Hi, Very sorry to disturb you!

    Recently, I’m writing an academic paper titled “Multi-Agent Consensus with Dynamical Topology”. I saw there is a figure on this webpage. I believe this figure will be very helpful for the illustration of the basic idea of our paper. Do you won the copyright of this figure? I will be very appreciated if you can permit us to use this figure in our paper.

    Best regards and thanks a lot!

    Anonymous

    May 26, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    • All my pictures come from a Yahoo image search. I hold the copyright to none of them. I try not to use any images that are copyright – and I will remove them if someone tells me they are copyright. You are free to search yahoo images or use the one I have.

      I be interested in seeing your paper…. and know what “Dynamical Topology” is.

      frrl

      May 27, 2013 at 2:33 am


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