The Art of Consensus Building

Getting people to agree on anything is a challenge.

In crisis, you can rely on “management by fiat” (just decide on a course of action yourself and issue the command).  But, a little heavy-handedness goes a long way, and when you are not in crisis, people are prone to resent an overly autocratic style.  So, you are left needing to be good at reaching consensus if you want to move your agenda forward.  But, why is it so hard?

Let’s start by considering why people disagree, and the strategies that may help in each situation.

1. They do not see the situation in the same way We all look at any situation though our own lens.  Our perspectives are influenced by our different accumulated life experiences or are based on our organizational department (members of engineering, finance, IT, operations and sales – just as examples – all have a point of view based on the issues they face daily).   All of these views are “right”.  It helps to appreciate that they are so, based on different sets of data or assumptions.   The hard part is that the data and assumptions used by others are often hidden from our view.

Strategy:              Engage the broad group in a joint effort to collect data, define the problem, and research relevant facts.  (When we are all working from the same data set, it is much easier to find areas of agreement)  Many techniques are available to build a common platform of understanding.  Some include:  mind mapping, value stream mapping, doing joint research (on-line and by interviewing system participants) and sharing the data as you go.   Also, I like the idea presented by Steve Tobak in How to Build and Drive Consensus.  He says it is important that you use a formal process, and that all the participants understand what it is before you begin.  It should be one that is transparent and open, leading to a GROUP problem definition and action plan.   The process should include phases like: collecting information (group learning to inform everyone), defining the problem, developing alternative solutions, establishing criteria for evaluating them, evaluating the alternatives, and developing the execution plan.

2. They disagree on philosophical grounds.  Sometimes, people just disagree with an idea on principle.  Some people vote Republican, others Democrat.  Some believe in a woman’s right to choose, while others see abortion as murder.  Disagreements on principle generally run deep, and are very difficult to surmount.  Compromise is often impossible because all parties feel they cannot give up their core values and beliefs (just consider the stalemates that have been defining Federal policy making process lately in the United States).

Strategy:              Consider changing your agenda in favor of another where there is more common ground.  Or, wait for a crisis to occur, and use it as the common ground you need to gain consensus.

3. They are pursuing a different agenda.  Sometimes, while your idea or initiative has merit, other people have different agendas they feel are more important to them at this particular time.  These agendas may be driven by their boss, the company incentive system, your last performance appraisal, or promises you or your team have previously made.

Strategy:              Escalate this matter higher up in the organization to align priorities and goals. If your plan is truly for the good of the organization or the team, and you have sound, credible and compelling arguments in your favor, management will listen — especially if your plan is in alignment with their ultimate needs.

3. Interpersonal or emotional drivers.  Too often, our attitudes are colored by the way we feel about others, whether we like them, if we see them as a personal rival, how we judge their motivations, if we trust them, if we respect them and their abilities, and various other dimensions of company politics.

Strategy:              Form a guiding alliance of like-minded people before you begin, who share a common view and can form a core group with enough influence to press an idea even in the face of some resistance.  Accept the idea that gaining 100% buy-in may not be feasible, or may take more time and energy than you have.   Be willing to build enough momentum led by even a small group of passionate prophets to advance your idea.   In another helpful piece by Michael Wilkinson called Building Consensus The Art of Getting to YES,  he argues that you need to be willing to do some amount of one-on-one interfacing to help uncover the reasons for someone’s resistance, and seek to resolve them if you can.   (This article has several other helpful suggestions for managing disagreements as well.)

(Another interesting resource for those in the public sector is Consensus, Power and the Art of Getting Things Done by Otis White. White has several posts on related topics including forging a guiding coalition, the art of persuasion, and others.)

Also for those of you in the public sector, I would recommend the following YouTube video by Jeff Risley called Building Consensus: Overcoming Us vs. Them.  (It is 32 min long, and addresses the need to seek and exploit common value systems.)


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Filed under Innovation, Leading, Managing Teams, Systems Thinking

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