The Consensus Is Wrong

Business People At Race Starting LineDo you want to change the world? Do you want to make a difference? Forget about consensus. Everyone believes that discussing things and arriving at a group consensus in a democratic fashion is the fair way to make a decision. They also mistakenly believe that it will arrive at the right decision. That somehow people will build upon each others ideas and logically arrive at a decision that is better than any one person’s idea. That’s wrong.

When a group gets together to make a decision, people think that everyone in the group is trying to contribute to make the best decision. In theory, they are. In reality, almost everyone is competing with everyone else, to some degree, to get their idea selected. So, that makes people focus more on lobbying to get their idea selected than in selecting the best idea. Often, that results in people chipping away at an idea until everyone is satisfied with it enough to agree on it. So, if someone had an A+ idea and someone had an F level idea and the rest are in the B-C range, you often end up with a B level idea, at best.

If the team’s idea survives long enough to be worked on and developed for awhile, improvements can hopefully be made. Ideally though, you want to start with the best idea and go from there. That way you aren’t working your way back to the best idea that was presented before. This is the tricky part. How do you select the best idea when everyone doesn’t agree?

There are tricks to getting this done, but there is no one way that works for every team. In the past, I’ve found the best way to involve listing out all the ideas on the whiteboard and having everyone add pros and cons for each. Then you go through the cons and see if they are really cons. Sometimes a con ends up being unintended, but useful side effects. Then weight the level of each pro and con. Usually, one or two ideas will surface to the top. At that point, have a debate over which is the better choice. Then pick the best choice. After the choice is made, schedule another meeting to discuss the choice and what might be done to strengthen it.

By not trying to craft a perfect choice from all the other choices, you end up with the best possible choice. By allowing the discussion on how to strengthen the idea to be made at a later meeting, it gives people time to cool down from their desire to win and allow them to shift their mindset to a more collaborative mode. Plus, it gives them the added time to really let the idea sink in and think about how it can be improved rather than working on the problem at a superficial level, which is often the problem if you continue crafting the idea right after selecting it.  The problem with working on the new issue right away is that everyone’s mind was focused on the weaknesses of the idea as they tried to defeat it. They weren’t thinking as much about its strengths. When crafting an idea, you have to focus on both. You don’t want to fix a weakness in a way that will strip away some or all of the idea’s strengths.

Selecting and crafting an idea as a team can be great. It allows the strengths of each of the team members to help to build the best product. By acknowledging that each team member brings weaknesses to the team and that human nature can sometimes work against group goals, you can mitigate those issues and build a far superior idea than if you pretend that:

“Consensus is the process by which synergy delivers superior performance.”

Sounds like bull? Good. Because it is. Also, if the team can’t arrive at a decision, there has to be someone that can make the ultimate decision. Sometimes, that person will have to step in and make the decision not to accept the group’s decision. Whether that means recommending further thought, further input, or another option; that is up to the team leader. Just remember that teams aren’t fond of having their ideas spurned repeatedly. If you’re going to do it, you had better be demonstrably right.

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