Making Christmas Cookies Requires A Concensus

Getting to a consensus decision is not always a walk in the park. Everyone seems to have a different path to the same goals, or if not a different path, at least an opinion on why other paths are better or worse. Everyone involved in reaching a consensus decision must start with the the belief that achieving consensus is the goal. If everyone is not operating in good faith there will be no consensus decision. Without an agreement to reach a mutually beneficial agreement one side winning or not agreeing become the only options. Based on the simple premise that people want to achieve a consensus decision, the question is how to get from many ideas down to few and finally to one a single idea or decision.

Down Select

If there are more than a few possible outcomes for a decision (usually there are more options than there are people in the group), the first step is to reduce the options to a manageable level. There are many common techniques teams use for down selecting. A few are:

  • Multi-Voting – Team members have a fixed number of votes (3 or 5 are typical) they use to promote one or more potential ideas. Use this technique after the team identifies a pool of possible decisions, topics, or items. Voters can use all of their votes on one item or spread them across a number of items. The items that get the most votes move forward for discussion. Note: multi-voting is one of the most used techniques used in agile teams for down selecting and is often paired with brainstorming or affinity diagramming.
  • Modified Borda Count – Teams members vote for for their first and second choice (and possibly third choice). First place votes get more points than a second and third place votie and a second place vote gets more points than a third. The weighting allows helps the team to find a way to weed out ideas that are less valuable. This technique is often useful in large groups.
  • Forced Ranking – Each person ranks the list of options in order from best to worst individually and then the group combines the list. If the decision is not contentious or there is little dissension the forced ranking is done in a single step. When this occurs consensus is very close.

The goal of the down select process is get many competing potential decisions consolidated into a smaller number to improve focus. Without a mechanism to go from many to a few potential outcomes, the conversation needed to get to a single outcome could drag on forever.

Talk and Synthesize

After the team winnows the field to the ideas or decisions that are the most important, the hard work begins. The crafting of a decision that a team can embrace and or at least live with requires facilitated conversation. A facilitator will:

  • Frame questions to channel the conversation,
  • Elicit the team to synthesize ideas,
  • Ensure all parties speak their piece, and
  • Evoke empathy from team members for their colleagues.

Someone always plays the facilitator role. In more formal and important decision making scenarios the facilitator will need to be from outside the team. In all cases remember that the facilitator needs to understand their own motives which can inject bias into the process. An experienced facilitator will be able to expose the core issues without causing them to be more embedded or injecting their own spin.

The process of facilitated conversation is critical because it is the basis for synthesizing a decision that represents the team. Conversation and synthesis keep the team from gridlock or falling back to the golden vote (a single decision maker model).

Testing Consensus

Knowing when a group has achieved consensus is the last step of the decision making life cycle. In some teams “knowing” can be as simple as a lightening of mood or facial expression. However in most circumstances the facilitator needs to test for consensus. This often requires finesse by the facilitator even though everyone should feel comfortable enough to speak their mind. Common techniques for testing of consensus include:

  • Roman Voting – Thumbs up if you agree, sideways if you can live the decision, and down if you can’t.
  • Fist to Five – Everyone shows their confidence/agreement by holding up a number of fingers. Five fingers equates to full support and one finger (not that finger) to lack of support.

While every team has its own set of rules. Any votes that indicate that a member cannot support the decision means the discussion should continue. Facilitators should read the teams faces to ensure that peer pressure does not prematurely indicate consensus.

Consensus decision making requires EVERYONE on the team to leave the room in a position to support the decision. The flow of the process is the same for every consensus decision: down select the number of options, talk about the decision, synthesize a compromise decision, test for consensus and then repeat if it not achieved. Anything else is a different form of decision making.