Consensus Decision Making Forever – Sometimes

Consensus decision making is a useful decision making framework, however, it is not the best way to make a decision in every scenario. The factors of decision making that impact use of the consensus approach making include: the requirement for speed, how frequently the decision is made, the potential impact of a decision, and information availability for a decision. Each of these factors can be used to determine when consensus decision making is most effective.

Urgency and consensus are frequently in conflict. Consensus requires generating a meeting of minds which takes some time. Split-second decisions are rarely consensus decisions unless the decision has been made in the past and the split-second decision represents implementation from muscle memory. In an earlier essay we used the airline captain Sully Sullenberger and Hudson Miracle as a scenario where consensus decision making would be an anti-pattern. The requirement for extreme speed precludes developing consensus decisions.

Frequency refers to how many times the decision is made. Routine decisions by definition become automatic until there is a significant shock to the system or change in context. Routine decisions are made over and over so there are many chances to generate and evaluate feedback. Therefore there is little reason to evaluate and develop a consensus each time the decision is made. The trap in this scenario occurs when a significant shock occurs that changes the basis for the original decision. Teams need to be aware of context.

Decisions that can impact the whole of a team or require unified behavior from a group are often made using a consensus approach. Impacts that need to be considered include those that influence cost, revenue, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and team esprit de corps. While it might seem trivial, teams almost always leverage consensus decision making to decide where to go for lunch because without a consensus team cohesiveness can suffer.

Decisions that require very specialized information that is concentrated in a small group are not conducive to consensus decision making. Generating a consensus requires that everyone involved in the decision has access to the information needed to make a decision (access includes the ability to understand the information).

Team decisions generally are shaped by some combination of attributes. For example when an agile team decides whether to pull a specific piece of work they will quickly sort through all of these attributes before coming to consensus on whether they can commit to doing the work. That said, occasionally a story or issue is presented to the group that is so urgent that assembling the team (this is very true in widely distributed team) will generate a high cost of delay (note that this suggests other organizational problems which need to be tackled). Consensus decision making is very common and effective for agile teams, however, it is not the only decision making tool teams need to leverage.