Collective Decision-Making and the Fallacy of Consensus

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July 19, 2013

Often group meetings are for the purpose of coming to a decision about a matter (in fact, most meetings should be for the purpose of having discussions, learning, and making decisions – meetings are poor venues for sharing information that could easily be done through less time-intensive means). These kinds of decisions should reflect the collective power of input from attendees, though rarely with the requirement that 100% agreement is reached. The great fallacy in our current use of the term consensus is that it does not mean that all must agree. At its root, consensus means to sense together, to feel together, even to think together. It means spending the time together to hear and understand the objective issues and the subjective feelings at hand. It means that the attendees are heard, are drawn out in conversation around a specific point, and that the point is narrowly defined and related to the operations or future of your enterprise. The great problem with thinking that everyone must agree is seen when it takes only one person who does not see the world as others do, if they are having a bad day, or for any other reason – often not well-articulated – for the group decision process to break down. It means everyone, effectively, has a veto, which is an insidious and damaging culture for organizations. Collective decision making is about proactive time spent learning about the key drivers of the issues and being sure that the outcomes are well-suited to the problem, to the best of our ability at the present time. Make a good, thoughtful decision at the right time and move on with it.

Collective decision making and group process go hand in hand. The skilled facilitator will bring a toolkit of group and interpersonal facilitation techniques to help the group keep working well in the moment. They will be well able to handle the human challenges that arise with conflict, sabotage, laziness in thinking, factions, scapegoating, and challenges within the group – including challenges to the facilitator – to relentlessly work toward a well-run meeting that achieves results. Meeting or workshop design becomes a critical component in running an effective meeting as well as carefully checking the premises or goals for the meeting.