1. Consensus reinforces Groupthink
The process to achieve consensus is essentially social, not analytic or generative. Usually one of the strongest drivers is the status quo, both of how things are done here and of the hierarchy of voices.
The first problem with that is that, how things were done up till now may very well not be how they need to be done going forward. In 1965, companies stayed on average 33 years in the S&P 500; by 1990 that was 20 years and the trend points to 14 years by 2026. More of the same is not a survival strategy any longer.
The second problem is that a loud voice or confidence doesn't guarantee its owner is well informed or a great judge of the situation and options. Others will have additional information and different experiences, and a good outcome depends upon it also being taken into consideration.
2. Consensus devalues Diversity
Through the social process to build consensus, the appearance is created that there is only one answer, and everyone believes in it.
Individuals may come out of the process still not believing it's the right answer. Calling it a consensus tells them that they must be wrong in everyone else's eyes. It tells them to get with the program, and be like everyone else. It destroys the independence of thought that modern organisations actively seek when recruiting staff. If two employees have exactly the same views, the chances are at least one of them is ripe for job automation.
When someone sets out to make a consensus decision, they can get to their objective most quickly if they select participants who already hold similar views. People from the same background as themselves.
3. Consensus selects for Less Worse, instead of Better
The process to reach consensus is a series of compromises. For every variation of view expressed, there is some give and some take. It leads to all participants conceding something, and the outcome appearing to be that no-one is particularly disadvantaged but everyone is disadvantaged a bit. Also known as "Equal misery for all".
Those experienced in this process are careful to demand much more than they need from it, so that they can concede some and still win, while appearing reasonable and collaborative.
4. Consensus hides the truth
Fundamentally, consensus presents a single answer to a question which may well have no single answer. Each member of the consensus to some extent buries their own views in the interest of harmony (or worse, fear or self-doubt because of the higher status or greater self-confidence of other participants).
Commonly though, there is no single right answer at all, or the group lacks the information or tools to discover it. So the outcome is that participants collectively exaggerate their certainty, and hide from non-participants the range of possibilities that the participants could have brought to the table.
As a leader, do you want to work in an echo chamber where only the 'staff answer' is allowed? Or would you prefer to hear about all your problems and opportunities?
Does this mean consensus is worthless? The shallow kind, produced by facile meetings of just the 'right' people structured to get a quick result, that kind is worse than worthless- it's downright destructive of value.
To get a good decision you need to
- Actively include participants with opposing views and diverse experiences
- Run the process so that all their voices are heard
- Work up all the options so they can be compared on a level playing field
That might end up in a consensus, but whether or not it does, it will result in a decision that everyone will respect on its own merits.
With preparation, you can avoid the pitfalls of consensus and get robust information on all your options yourself. AcuteIP.com offers a set of services to make it easy, with workshops and technical services to managing the whole exercise for you.
Contact Graham.Harris at AcuteIP.com to explore possibilities.
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© 2018 Graham.Harris at AcuteIP.com