Consensus paralysis

I was once faced with a complex situation whereby a group of us deemed a subject so important that complete consensus would be needed for the situation to improve.

There was eight of us and all eight people would be impacted by the final decision in varying degrees.

It was also decided that no one person’s perspective or idea would be weighted more than the others.

We would have 100% consensus, regardless of how long it took.

I will start by saying, this type of processis not an easy one to navigate and not one I usually prefer.

Nonetheless, I’ll describe the process I suggested and the parameters we worked with to get through this challenge.

The process below was explained to everyone in advance and we agreed that we would not talk or try and influence one another outside the group meetings.

In our first one-hour meeting, we narrowed the possibilities down to five. Yes, we had five viable options.

The five options were chosen by a quick, easy, cheap process I won’t go it to in this passage.

Next, I suggested everyone rank and write the top three options they wanted on a piece of paper.

I made it clear that it would be impossible for everyone to get their 1st choice quite obviously.

I asked that they don’t write their name onthe paper, and we placed them in a small box to be opened at the next one-hour meeting.

I purposely wanted a break between the meetings, as I knew after a long discussion, there could be tension.

At the start of the next meeting, we opened all the papers and read out loud each person’s top three.

From what was relayed, we narrowed the choice down to the top three that were the most common.

At this point, I also explained that we were not ranking these three, they would get a fresh look and analysis.

What we did in this second hour was to determine a metric for which each of the three ideas would be evaluated.

One very important tool was part of that metric that I have used in the past is negative utilitarianism.

Essentially, this means considering the least amount of negative impact for the least amount of people.

I personally find this easier to consider than considering the maximum amount of positive for the most amount of people.

The impact on the organization was the driving force behind the new ranking, not the impact on any one person in that room.

Once we had the new ranking, each person got a chance to relay what they think could go wrong with each idea.

We did not engage in pros and cons.

Interestingly, we landed on one idea that we all agreed could go seriously wrong and hence we discarded that idea and now were left with two choices.

As before, tensions were high so a third meeting would be in the works.

At the third meeting, the two options remaind and I started the session with a simple question I often as, “can we do both?”

The answer was “yes.” We had our 100% consensus decision.

We also agreed that when we all leave the room and the idea is implemented, no one would trash the idea within the organization, even if the result was not exactly what we planned.

Like a pilot project, the results would be evaluated after 3 months and if the results were not on target, we would meet again to discuss.

But wait, we did not determine who was responsible for what action and the timelines.

Goodness, gracious me.

Fast forward, it took us three more meetings to get consensus on who did what and the timeline.

Ironically, to implement the idea was quick, easy, cheap, yet our 100% complete consensus process was anything but quick.

If you are still with me and not in pain, you might be unique as just writing this reminded me of this painful experience.

On the surface, consensus decision making might sound great and very democratic yet if you are truly doing it, it is much harder than it sounds.

I am not averse to getting perspective from people who are impacted by decisions and having them involved.

Yet, there may be better decision-making models out there than getting 100% complete consensus unless you enjoy meetings.

Avoid consensus paralysis if you can.