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Why Can’t Everyone Just Agree? 8 Tips for Building Consensus

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The meeting room stunk of burnt coffee, half-eaten sandwiches and too many bodies compressed into a small, windowless room for too many hours. People participating via video felt that for once, being physically removed from the action was actually a blessing. After two days of dithering, this group seemed no closer to making a decision than it did at the start of the meeting, convened at great cost to make a go/no-go decision that would profoundly affect the future direction of the organization.

Just 20 minutes remained before people would start snapping up laptops and grabbing luggage. Ending the meeting without a decision was not an option. The facilitator, an internal HR business partner working with the division VP, had repeatedly tried to gain a consensus and take a vote, to no avail. One person or another would interrupt to ask questions like: Do we have the data we need to make this decision? Who else do we need input from? Are the right people in the room? Do we all have equal say? Are we using the same criteria? Have we thought through the implications of deciding one way or another? How will we know whether we made the right choice?

Yikes! The facilitator had thought that all of this was hammered out before the meeting, since the VP had declared: “Everyone knows what they’re coming here to do. Don’t spend a lot of time rehashing what people already know. Let’s get to a consensus ASAP so we can end the meeting early.”

Magical thinking is rarely a good strategy for designing and facilitating a productive decision-making conversation, especially with so much on the line. In this case, the meeting leader and VP could have done much more to set the stage for productive debates and discussions, leading to at least some kind of consensus, if not unanimous agreement. Here are eight steps they could have taken to avoid the disastrous outcome of this meeting.

  • Clarify what decision needs to be made, why, by when, and the possible consequences. Do this well ahead of time, both via real-time discussions and in writing, so everyone has an opportunity to gather needed data and input and discuss potential ramifications with their own groups. For example: “Senior leadership needs to make a proposal to investors by the end of May as to whether we will continue investing in product A or cut our losses now. If we discontinue work on Product A, we can shift some people and money to Product B, but some people will likely be cut. If we continue to invest in Product A and lose money, we may jeopardize all future funding, with more people across the organization at risk. We need to show our investors that we are making a well-reasoned decision before we can expect additional funding.” Glossing over or sugarcoating the possible consequences may lead to a hasty decision that can quickly become undone when people finally understand the implications. Make sure everyone has a chance to reflect on the implications ahead of time.
  • Agree on the criteria everyone up and down the line will use to make a decision. The more rational and measurable, the better. Everyone involved in this decision, whatever their role, should be using the same criteria. In this example, the prospect of job losses might sway some people to stick with Product A, even though this decision might result in even more job losses later on. While emotions inevitably play some role in making decisions, using more objective criteria, such as costs, projected revenue and profitability, competitive threats, industry trends, allocation of resources, economic conditions, customer satisfaction, etc., will lead to a more well-informed decision that more people can live with and defend later on.
  • Be honest about who plays what role in the decision-making process. If you’re asking people to simply provide input to others who will make the final decision, say so. Don’t give people the illusion that they have more power than they actually have. Make the entire process transparent, including who’s asking for the decision, who established the criteria, who will provide input and when, who will make recommendations, who gives final approval, and who communicates the decision, and when. If people are unclear about the process and the role they play, you risk losing their commitment when it comes to implementing the eventual decision.
  • Give people a chance to weigh in ahead of time. Meeting time is precious; use it wisely. Have people weigh in at least a few days ahead of the actual meeting. Use an asynchronous conference area where people can see and build on (or disagree with) each other’s responses, either anonymously or by name. For example, the meeting leader might post questions like: For you to feel completely confident in choosing one option over another, what data would you need in advance?  Or, If we agree to continue funding Product A, what must we do perfectly to prove to our investors this was a wise decision?  A question that simply asks for the preferred option may never lead to the kind of healthy discussion that can reveal underlying assumptions or encourage alternative solutions.
  • Determine whether you need consensus (and what kind), a decision, or both. When seeking consensus, does everyone need to agree, or just the majority? And if consensus is reached, does that mean the group actually made a decision? It’s possible to have one without the other. In our example, meeting participants may all agree that senior leadership should recommend they stick with Product A. But in reality, senior leadership can end up making a different recommendation to investors. Likewise, senior leadership may decide to propose continue investing in Product A, without achieving real consensus among its ranks in which case, implementation of this decision may be difficult if not impossible.
  • Allocate enough time to have well-reasoned discussions and debates. To make sound decisions, people need time to exchange ideas and challenge each other’s thinking and assumptions. How much time will be needed and the number of meetings will depend on many factors, such as number and locations of participants, the complexity and importance of the decision(s) to be made, the ability to make use of online conversations, as well as the expected level of contention. Consider breaking the discussions into a series of meetings, if people insist they’re too busy for a longer meeting, especially if participants are remote.
  • Know when you’ve reached the point of diminishing return. Just as a disagreement between jurors may lead to a mistrial, sometimes people just remain too far apart to be able to come to an agreement. Best to start the conversation with topics people are likely to agree on (in our scenario, it might be targeted profitability levels or time to market). That way, you can make some progress even if you can’t reach agreement on everything. Don’t be afraid to end the meeting early if people have reached a stalemate. Ask what additional data or input people feel they need to make a decision, and agree to an action plan and a new meeting date before people leave the room.
  • Reflect cultural differences in your approach to reaching agreement. Some cultures relish a healthy debate and feel that the best decisions are made by confronting each other about their differences, while others prefer to discuss disagreements in the background. People from cultures that value hierarchy may be reluctant to voice their opinions in the presence of senior leaders, while others are more willing to regard each other as peers when it comes to making a decision.Take the time to understand the differences and plan accordingly.

Don’t underestimate the work you need to put into planning and facilitating a conversation where people are ready, willing and able to have the right kind of discussions needed to reach agreement. Design a process that’s predictable, yet flexible. (Lately I’ve been drawing on Liberating Structures for some cfresh ideas.) Make sure that everyone else understands what effort they’ll need to make, and the time it’s likely to take. Remind people what’s at stake. This way, you’ll be ready to dive into the needed discussions and debates at the outset, greatly increasing the chances of reached a well-reasoned decision within the allotted time.

Links

Past Communiques:

Making Decisions That Stick – white paper from Guided Insights – downloadable PDF

Post-Decision Checklist – Evaluating Your Decision After the Fact – checklist (downloadable PDF)

The Elements of Good Judgment – Harvard Business Review – Jan/Feb 2020