Michael Allan
2nd December 2015

We strive to work in a collaborative and iterative way. Agile and Lean methodology is showing us how to break down tasks into small achievable and shippable goals, where each sprint is built upon and learned from. Then why do we fall into the endless loop of trying to achieve ongoing consensus from a project team? By it’s very definition it’s counter-intuitive and hinders the very way of working we’re striving to achieve.

We need to remove consensus decision making when trying to solve contentious problems. It dilutes the design process, hinders progression and belittles team members. Consent builds on trust, increases divergent thinking, reduces time wasting and empowers team members.

So it’s simple right? Demand consent, reject consensus and all will go smoothly. Like most things in this world, the gap between black and white is where it get’s interesting.

Let’s take a look at some basic decision making methods.

The following methods all have their place and merit in the world, it’s choosing the right method at the right time which is key.

  1. Edict: Pretty simple, someone in authority makes an order and if you don’t like it… quit.
  2. Consensus: Everyone in the group must universally agree that this is the right decision before moving on.
  3. Consent: A decision is made when no one has any objections (Note you don’t have to agree with the decision – just have no valid objection to it)

In the context of a collaborative working environment I will skip Edict decision making, however it’s worth knowing it’s there.

So what’s wrong wth consensus, everybody agreeing is a good thing right?

Consensus is not a bad thing and I’m certainly not stating that we shouldn’t use it as a way for decision making moreover drop it from the process altogether, however it is we use it that we should consider.

Consensus invites discussion and debate, these are powerful tools as they allow an idea to be thoroughly considered before a decision is made. To what detriment though? Discussion and debate is time consuming and the final output is still an untested and undeveloped idea.

If this method of decision making get’s applied to everything, then we get caught in the trap of the “small detail”. I wonder if this is familiar? Someone in the project focuses on a small detail. Out of context of the bigger picture this small detail may be quite important, moreover it may be a big thing to that individual. This sparks discussion and debate. Before you know it hours, days perhaps weeks have gone past thinking about the best course of action for this one little thing. If we remove universal agreement, we allow ourselves to develop and test multiple variants of that small detail and back it up by shared experiences not individual hunches.

What are the benefits of consent decision making?

The point of group decision making is progress not perfection. While discussion and debate can be helpful, it’s important to ensure that diverse perspectives are represented, that means everyone can have a say and put forward an opinion and not get quashed by the loud voices or HIPPOs (highest paid person’s opinion).

Consent places a different emphasis on new ideas. For instance if a proposed idea is presented to the project team and no one can offer any valid objections or propose a counter-idea, then that proposal can go into development, even if some people actually disagree with it.

This approach creates a number of beneficial outcomes:

  • It massively reduces the discussion time of any new proposal as it focuses on progress over perfection.
  • It get’s an idea into development and testing quickly.
  • It allows us to generate and test a diverse set of ideas.

In short this empowers team members into divergent thinking as it unlocks more time to test multiple ideas instead of wasting time discussing whether that idea will work or not.

What does this mean in the Real World?

First of all we need consensus.

Say what!? Wasn’t this article all about consent NOT consensus?

Consensus is actually a very important method at the conception phase of the project, it sets the over arching goals and ensures that everyone is in agreement and committed to the final outcome.

For the remaining phases consent is required. Before we get down to the detail it’s important to note that consent is not automatically acquired, it must be earned. You may work for a reputable agency or a battle-hardened freelancer but you still have to fill your clients with confidence and trust. Confidences in your abilities and your ideas is persuasive and contagious, furthermore has been proven to elicit emotional responses which has a direct impact on the subsequent project experience.

Divergent thinking.

There is a problem or challenge which your team has to overcome. Prior to coming together and discussing it, each member of the team spends 10 minutes or so individually coming up with as many ideas as they can to solve the problem. Each team member then presents their ideas (without interruption) to the group. This enables team members by allowing those who may not be as loud as others a chance to show their ideas, this increases the volume of ideas surfaced and reduces the HIPPO effect.

Objection your Honor.

With the presented ideas, prioritise them into “Will try”, “Won’t try” and “Maybe try”. The “Wills” and “Won’ts” are straight forward, it’s the “Maybes” that are contentious and will probably have differences in opinion. This is the opportunity to object to an idea however, like in court, an objection must be valid against certain criteria. So what’s a valid objection?

An objection is valid if:

  • The proposed idea causes harm to the business.
  • There is data which supports that the idea is harmful in some way.
  • The idea causes immediate danger.
  • The proposed idea directly affects your role.

Empowerment and enthusiasm.

Remember if no one has a valid objection then the idea can be put forward. This once more enables team members by placing trust in them to go and explore that idea rather than lengthy discussions which can leave people deflated and unmotivated.

Focussed discussion.

Discussion is obviously a part of this process however it is far more focused and action orientated. The idea is to quickly identify the ideas which will be developed and spend more time exploring and learning through the experience.

The goal.

The goal of this concept is not to find the “right idea” at the start, as this could be debated for hours, but rather to explore a large number of ideas which allow us to get the ball rolling in the right direction and make faster progress.

​The wrap up

So consensus has it’s place in early phases to help shape the broad goals we’re trying to achieve.

Consent builds an environment of trust and empowerment within individual team members to explore ideas. It allows greater divergent thinking, time saving, action orientated decision making and learning through shared experiences.

This was originally published on my own site.