Manuel Mehring - Blog

Thoughts on project management and the agile journey.


6th of July

Consensus vs. Consent - or – how to reach group decisions efficiently

Group of wild meerkats in nature

Introduction

Many people who work in companies know the situation: There is a change or simply a problem which has to be coordinated and decided in a group. Although this sounds simple, it often seems impossible to make a meaningful decision even with a moderator. And if a decision is made, the result often feels stale - you can't get rid of the feeling that the decision was made less on the basis of facts than on personal preferences, coalitions and hidden agendas.

Borrowed from the universe of "sociocracy", there is a decision-making process for groups that prepares and implements decisions in a goal-oriented way. Those who regularly moderate group discussions as agile coaches, scrum masters, project managers or managers will find this a very useful tool for decision making. If you even want to go one step further, you will find inspiration on how an agile organization can look in the form of sociocracy. (Further links at the end of the article)

Sociocracy

Sociocracies are a type of organisation in which more decision-making power is transferred to the employees/participants. It thus stands in contrast to autocracy, in which the power of decision lies with a single person. (e.g. the superior/manager)

This is often expressed in sentences like "I can't decide that" or " This must be decided by person XY, not by us". Often these structures are perceived as paralyzing, since individuals are hardly allowed to take responsibility, since they are often unable to make decisions. (Not as a person per se, but "incapacitated" by the system.)

Similar to agile methods (e.g. Scrum/Lean), sociocratic models are based on the assumption that companies are more successful when the skills of all members are brought to bear, rather than hoping that managers can make the best decisions in all respects. (and they also have the time to actually make all these decisions)

Consensus vs. Consent

The distinction between consensus and consent is at the core of the sociocratic organisational form.

Consensus means: We are all of the same opinion.

Consent means no one has an objection.

At first glance it may sound very similar, but one quickly notices the significant difference, which is tolerance. The amount of things you agree to is always smaller than the amount of things you are willing to tolerate. For example, if I don't like fish, I wouldn't agree with a decision that there is fish to eat (No Consensus) - but I could tolerate it if it is eaten at a celebration, because organizationally not everyone can be considered (No Objections = Consent). However, a food allergy would be an objection that lies outside my tolerance limit.

In practice

Based on this insight, sociocratic forms of organisation provide guidelines on how to implement this decision-making methodology in groups:

The prerequisite for this is always that there is a moderator who carries out this process in a structured manner and ideally explains what is important at each step.

Step 1: Description of the proposal

The person who submitted the proposal introduces it to the group. (e.g. by reading it aloud) - or he/she makes the proposal available to all participants before the meeting. The focus here is on a clear exchange of information to avoid misunderstandings. (We all know: Misunderstandings and different levels of information lead to lengthy discussions and possibly wrong decisions!)

Step 2: Clarifying questions

This is to ensure that all participants are on the same page and that all questions are answered. In turn, the moderator asks whether there are any clarifying questions. This ensures that everyone had the opportunity to speak. It is important here that there are no discussions, but only clarifying questions. I.e. the question "I did not understand on which date the new timetable should be introduced" is allowed - but not "You do not need the new timetables, do you? (Has to be moderated by moderator)

Step 3: Consent

In turn, the participants are now asked whether there are objections or whether they consent.

Step 4: Objections or Consent

If there are no objections, the decision is reached and can be announced and recorded. If there are any objections, they must be resolved one after the other. It is important that objections are something positive, which should ideally be used to improve the proposal. It is also important that objections can only be made on an objective basis. If someone "only has a bad feeling", the moderator must find out together with the group whether there are concrete arguments that can be incorporated into the proposal, or whether they are only preferences or other emotions that are not based on facts. Detailed examples of how to deal with objections in meetings based on "consent" can be found here (starting on page 11), as this would go beyond the scope of the article.

Summary

In my experience consent is an excellent method to make important decisions efficiently in groups. The process ensures that everyone is on the same page, that only factual objections are allowed and that these are then used to improve the proposal. At the same time, everyone has the opportunity to express their views, which ensures that everyone ultimately supports and commits to the decision.

In addition to all these advantages, there are, however, two points that must be kept in mind:

1. If a company is autocratically organised (like most large companies today), this model is unfamiliar and novel and therefore needs to be introduced and accepted by those involved. So if you only "borrow" this model, remember that others have to get used to it first.

2. At the same time, the same applies in sociocratic structures as in autocratic ones: without a defined goal, no goal-oriented discussion can be conducted. It must be clear which goal the group is pursuing. Finally, it is not possible to assess whether an objection endangers the common goals (valid objection) or not (invalid objection). If the goal is not clear, it is advisable to define it at the beginning of the discussion.

 

I hope this article could inspire you to try new methods (or even organizational forms) to make your company more effective.If you would like to learn more about sociocracy, feel free to browse through the links below.

 

General information, introductory videos and articles on sociocracy. Link

Decision making in groups. (Dealing with objections from page 11) Link

Book recommendation: Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations: Link