US Mission Collaborates with Civil Society - Flickr

“Let’s continue this discussion at next week’s meeting, because we need to take another look at these issues to get everyone’s commitment.” As soon as Bill heard the vice president make this statement, his blood pressure shot up 20 points, because this would be the third time that a decision has been kicked down the road. Perhaps you can empathize with Bill, because you have been in your share of meetings where the same topic continues to be discussed without resolution. If this is the case, you are likely to be in an organization that is committed to making decisions based on consensus. Consensus in this situation refers to unanimity in terms of agreement.

Like any other decision process, there are definite advantages and disadvantages to making decisions by consensus. The biggest advantage to consensus is that all individuals involved in the process leave the meeting committed to the outcome. A key disadvantage is that consensus can require a lot of time in order make a final decision. In its extreme form, repeatedly kicking the decision down the road under the guise of consensus can lead to a less-than-optimal decision being made due to pressure from an impending deadline.

If you work in a culture that is committed to making decisions via consensus, there are ways to make the process more efficient in order to keep your blood pressure in check. Here are some recommendations:

Create a longer runway to work through the consensus process and prevent a looming deadline from impairing the decision

Redefine consensus as something that everyone can live with instead of unconditional unanimity

Try “bounded consensus” as an alternative

  • Allow a fixed amount of time to discuss the pros and cons of suggested ideas
  • Explain that consensus is the objective with the following bullet as a caveat
  • If complete consensus cannot be reached, the leader in the room will weigh all of the options and make a decision using everyone’s input

If a decision has already been made, don’t spend time pretending like consensus is being used to make the decision

  • Focus the time on building commitment to action items regarding the decision

Assign deadlines and clarify any dependencies around action items so that people are not waiting on each other to take next steps (i.e., avoid bottlenecking)

For more information on decision making, see Executive Team Decision Models, Forbes and Fast Company.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: US Mission Collaborates with Civil Society, Flickr)