What is Consensus?

We can get ourselves in trouble if we are not clear on what we mean.


Came across this piece on Forbes online about the evils of consensus.

Mike Myatt, the author, makes several really important observations about how to work effectively in groups: aligned vision and expectations, clear roles, sufficient resources, precision in execution, among others.

And then he goes on to malign the notion of “consensus” by equating it with “equality” and “groupthink”.

Where do people get these ideas?

Consensus is not the insidious killer Myatt suggests.  The problem is that he misunderstands and misapplies the idea.  If you are in a situation where you are operating as if consensus is the same thing as equality and that it leads to groupthink, you need to stop what you’re doing and call me.

To begin, consensus is not something that applies in all circumstances, as Myatt implies is the norm in many groups.  Further, a consensus decision is not something “we all can live with” in the sense that we’ve just rolled over out of fatigue or as a result of being barraged by the most vocally powerful person in the team.

Consensus is emphatically not muddling toward a watered down middle.  That is political compromise, a dramatically different animal.

Just because you think you are in a “team”, consensus decision making is not automatically called for.  As Myatt and several of is commenters point out, authority and skill differentiation are really, really important aspects of high-functioning work groups.

Consensus is just one of a host of decision making mechanisms that groups have at their disposal.  It should never be the default mode.  It is too time consuming for that.

However, when you need the total commitment of everyone on the team, when the stakes are that high, that’s when you need to invest the time, energy, and personal and political capital to reach consensus.  

A consensus decision is one we’ve sweated over.  One in which we all feel our points of view have been heard, and in hearing it all, we collectively recognize that in the name of what we are trying to accomplish, some ideas just naturally float to the top.

Sometimes, though, by putting everything out there, we can also reach a synthesis that is stronger than any of the individual ideas that were originally offered.

If that is what your circumstances require, if that’s the kind of innovation you think your business needs, then seek consensus.  Real consensus.  

Otherwise, do something else.