How to Maximize Collaboration and Reach Consensus in Under an Hour

In my last post, I described 5 decision making options leaders can choose, depending on the amount of time allowed and input and buy-in needed.

This post will describe a process a leader can use to help a group reach an efficient consensus decision.

First of all, it’s important to define what’s meant by “consensus”.

Here’s a definition that’s worked for me:
“Consensus is a decision that every member of the group has had input to, understands, and is willing to support.”

Note that consensus does not mean that everyone agrees with the decision 100%. It mean’s they’ve had their say – and have been listened to – and at the end of the day, are committed to supporting the decision. The final decision is owned by the group.

The leader also needs to decide on a “fallback” method in case the group cannot reach true consensus. Otherwise, in theory, if just one person is not willing to support the decision, the meeting can go on forever.

The two most common fallback options are:
1. The group votes, majority rules.
2. The leader decides.

The threat of a fallback is a deterrent – it rarely has to be used, however, having it will motivate a group to give and take in order to reach a consensus.

Here’s a general process to use when making a consensus decision. It’s a way to ensure everyone has a say, generates energy, and can quickly move a group to a decision they can all buy in to and support.

The leader should check for agreement at the beginning and end of each step. Consensus building is a series of small agreements as you scale the mountain – you don’t just leap to one big agreement at the end.

1. Frame the decision.
Agree on what is being decided. Test your decision statement to make sure it’s not too narrow in a way that limits your options. For example, instead of “choose between a Honda Pilot or a Ford Explorer”, the decision might be “choose the best mode of family transportation”.

2. Generate alternatives.
This is the time to brainstorm. Follow the rules of brainstorming (anything goes, don’t evaluate, build on each others ideas, etc…) and write each idea on a flipchart of whiteboard (or a virtual whiteboard if using web conferencing).

3. Clarify alternatives.
Take some time to allow questions for clarification. This is not the time to evaluate an idea – or to agree or disagree – it’s strictly to make sure everyone understands each alternative.

4. Narrow down the choices.
Add up the total number of ideas and divide by 3. So if 30 ideas: 30/3=10. In this case, give each team member 10 sticker dots (can be purchased at any office supply store). Have the group place their stickers on the alternatives they like the most. Make sure you tell this group this IS NOT the decision making process – it is strictly an efficient way to “take the temperature” of the group to see which ideas rise to the top and sink to the bottom. There are many ways to do this, but I usually say one sticker per alternative to keep it simple.

5. Keep and discard.
Start with the alternative with the most votes and ask: “It looks like this one got the most votes – how about if this one stays for now?” If everyone agrees, then circle it. The go to the alternative with no votes, or the least, and ask: “OK, this one didn’t get any votes – can we eliminate it?” If no one objects, draw a line through it. If someone strongly objects – ask why. Give them time to make their case, and then move on to the next.

Although this may sound like a long and tedious process, it actually can go pretty quickly. The group often just decides they’ll go with the alternative with the most votes. A leader can also suggest combining ideas, by asking “So what is it about option A that you like so much? Can we add something to option B to satisfy that need?”

There may be times when it’s appropriate to choose multiple alternatives. In fact, that’s often the case. For problem solving (i.e., “best ways to reduce expenses”, or “best ways to generate revenue”), it’s typical to leave with a list of alternatives.

6. Summarize the decision(s), and decide on who’s going to do what by when.
This is the test of true commitment. Usually when a group reaches a true consensus decision, the energy and commitment is so high people are clamoring to sign up for action items. If all of a sudden the room goes quiet and no one is making eye contact, chances are you missed a step in the consensus building process.

Then, pass out pins, have everybody stick a pin in their finger, and sign their names on the flipcharts in blood (just kidding).

Consensus building is hard work for a leader – it takes a willingness to “roll the dice” and be open to any alternative. Big egos need to be set aside. However, the time and work invested will yield not only higher quality decisions, but implementation will be faster and smoother because everyone will be committed to the outcome.