Consensus: a Decision Making Process

Humans are social animals. We live, work, and play in groups. Sure, there are those of us (myself included) who prefer long stretches of solitude, but even then no person is an island. When we’ve joined with other people in a group we need to be able to look to the past and look to the future and move forward. We need to be able to make decisions.

Some decisions are made by a group, discussed and agreed to through some process. The decisions may affect the group as a whole, or maybe the decisions affect everyone in the group individually. Consensus is a group process of discussion that is oriented toward making a decision. That is different than an accounting, or vote-tallying, procedure.

I’m part of a group of woodworkers at Victoria Makerspace. We meet once a month to discuss tool purchases, repairs, and how to spend money. Recently, a member proposed a process called “Consent agenda.” This process expects members to discuss items ahead of the meeting and present a decision that has been fully fleshed out. The discussion takes place on an internet chat group.

This process takes the discuss, the meat of the consensus process out of the meeting. Whether that is a good thing is a discussion for another day. There are benefits and disadvantages.

Variations

  • value-based — my favourite any block to consensus is rooted in a group value
  • silent ascent — after a proposal is articulated, and only if there is silence for a predetermined period of time is the proposal adopted
  • action-based — given a proposal for which there are no objections, consensus is only reached if someone acts on the decision
  • abstain (stand aside, Caution, or Yellow) — has an opinion on the matter, but doesn’t want to block an agreement going forward, and also does n’t want to support it; or has no opinion on the matter
  • cards numbered 1 to 5: not the best name, but it gets the point across. Five is wholeheartedly support, and 1 is strongly oppose.

A Few Details

Value-based was appropriate for this group because there was such a wide variety of people in attendance at these weekly meetings, and it wasn’t always the same people every week.

Silent Ascent: This was used in a tight knit group with a long shared history. A residential group making decisions that everyone literally “had to live with:” housing clusters around the a very nice lake.

We didn’t need the structure that Value-based gives because of the closeness and history of the group.

Action-based: We were physically building a community infrastructure. The same people lived, worked, and eat together for a substantial period of time.

There were lots of tasks that needed to be completed. The first step was an agreement between ourselves that we wanted a kitchen counter in this location. The next step was actually building it.

If it didn’t get built, it was a very good idea, but not good enough to motivate someone to put in their time. It’s not like anyone just sat around: there were plenty of other things to do.

Abstain: More of a tabulation method than the previous three. This gave a person the option of stating an objection without blocking the process going forward. The objection would be noted in the meeting minutes.

Often times a person can be satisfied with being genuinely heard. Recording, not only the objection, but the reason for the objection is helpful when looking back on the decision from some day in the future.

1–5 Cards: I think these might be fairly common. I’ve seen the use of at least three of them fairly frequently: green, yellow, and red. I like the added detail that five options give:

  • 5 — completely support the proposal
  • 4 — strongly support it and wants it to move forward
  • 3 — proposal needs more discussion
  • 2 — generally opposed, but open to more discussion
  • 1 — strongly opposed, will block the proposal moving forward

Fleshing out ‘yellow’ with three options is important. Requesting more discussion without being opposed to is an important voice. However, when the group is large (~100+) and we want to get a sense of the room, then looking at a sea of green, yellow, and red is easier.

Keys Points

The top skills required of any facilitator, especially using consensus, is to give immediate feedback to the group and to individual participants. I like to do this by repeating what a speaker has said and asking them if I heard them correctly. Sometimes that exchange allows them to rethink and more eloquently express their thoughts. I’ll also address the group and comment on what I’ve heard so far, and ask if anyone wants to speak to a point that hasn’t been addressed yet. I’ll go more fully into how to facilitate a decision-oriented meeting suing consensus in another post.

The quality of the facilitator (whether consensus or some voting methodology) is a greater indicator of success than the actual methodology chosen.

Comparisons

I’ll finish with a brief comparison to Robert’s Rules of Order. Many people will say they don’t have time for consensus. They just want to make decisions. That is an inaccurate perception of how decision making processes work

The US Senate has filibustered for 57 days before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In thirty years of facilitating consensus decision making processes, I’ve heard heard of anything consensus based meeting even coming close to that obstruction.

There is much better group cohesion around a decision that has 100% of the group backing the decision than 51% back it.

I’ve heard the complaint that with a ‘block’ the group will never pass anything and nothing will ever be accomplished. I’ve never experienced that in any consensus using group. However, we don’t have to look very far to find Robert’s Rules of order being used in a very obstructionist manner: US Sen. Mitch McConnell claims credit at 0:20.

When has your anxiety been relieved by someone genuinely listen to what you had to say?

Climate scientist with a formal background in mathematics education, making climate science accessible to non-scientists through board game design.