Here’s Why You Should Abandon “Decision By Consensus.”

Posted on the 01 January 2016 by Rwilner

Decision by consensus is a cultural thing. It’s ingrained in the DNA of the United States.  It’s the basis of democracy.

The idea is that people collectively know what’s best for themselves.  If 8 people out of 10 thing something should happen, it probably should.

It can work in business. But it often doesn’t.

Why does it fail?

…and what should you do instead?


Below is a situation from my recent experience. I mention this as an example. This has happened dozens of times to me. If you have ever run a workshop, or participated in one, or gone to an “offsite,” this will sound familiar.

Please bear with me as I give some context:

I run a global business process for a big company. “Run” means I’m responsible for documenting it, running things through it, measuring it, reporting on it, improving it.

The process It’s distributed over many physical locations in multiple countries. We have local people to run the process too. All told, there are 20 of us or so.

The process works.  But we need to tweak it, all the time. That’s because the business is changing all the time.

So about twice a year we get together for a few days.  We talk about how the business has changed, and how we need to change our process to better serve the business.

Except I try to make it about more than talking. I try and make it about actually fixing things.

Report needs to be updated? Let’s design it (and build it).

Docs need to be changed? Let’s.divide up the work and do it, and then let everyone know.

Does the process itself need to be fixed? Let’s fix it, update training, schedule the sessions and if we can, deliver them.


Ok, makes sense so far.

Except…(stay with me)

The process is run at eight sights in three countries, in addition to being run at the central function.

We all have different issues.  Different customers.  Different stakeholders. Different agendas.  Different problems.

How should we decide what to talk about?

How would you decide?


Your first reaction might be something like this:

  • Collect a list of things to work on
  • Send them out to the group
  • Have everyone vote
  • Give the VPs two votes (or three, or ten)
  • Pick the things that have the most votes.

Sounds logical. This was my approach.

It’s wrong.

It’s wrong for four reasons.

Well, maybe there are ten reasons. But here are four.

  1. You are shifting work from you to your stakeholders. This is bad 100% of the time.  When there are fifty thousand people, you need a voting system.  There’s no other way to get voices represented.  When there are 20 people, or even 200 people, asking people to vote is lazy. Instead of having conversations with each stakeholder to establish understanding, you shift the burden of developing the understanding completely to your stakeholders.  Is their understanding correct before they cast their vote? (hint: it’s probably not.)
  2. You don’t know how to get good votes. When you build a vote “ballot,” you are making a survey. Making a survey is subject to all kinds of bias.  Bias is an insidious thing that obscures the truth. Survey design is a discipline. It’s an industry. I have no idea how to design out bias, or how to design a good survey.  Do you?
  3. Who’s agenda is this anyway? When people vote, they push their agenda. If their agenda and yours are the same, that’s fine. Are they? How do you know? Its fine and healthy for people to push multiple (multiple = competing) agendas. But your conference is about your subject.  Your sponsor is expecting results around that subject.
  4. Disappointment. I didn’t get what I voted for. Why would I spend 3 days in a conference room talking about something I didn’t vote for?

So by asking people to vote, you have made people do extra work that adds no value, and you will have a partially disengaged group working on problems that they may not think are important.



Ok. Voting is bad.

So what do you do instead?

The answer to that question is the same as the answer most questions in life:  Do some work.

Your goal is to have peoples’ voices represented.  What’s the best way to have someone’s voice represented?

Talk to them. Listen to their actual voice.

When a doctor is making a diagnosis, she consults experts.  She seeks input.  But ultimately, SHE makes the call.  

She doesn’t put out the 5 most likely diagnoses to a group of people for a vote.  And that’s why you’re paying that doctor — because they are best person to make that call.  You trust that person to get the input, look at the evidence, synthesize it, and make a call.

Similarly: you’re the subject matter expert for your function at work.  Of course you need input, and help, and advice.  But you also need to make the call, and you need to be held accountable for it.  That’s why your boss hired you.  That’s what your organization is depending on you to do.

By getting input from individuals and deciding, you:

  • Shift the work from your stakeholders back to yourself by having direct conversations instead of making people read a survey email (and five reminder emails).
  • Get useful feedback by avoiding survey bias.
  • Hear first-hand what peoples’ agendas are…they are not veiled or buried within a vote.
  • Avoid disappointment because you’re not making people work on something they didn’t choose to work on…you’re having them own the decision to work on something with you, because their input guided your own choice.

So the next time you convene a meeting — don’t outsource the work of building the agenda to a vote.  Do the legwork. Talk to the people responsible for solving the problems you’re enlisting their help to solve.

In other words: don’t seek to build consensus.  Instead: build understanding.


If you liked this, click here and I will send you other things I write.  (I can’t promise they will be good things, but I will do my best.)  
I wrote some other things too.  You might like them:
I am in the problem solving business. Are you?
Here’s Why You Should Work at a 3 Person Company (Startup, or not).
I’m Flexing My “Idea Muscle” Right Now.

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