In psychology, decision-making is regarded as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities.
Human performance with regard to decisions has been the subject of active research from several perspectives:
Psychological: examining individual decisions in the context of a set of needs, preferences and values the individual has or seeks.
Cognitive: the decision-making process regarded as a continuous process integrated in the interaction with the
Normative: the analysis of individual decisions concerned with the logic of decision-making, or communicative rationality, and the invariant choice it leads to.
Decision-making techniques can be separated into two broad categories:
- Group decision-making techniques and individual decision-making techniques.
- Individual decision-making techniques can also often be applied by a group.
Consensus decision-making is a group decision-making process in which group members develop, and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole. Consensus may be defined professionally as an acceptable resolution, one that can be supported, even if not the “favourite” of each individual. It is a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Instead of simply voting for an item and having the majority of the group getting their way, a group using consensus is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports, or at least can live with. The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesised to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not only working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth of community and trust.
Giving consent does not necessarily mean that the proposal being considered is one’s first choice. Group members can vote their consent to a proposal because they choose to cooperate with the direction of the group, rather than insist on their personal preference. Sometimes the vote on a proposal is framed, “Is this proposal something you can live with?” This relaxed threshold for a yes vote can achieve full consent. This full consent, however, does not mean that everyone is in full agreement. Consent must be ‘genuine and cannot be obtained by force, duress or fraud. The values of consensus are also not realized if “consent” is given because participants are frustrated with the process and wanting to move on.
It furthermore paved way to a system of governance using consent decision making and an organisational structure based on cybernetic principles, i.e. a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities.. It was called Sociocracy.
Sociocracy makes a distinction between “consent” and “consensus” in order to emphasize that circle decisions are not expected to produce “a consensus”. It doesn’t mean agreement or solidarity. In sociocracy consent is defined as “no objections,” and objections are based on one’s ability to work toward the aims of the organisation.
Sociocratisch Centrum co-founder Reijmer has summarised the difference as follows: “By consensus, I must convince you that I am in the right; by consent, you ask whether you can live with the decision.”
By now, you must have had a pretty decent understanding on the clarity that consensus decision making can provide us and the advantages of it in a small company or a startup where a few people have to sit-tight in a room and decide over what business model they should go with.
Let’s go over a model from the emergence of a startup:
- Introduce and clarify the issue to be decided.
- Explore the issue with your group and look for ideas amongst peers or partners or close friends.
- Look for emerging proposal. Sometimes this phase also results in a completely different idea than what was to be decided at all, which is turn deviates a startup from one business model to the next also known as pivot of idea.
- Discuss, clarify and amend your proposal.
- Test for agreements. Check for blocks, reservations, resolve them if needed and then it’s all good to proceed.
- Finally, implement the decision.
However, consensus decision making process can be sometimes slower and we are in a cut throat world where multiple issues require our quick attention. In quick consensus we are cutting short the discussion part and paring it down to just one workable proposal with amendments. This is because you are aiming to make the best decision in the time you have. However, this model of decision making needs lots of practice in advance.
If you want to use this process, you’ll need to discuss in advance the situations when you’ll use it, and take time to explore the issues involved. That way you’ll already know what people’s concerns and reactions might be when confronted with the situation. In effect, this is like having the discussion stage of the consensus process in advance, which will allow you to jump straight to the proposal stage in an urgent situation.
We have by now come across multiple models to facilitate consensus decision making in small team or group. But what larger groups? Do we fall back to our democracy system and rely on voting? Well, not really. It’s more challenging to get an unanimous decision in such large group but nonetheless if and when achieved is inspiring in it’s own self.
The six steps for reaching consensus are the same as for small groups, but some steps may happen with everyone together and other steps may happen in small groups to enable in-depth discussion and participation.
- Delegation: Avoiding micro-management is the key while delegating decisions, where the whole group decides in fine detail what needs to be done.
- Large plenaries: The whole group comes together in one place, can be used to share information, to make proposals and for final decision making.
- Working in small groups: People will be much more comfortable talking openly in a small group of 6-15 people. Working in small groups and teams also saves time. In every organisation the teams are formed for the same reason.
- The spokes-council: Obviously after all that, given the huge size of group, someone has to sit and pass on the judgement and decide over convincing a team to another and make everyone reach one decision.
Consensus is about co-operating to find solutions and not competing. An extremely effective decision making process which has advantages beyond expectations and I personally feel every organisation should adhere part of it or completely to it.