Consensus decision making

Posted on November 8, 2011

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Consensus decision making is a way groups try and make decisions that everyone is happen with. There are many critics but here’s why, once you have gotten over how strange it looks, consensus could be worth a try.

Consensus decision making is a technique used by many organisations, whether it be activists, community groups or businesses to make decisions in a non hierarchical way.

Seeds For Change train grassroots groups in techniques such as consensus. They have a good explanation of it on their website:

“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.”

During meetings groups communicate using hand signals which sometimes puts people off as they don’t want meetings to resemble a ‘jazzercise class’. But they can be less obtrusive to proceedings.

Consensus in action

Consensus aims for decisions the whole group can work with

Many people feel there is a problem with making group decisions using voting as the people who vote for the loosing decision may feel like their opinions don’t have an affect on the future of the group which can lead to dwindling numbers or tension within the group.

Being as non hierarchical as possible is useful for groups where one or two people feel that they end up doing all the work. Everyone in the group has ownership over decisions made and is more likely to put the groundwork into main them happen.

Hungry Planet is a food co-operative with a shop and café on Clifton Street in Splott. They make all their decisions using consensus. Andy Langley is a co-op member and had a chat with me about why they use it: “Because we’re all directors it doesn’t work to have some kind of hierarchical system during meetings. If one of us isn’t happy then the whole business doesn’t work very well.”

Hand signals

  •  I agree – hands waving upwards…think jazz hands.
  • I disagree – the same but downwards. People sometimes don’t use this to avoid negativity.
  • Raise one finger to make a point
  • Raise two fingers to make a direct point to the last one.

People can stand aside from decisions if they have no feelings on it or disagree but not enough to stop the proposal happening. There are also blocks if a person disagrees with the proposal so much that they won’t be able to continue being a part of things if it goes ahead. If this happens then the group needs to rethink the proposal to try and reach consensus.

Meetings normally have a facilitator, which ideally rotates around the group and is as neutral as possible. The facilitator helps to keep abuse of direct points and blocks in check.

Occupy Wall Street and other occupy movements have been using consensus.

Why not use consensus?

Reaching a decision that everyone in the group can move forward with can take a long time but many people argue that it is worth it to have a sustainable and healthy group.

It can be hard to get around blocks. Andy says this is one of the things Hungry Planet has had a problem with. “If someone doesn’t want something to happen and block it and it’s kind of like going back to square one and you end up with a situation where someone doesn’t want something and someone does. For example smoking or non smoking in the court yard for customers; some people say yes they want people to be able to smoke and some people say no and there isn’t really many ways out of that.”

Finding the right facilitator is important and sometimes difficult, especially one that can be neutral and actively listen for areas of compromise.

Andy says many potential problems with consensus can be worked around with the right attitude. “If you come to a meeting saying ‘I have an idea and I want everyone else to agree with me’ then it’s not going to work. It’s more about realizing you’re a part of a wider group and your input mixes with everyone else’s input and then it forms an idea.”

Develop the technique

Most groups find they modify consensus techniques to suit the group. Andy says Hungry Planet have developed their own system to suit running their business. “Normally if not everyone was present you wouldn’t feel empowered to make decisions but we have a rule that whoever is at the meeting makes the decisions regardless of who’s not there and we’ve had to make rules about not speaking for other people, so we have had to modify it but that’s the beauty of it.”

Overall Andy sums up why many groups decide to stick with consensus: “We wouldn’t be able to make effective decisions that we all felt we were a part of if we didn’t use consensus.”

In the interests of balance, Libcom.org have a great post with an analysis of why consensus may not work.

Have you ever used consensus in your group? Would you recommend it to others? Comments welcome below…

Picture thanks to K.Kendall under Creative Commons

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