Consent > Consensus

Don't be like the US Senate.

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl


I have been thinking about the US Senate and how the filibuster is strangling the Democrats’ legislative agenda. The current Senate rule requires 60 votes to end debate on any measure on the floor, which in essence provides the Republican bloc in the Senate a veto over actions the Democrats want to take (excepting bills that can be passed by the Reconciliation process, such as budget-related bills, which require a simple majority of 51 votes). The GOP argues that the Democrats should build a consensus for their bills, and if they can’t that’s how the system is designed. Sorry! Tough luck!

I am struck by a parallel in decision-making in the context of work. Many businesses operate — implicitly or explicitly — around a consensus approach to decision-making, in which anyone in the decision-making group can simply veto some proposed action by objecting to it. Stated more positively, the process is structured around the goal of getting all involved to buy in on the proposed action.

As a result, decision-making in such groups is slow, at the best, and leads to a regression-to-the-mean where only a few, timid ideas that satisfy all participants finally get a green light.

So, many organizations are as sclerotic in their decision-making as the US Senate, which is no great role model.


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Alternatives to consensus are well-known. Authoritarian approaches simply hand decision-making to a king (or equivalent), who may entertain advice from advisors, but retains the final say in all issues. (Note that many organizations rely on unstated authoritarianism, where ‘consensus-building’ is just propaganda for what the leadership really wants to do.)

At the other end of a spectrum of approaches is consent: the decision-making approach that best suits the fast-and-loose, egalitarian style of work needed in emergent organizations.

I’ve been writing about minimum viable work a great deal in recent months, which I have defined like this:

Minimum viable work means operating with the greatest degree of individual autonomy, the lowest degree of managerial overhead, and the highest levels of cooperation without coercion.

Consent-based decision-making is the key to balancing high degrees of autonomy with the cooperative involvement of all those who are going to be affected by some activity.


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Consensus translates into a potentially protracted process, driven by getting everyone in the group to agree to a solution, which generally requires compromise, or coming to a dead-end when no compromise is found. Consensus can be considered this way, as outlined by the folks at Nobl:

Everyone must agree.

Consensus decision making asks everyone in the group to shape the decision until a compromise is reached that reasonably satisfies everyone.

Pros:

  • Satisfies all constituents

  • Fosters strong, united groups

  • Equalizes the distribution of power in a group

  • Constituents leave fully prepared to implement the decision

Cons:

  • Can take forever

  • Nearly impossible for groups with low trust or competing interests

  • Difficulty increases as group grows larger

  • Subject to compromises that may not serve the group well

Consent, on the other hand, is a much faster approach, and best used when decisions are reversible (type 2 or two-way decisions). Again, from Nobl:

No one objects.

Consent means the absence of objections. Similar to consensus, consent invites group participation in the decision making process. But instead of granting each member the power to mold the proposal in pursuit of a compromise, consent urges the group to accept a “good enough” solution. After a formal decision making process, a decision is ratified when there are no meaningful or “paramount” objections.

Pros:

  • Fast and consultative

  • Encourages iterative, “good enough” solutions

  • Doesn’t require agreement

  • Promotes objective debate

Cons:

  • The decision making process can rush teams toward a suboptimal solution

  • The formal process can feel unfamiliar and initially uncomfortable

  • Can ignore team cohesion in the decision-making process

  • Can be harmful if used on wide-impact, long-lasting decisions

Another way to think of the difference between consensus and consent is the difference between tolerance versus preference1.

The most important observation is that the range of what I can tolerate is much greater (in general) than the outcomes that I prefer. This becomes even more illustrative when there are two people involved:

So imagine a situation where I am proposing a two-way decision that will impact a small workgroup and me: what work chat solution should we use on a project, for example. If we operate on a consent basis, members would raise any reasoned and substantive objections to that tool during a process of discussion. This is likely to lead to a ‘safe-to-try’ result, which is then ratified. Note that the objections have to be reasoned and substantive: they are not carte blanche vetos.

What does not happen is a process during which we all argue the pros and cons of every work chat offering on the planet, and where everyone has to agree on the best offering. Instead, people just have to have no unresolved substantive objections.

In effect, basing all decisions on a consensus approach can lead to the dark side of ostensibly egalitarian and democratic operating procedures, where a minority of nay-sayers are empowered to slow down or completely derail change, new ideas, or experiments.

Like the US Senate.

We are blocked at the highest levels of our government because our legislative bodies are designed for consensus, but they are the poster child for ‘groups with low trust or competing interests’. I have no idea how faster and more innovative consent-based decision-making could be employed there, alas.

But within the context of most businesses, consent should be the default, and consensus reserved only for irreversible and critical decisions.


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1

I owe the basis of this chart to Richard Bartlett.