How to build consensus

Why consensus is not the same as design by committee



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Article Author John Willcox

John Willcox is Fairisle Consulting’s Lead Consultant

It’s important that everyone on a team has a shared understanding of objectives.  Reality, however is often very different from this ideal. For example, a team may not spend enough time exploring options and agreeing on a direction. Or one voice loudly proclaims ‘how it’s going to be’, to the exclusion of everyone else. This is sometimes called the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion or HiPPO effect.

Common problems

We find that with these issues – and many other common problems encountered in business change – one simple rule applies. When a team responsible for delivering change takes the time to build a genuine consensus, the change is more likely to be effective. And also take place more efficiently.

When we talk about ‘consensus’ though we don’t mean design by committee, leading to the least objectionable solution to the problem. This approach avoids the issue altogether.   Instead, we mean something a little more rigorous.

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Fundamental question

  • First ask ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’  It’s surprising how often individual team members have divergent understandings of a seemingly shared problem. Getting them to consider this fundamental question often leads to new insights and shared understanding
  • Next, explore openly the possible solutions to the problem you are trying to solve. Give everybody in the team the chance to say what they think.   There are no ‘silly questions’ or ‘flights of fancy’, although some suggestions may be more feasible than others. You might be surprised how quickly a common solution that genuinely meets most requirements emerges.
  • Finally, accept the need to compromise.  This is because you are never going to find the perfect solution. We are usually dealing with resource issues, market conditions and other constraints. So agree to some quality criteria and look at each solution realistically.   Avoid the temptation to choose the solution which happens to be the most popular (or the cheapest).

Image of two similar but differently coloured hats illustrating the Fairisle article How to disagree brilliantly


How to disagree brilliantly


A good foundation

Following the steps above is going to provoke disagreement in your team. But if the disagreement is honest the resulting agreement is more likely to be made on a good foundation. Nothing is swept under the carpet, no cracks are papered over. As Mahatma Ghandi is quoted as saying “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress”.

You don’t get consensus by making someone agree with you. Maybe even trying to persuade someone of the merits of your argument is not helpful.

Moving things forward

The origin of the word ‘consensus’ is the Latin consentire or ‘feel together’. Consensus happens when every member of the team has the space to arrive at a position of their own accord. They have looked at the evidence. Through discussion, debate and thinking things through, each member of the team can test a proposal and judge how effective it will be in moving things forward.

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