Consensus is most simply defined as a general agreement. Some definitions may include the phrases “broad agreement” or “unanimous”, but a tempered meaning is the acceptance of an idea. There are very few things in life that have a single right answer. And with such diversity in the world, you’ll almost never end up with a unanimous agreement within a small team, let alone within a large organization. But you can arrive at a consensus.
My three kids intentionally disagree with each other just to express their own agency. Adults do the same, even if unconsciously, to hold power and control. I’m sure you’ve worked with someone who seems to stop every initiative in its tracks, simply because they can or because they are risk averse.
Organizationally, we want to find effective strategies for achieving consensus while balancing leadership and team empowerment. No small task!
Top-Down vs Bottom-Up Drivers
In a hierarchical organization (most companies) there are two essential ways that idea generation can flow. Many choose to have, or otherwise allow, top leadership to drive everything. These individuals often have deep experience and can be successful, but it can also prevent innovation coming from outside their area of expertise. I’ve seen only a few companies where bottom-up idea generation is the norm, where small teams or even individual contributors are running tests, gathering data, and surfacing ideas.
These aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, and both can arrive at competitively advantageous innovation. Creativity and innovation are not easy to predict, and no specific effort is guaranteed to arrive at a ground-breaking idea. With that in mind, I’ve preferred to manage innovation by hedging bets, and putting processes in place to allow for ideas to come from anywhere and to be nurtured until it is decided if the company wishes to pursue.
When considering consensus among the decision makers of the organization, the proper mix is going to be dependent upon the company culture. Some groups will have already proven that they work better one way than the other. It can be very difficult to change that behavior.
Democratic Problems (Voting & Committees)
Many view the term “democratic” as meaning “everyone has an equal vote.” That’s not necessarily what we see in politics, but it is a common view. From what I’ve experienced in business, this type of voting system does not end up with the best results for any decision of substance (though voting on who should cater the next office party is fine). In his book, Principles: Life & Work, Ray Dalio states that his company, Bridgewater, found that you cannot treat all votes as equal, and instead they determine who is most “believable” around the topic at hand.
To combat the issues around voting, many organizations set up committees on specific topics. This too has its pitfalls. You may be familiar with the term “death by committee,” which can refer to either the stifling of ideas by excessive group consideration, or perhaps the disservice toward ideas due to committee members who aren’t properly allocated to the effort – it’s not their main job.
Both voting and committees leave consensus harder to arrive at. Voting will have those in the minority complaining about “everyone else” in an unproductive way, while committees are going to have the “ivory tower” syndrome where the select few make decisions and no one else fully understands their choices.
One of my favorite methods of goal setting is the North Star goal. This is a method where the organization’s leaders set a distant goal that is easy to understand but normally does not have a single implementation or solution in mind. It allows for the company to set a course for multiple departments, each taking action toward it. It gets everyone rowing in the same direction, but is flexible enough to navigate around unplanned obstacles and allow for some failure along the way without jeopardizing the original goal.
Someone must be at the helm. Leadership is there to set that vision and purpose. But that does not mean that all ideas must come from them. In fact, from what I’ve seen, the leaders WANT to be pleasantly surprised by their teams. I had one SVP-level colleague at a previous employer who told me that he doesn’t really have a job other than to show up and ask the right questions. His job was to ensure the teams are thinking through things. He understood that dynamic of oversight and allowing the team to learn and thrive.
Leadership oversight can certainly help with consensus. In one way, it can help the teams know the long-term goals and the vision, to ensure that what they are working on aligns. In another way, a good leader can help ensure that disagreements are handled in a healthy way. They should diffuse any tense situations and shoulder any difficult discussions for the team.
Disagree & Commit, or Debate Until Agreed
It has become common to hear the phrase “disagree and commit” within corporate discussions of conflict management. It is described in detail in the book, Working Backwards, by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. In the book, the authors explain several of the management processes that they were a part of in the early days of Amazon. They were there while the company was quickly growing into what we know it as today. One of those is to ensure that teams are allowed to disagree while a decision is in the process of being made, but that once a decision is made, everyone should commit to it, regardless of their previous opinion. I like how this addresses one common cultural hang-up than can happen – the “I told them this wouldn’t work” smugness of someone who takes pleasure in having been right and likely did nothing to help it succeed.
Notably, however, in 1992, Steve Jobs held a Q&A session with management students at MIT where he was asked how his company, NeXT, resolved conflict (at about 52:50 into the video). His answer starts off saying that he doesn’t like the approach of, “I know you disagree, but please buy into this idea.” He says he hires smart people to tell him what to do, and not for him to tell them what to do. He also mentioned the difference between really important decisions, of which there are relatively few, where the management team needs to get in the same room until they agree.
Whichever camp you are in, this is the crux of the effort toward consensus. NeXT itself may have been brief, but Steve Jobs went on to revitalize Apple upon his return. Both Amazon and Apple are still hallmarks of successful business, so you can’t fault either approach. But what they both have in common is a culture that was committed to how the company manages conflict. If your people, at any level, won’t follow the same rules of engagement, then the teams will struggle.
Diversity in Background, Not Vision
Global companies have recognized the importance of diversity among their teams. You can measure the benefits of building stronger cultures, inclusion of groups and individuals, and ensuring that colleagues are seen, heard, and valued. Innovation thrives when unique perspectives are considered.
Sam Altman, CEO and co-founder of OpenAI, has said that companies want diversity of background but not diversity of vision. If you have people with the same background, you end up with a monoculture which is bad for creativity. However, if you have people with very different beliefs about what the company should be doing, then you end up with problems. He says you want people with different experiences that are working toward the same goal.
Even with people of different backgrounds, consensus can be reached so long as they share the overall vision and direction of the company. They should agree with the North Star goal. And when there are disagreements, they should also know how the company has chosen to handle that via “disagree and commit” or toughing through the debate until an agreement is reached.
The Transparency Factor
I am a firm believer that transparency and honesty are almost always the best form of communication. Any time I’ve seen professionals get furious, it has been due to lack of communication that led to a misunderstanding of expectations. Someone had made assumptions, or someone did not define an agreement thoroughly. Hiding undesirable results can cause justifiable anger too, even leading to termination of employment.
I mentioned Ray Dalio earlier, he’s also well known for his policy of radical transparency. He covered that in a 2017 TED talk as well as in his Principles book. He’s not joking about the word “radical.” His ideas resonate with me, but I have yet to interact with a company that is anywhere near as transparent as the one he built. His group built processes around it, setting up software and algorithms. Some new hires decide to leave the company shortly after starting because they can’t handle the level of transparency they have arrived at.
The worst offenders that I’ve witnessed are internal factions – departments or groups that start to believe that they are somehow separated from the rest of the company. These walled gardens come with an “us versus them” mentality that is very dangerous. They end up losing the willingness to engage with others. Sometimes they end up becoming the “department of no” and others disengage from interacting with them. Consensus then becomes harder and harder to achieve.
Balancing Empowerment & Structure
We still want to arrive at a strategy to achieve consensus while balancing leadership and team empowerment. We want structure that encourages healthy collaboration rather than preventing progress. How can we have the best of both worlds?
There’s wisdom in all the examples above. The key is to set up structure within the company so that everyone knows how they are expected to operate in times of disagreement. It has to become an intentional culture within the organization. Only with the chosen principles being clear and concise, will leadership, management, and individuals all be willing to hold themselves to it. The team collectively has to be willing to say, “here at this company we do it this way.”
It is still a very difficult effort to change an existing culture. My recommendation for established groups is to reflect on what the culture currently does and select options that are most aligned to the majority of situations. Otherwise, you’ll be battling against people who are already comfortable operating another way. How to change an entrenched culture is outside the scope of this post.
UPDATE – Dec. 26, 2023
I wanted to add a couple additional notes after publishing this article. I read a very nice article from Dharmesh Shah, a co-founder of HubSpot, posted on On December, 14, 2023, about their in-progress principle called Debate, Decide, and Unite.
You’ll immediately notice the similarity to Amazon’s “Disagree & Commit”, and he references them directly in the article too. I wanted to share this version as well because of the subtle differences. Debate versus disagree, is a distinction that he called out which aligns a bit better to the Steve Jobs example I shared. And he explicitly states that there should be ONE person to make the final decisions, which is fantastic.
Lastly, I really appreciate his last section that covers when it is OK to revisit a decision — because things change. It reminded me of the book Think Again by Adam Grant. It is a blurry line between making sure that you aren’t constantly second-guessing a decision (better to commit and stick to it) and then also realizing when that decision has run its course and should be reconsidered (don’t grow stale and miss the next opportunity to switch directions).
I hope some of these examples and suggestions help you within your teams. A lot of times the principles are not put in writing and different areas of the company operate on whatever terms their leadership has historically felt comfortable with. Leaving it to chance is like saying, “you get what you get.” You can get lucky, but my preference is to reflect, plan, collaborate, and do things on purpose. How your group arrives at consensus should be intentional, repeatable, and part of the culture of who you are as an organization.
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