Like many decent ideas taken to an extreme, "management by consensus" creates more problems than it solves in many organizations. Perhaps you've spent endless meetings searching for an elusive consensus, only to have someone raise a concern or disagree, and then suddenly find yourself right back where you started.
In many cases, your teams will have a variety of legitimate viewpoints, and in light of imperfect information will want to study a decision further, perform additional analysis, or bring a valid concern to light. If the stakes are high, it can make the need for consensus seem even stronger, as your team may be embarking on a difficult journey that requires commitment from everyone on the team.
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Perhaps your organization has even gone further, using the idea of consensus as an enabler of bad behavior. Making a decision and acting upon it often requires guts and resolve. As leaders, we are usually making decisions without perfect information, and without certainty of outcome. Choosing a path forward ups the ante, as it increases the risk of failure. Hiding behind consensus is the ultimate cover for risk aversion and an inability to make decisions; after all, how could anyone disagree with such a noble goal as fostering team consensus?
Identifying commitment challenges
An inability to successfully make decisions and execute them is one of the most common ailments of modern organizations. While technology has largely helped us gather data, perform analyses, and collaborate, it also allows us to avoid committing to a decision. There's always more data than can be captured, and there's always another better, faster, cheaper technology around the corner that allows us to postpone action.
What many leaders fail to realize is that not making a decision is actually a very real commitment to a course of action. By postponing a decision you're limiting your options and allowing circumstances to force your hand, rather than actively responding to circumstance. In the moment waiting around can seem like exemplary prudence, but done too often or for too long, and you'll be waiting around while the rest of your company or industry passes you by.
Indecision is usually the result of a cultural fear of risk-taking. Making a decision requires a commitment and has the potential for failure. If your organization swiftly and severely punishes failure, you'll very quickly find that its ability to make decisions suffers.
While it's a topic for another article, enabling effective decision making requires a culture where individuals are not severely punished for making a thoughtful, well-informed decision that was properly executed but failed due to circumstances beyond their control.
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Turbocharging decision making: Disagree and commit
In his annual letter to shareholders Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the concept of "disagree and commit" as one of the hallmarks of Amazon's ability to quickly and effectively get things done. Put simply, the idea is that anyone, from the CEO on down, can disagree with a prospective action and air their views; however, they must then "disagree and commit" to execute the path forward to the best of their abilities until new information or changing conditions dictate a new path. Disagree and commit allows each person to register that they have concerns about the direction and put them on the record, while still making them responsible for executing.
I've used this technique often with my own teams and found it highly effective. Key to it being successful is that it's not used as a tool to force everyone to follow the leader's chosen solution. My teams will often overrule the path I'd take, requiring me to register my concerns, and then disagree and fully commit to supporting a plan that I didn't develop. The team more often than not chooses the correct path or revises the plan as new information comes to light, but at the end of the day, we minimize time spent seeking impossible consensus or arguing the nuances of a decision rather than embarking on the journey and making adjustments along the way.
As a leader, the best way to teach your teams this technique is to employ it next time you disagree with your team on an approach. Register your concerns, note that you'll disagree and commit, and then demonstrate full support and commitment to the approach and lead by example.
The most effective organizations generally aren't significantly more gifted, talented, or better funded; rather, they tend to make more decisions and course correct as they go. They'll be well on their way toward a successful outcome even if their path takes a few twists and turns, versus others that never take the first step. Using "disagree and commit" in your own organization is one of the easy steps toward moving in that direction.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.