How to use Consensus Decision-Making for Project Management
Recent research suggests that we make around 35,000 decisions every day, ranging from the mundane (what to have for breakfast) through to potentially life-altering situations (accepting the offer of a new role).
Add individual experiences and biases, time constraints, pressure from various sources and many other variables to the mix, and it is little wonder that we suffer from decision fatigue!
Get more tips on making decisions, leadership, and time management in our free handbook, Collaborative Project Management
However, we cannot avoid making decisions, especially when delivering collaborative projects.
Effective project management relies upon individuals and teams making informed decisions on a regular basis.
Which project should we start next and why? What are the requirements for this project? How should the team manage resources? How often will the team meet to discuss progress? Who is responsible for liaising with stakeholders?
As a project manager, you also need to decide how you will include the team in decision-making, and how you will manage conflicting opinions.
Consensus decision making – the idea that each person will support the implementation of the decision, regardless of whether or not he/she agrees with the decision – is a collaborative approach that overcomes many of these challenges. In this post, I will outline the steps and skills required for consensus decision-making in project teams.
Types of Decisions
A decision is defined ‘as a course of action purposely chosen from a set of alternatives to achieve organizational or managerial objectives or goal’. Decision making is the method of selecting this course from two or more possibilities. It is a continuous and dynamic process which should propel an organization forward.
Decisions may be categorized in three ways:
- Authority: These decisions depend on the power or influence of an individual or small group. This approach may be needed in situations that require a quick resolution. The quality of the decision depends on one individual or a small group, which could prove problematic.
- Majority: In this instance, decisions are made based on the preferences of the majority. Whilst this approach strives for balance and fairness, 49% of those involved in the decision lose out, which can lead to resentment and resistance.
- Consensus: Consensus decision-making ensures that all input and ideas from a group or team are considered until a final decision that is acceptable to all emerges. Agreed solutions are often innovative and creative, and more likely to be successful as everyone has helped to shape the outcome. The project manager is no longer solely responsible for the decision and its consequences – it is owned by the team. This approach relies heavily on respectful dialogue and open-mindedness but may become time-consuming with larger groups or difficult decisions.
With a long tradition dating back to early Native American societies, consensus decision-making has made its way from various political movements into government entities and organizations such as Mitsubishi in recent years. By applying this approach, the company experienced five consecutive record years of profits, increased revenue by 94 %, and established all-time sales and market share records.
Consensus decision-making is useful when dealing with a complex problem requiring the input of multiple stakeholders; if individuals are willing to participate and are empowered to make decisions, and when a creative solution is needed. The method overcomes individual biases and preferences which can limit decision making whilst also enabling teams to collaborate in an effective way.
The 6 Stages of Consensus Decision-Making
Consensus decision-making typically follows six steps.
1. Introduce the issue: Start the meeting by explaining what the issue is and what decision is required.
2. Explore the issue: At this stage, you want to gather all inputs and ideas without delving into one suggestion in detail. Ask for some initial feedback to kick-start the conversation and use techniques such as brainstorms to drive the discussion.
3. Identify common proposals: Summarise the discussion so far, highlighting any areas of agreement and disagreement. Next, start building a solution from points of agreement. As you work with the group, try to combine ideas to resolve any disagreements or points of contention. Remember: the purpose of consensus decision-making is to reach a solution that everyone agrees to support.
4. Discuss and refine the proposal: Check if the team have any concerns about the proposal and work through potential solutions. Depending on the scope and complexity of the decision, the team may need a few days to consider the proposal before providing feedback.
5. Test for agreement: Make sure that everyone understands the proposal and check for any objections or reservations. Ideally, potential issues should have been identified and addressed earlier in the process. The consensus decision-making process offers three ways to express disagreement:
- Declaring reservations:‘’I still have problems with the proposal, but I’ll go along with it’’. The relevant individual is willing to accept the proposal but wishes to register some concerns. They are likely to help implement the idea once their dissent is acknowledged.
- Standing aside:‘’I can’t support this proposal because… but I don’t want to stop the group, so I’ll let the decision happen without me and I won’t be part of implementing it’’. A team member may stand aside as they disagree with the proposal or they not have the time to support the solution.
- Blocking:“I have a fundamental disagreement with the core of the proposal that cannot be resolved. We need to look for a new proposal”. A block arises due to fundamental objection and will prevent the acceptance of a proposal. The team can either accept the block and look for another proposal or try to overcome the objection.
6. Implement the decision: Once the proposal is agreed, assign tasks and deadlines to complete the work.
Conditions for Consensus Decision-Making
Certain conditions are needed for consensus decision-making:
- Common Goal: Everyone needs to share a common goal and commit to achieving the desired outcome. Invest time in defining this shared goal to avoid conflict later on.
- Commitment to Reach Consensus: Each individual needs to share their opinion, listen, and remain open to new ideas or directions. Whilst value is placed on individual ideas, the overall success of the group is more important.
- Active Listening: Listen to the opinions of others carefully and without interruption.
- Trust and Openness: The group must trust that no-one will manipulate the process for their own agenda. Creating a team environment based on companionship, collaboration, respectful discussion, and a proactive attitude is critical.
- Clear Process: Establish and follow common guidelines.
- Participation: The process will only work if those involved are engaged, share their opinions, and work together to find a solution.
- Good Facilitation: Depending on the size of the group, you may wish to appoint a facilitator to run the meeting.
Consensus Decision-Making: Tips
I am sure you have attended meetings during which much discussion took place without progress or agreement on next steps. Quite often, meetings are derailed as everyone agrees with a speaker and explains why they agree!
Non-verbal communication methods such as hand signals are an easy and practical way to express an opinion without interrupting the conversation. Hand signals also help facilitators to gauge the mood of the group and allow shy team members to contribute. The BrightWork team recently used hand signals Here are a few hand signals to consider when using consensus decision-making:
In her free time, she enjoys a challenging session at the gym, tucking into a good book, and walking the beautiful Galway coastline with her dog.