Achieving Consensus – It’s so funny, how we don’t talk anymore

Walk into any office and there can usually be found a surplus of opinion and a dearth of consensus and agreement. While the crowd may be wise, as individuals we all know we’re right and damn any fool who disagrees with us.

A quick perusal of the comments section of any, even moderately controversial post, and you’ll see an echo chamber of hundreds of people carefully explaining why each other’s opinion is completely and hopelessly wrong.

The rarest phrase on the internet, is – “That’s a compelling argument, you’ve completely changed my mind”

wrong

In fact, the comments sections of most blogs are now so poisonous that the creators of the content, and the majority of its readers, don’t even bother to “Read below the line”.  Worse, people with interesting and unusual opinions are intimidated into not broadcasting them in the first place.

I’d like to say we can all agree that this is a terrible state of affairs, but as I’ve explained, that’s merely an invitation to be pointed at 100 other blog posts explaining why I’m wrong.

So all we can say is that opinions are cheap, and getting consensus is the hard part.  For a contemporary example – the recent Paris climate change talks are both simultaneously The World’s Greatest Diplomatic Achievement, and A Squalid Retrenchment.

Picking battles and getting permission

I wanted to write this post, not because I have the answer to generating constructive discussion on the internet (I wish).  But because I think teams and individuals (including myself) struggle on the projects we work on every day – not for want of ability but for want of consensus and clarity on what we want to achieve.

Because we all instinctively understand the difficulty and energy required to get a group of people to agree on just about anything – the path of least resistance is to avoid the discussion in the first place. Indeed by having the discussion you expose yourself to the risk that your argument will not carry the day, and you’ll be forced down a road you’d prefer not to be on. So it’s easy to understand why tough decisions and “honest” conversations are avoided and “difficult” people worked around.

The old cliché “Pick your battles” or my personal favourite “Better to ask forgiveness than get permission” are undoubted truisms, but they come with a cost.  By avoiding the battles and not getting the permission, in other words not getting consensus, you can find yourself isolated when you hit the inevitable bumps in the road.  As you’ve neatly provided those excluded from the decision with a convenient scape-goat.  eg – “Well if he’d asked me, of course I’d have told him that was a terrible idea.”

Or as Sun-Tzu put it more pithily:

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” 

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I’m certainly not advocating that every decision needs to be ran past the team, but decisions that will impact more than one or two people or that will have a significant impact on what is delivered,  and when it will be delivered, should be discussed as a group.

Keeping the team and the business involved in the decision making process will cost you time and you’ll inevitably have to slaughter some of your personal sacred cows, to reach an approach everyone can agree on.  However, the prize is worth the pain.

That prize is a clearly articulated plan that both the team and business believes in and much more importantly – are invested in.  Reason being – because you’ve arrived at the plan as a group, the group should want it to succeed as they all have some some skin in the game.

The drive and pressure to “Get stuff done” and the small windows many agile methodologies allow for meetings and planning between sprints means it’s easy to skip getting the team bought into the plan and approach. This is a mistake.

Rather than thinking of getting consensus as an exercise in cost/pain/stress think of it as an extremely valuable deliverable and vital part of leading a team (unfortunately the cost/pain/stress are still there 😉

In the end it’s just all about talking, and remember to heed Cliff’s warning…