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Consensus Decision-Making

By Brandi Loveday

Brandi_pamela_amelia_web The Fall 2010 UNYSLA meeting featured Pamela G. Strausser, Senior HR Consultant at Cornell University, inviting attendees to explore consensus decision making via the case study method.  Strangely enough, we all came to the consensus that it is nearly impossible to achieve agreement and satisfaction on the part of everyone involved in a group decision making process.

According to Ms. Strausser, the problem with consensus is that everyone has a different (and personal) definition of what exactly a consensus is.  From our discussion, attendees learned that consensus is a decision that everyone can move forward on and support without the subversion that sometimes happens after a meeting.  You know the kind, when a person says nothing at all during the meeting then, after it adjourns, starts sniping at what was thought to be an agreed upon plan of action.  In order for consensus to happen, 5 key items that need to be addressed.

 

Ms. Strausser’s 5 key points for achieving consensus:
1. Understand the problem – Approach the organizer of the group and clarify the end goal/required results of the group.  Verify a time frame in which results are expected, the format in which results should be presented, to whom the results will be presented.  The more specific the details the more likely the group will produce the required information.
2. Value and respect the views of others – Really listen to the concerns, interests, and expectations of individual members of the group.  This will build rapport and sense of purpose within the group.
3. Commit to an experimental time period – People can become guarded if they feel that once decisions are made, they are set in stone.  Give a trial period so that feedback can further develop the group’s decision.
4. Agree on what is important – Take into consideration all members’ concerns and reach an agreement that everyone can live with.  This may mean compromising – sometimes it takes giving up one thing to achieve another.  Keep the purpose of the group in mind!
5. Commit to the plan with no dissention – When a member of the group agrees to a decision in a meeting or stays quiet during the decision process, approach that person on the side and inquire as to their thoughts – some members may not feel comfortable as a ‘dissenting’ voice.  Don’t assume agreement from silence.  Once the ‘ink is dry’ on the initial plan of action, follow through is key.  The experimental time period will allow members to analyze progress, but until that point, commit to the team and the purpose without destructively criticizing the plan.

 

Case Study: In order to dig into the challenges of consensus building, attendees broke out into small groups to read and discuss a case study involving a newly formed committee of a national library organization.  The challenges included a vague charge from the governing body, diverse interests/expectations of the committee members, and the inability of committee members to meet in person.  Afterwards, everyone regrouped to dissect the case and possible solutions to the challenges.

 

How do we reach a consensus?
First, understanding the problem requires clear and concise communication between the authoritative body that formed the committee and the committee itself.  If a committee is uncertain about its goal, three things can happen: nothing will be accomplished, something will be accomplished but it will not be what the authoritative body was looking for, or by luck, the committee will stumble upon their real purpose and save the day.  Get all the important details at the beginning: format of results, exact purpose, deadlines, audience.

Second, committees are made up of people with their own views, strengths and concerns.  How do we get to know all this?  Introduction at the first meeting are a complete necessity to understand the strengths and concerns of the team’s members.  Ask everyone to introduce themselves with what they hope to gain from the committee, why they joined the committee and what they want to contribute to the work being done.  By including this in the introductions members may feel more comfortable and less like they are being judged for what they are saying.  Listening and valuing the stated opinions and respecting their views from the beginning will build a rapport throughout the committee that will allow real brainstorming about the issues without fear of judgment.  Meetings should be structured from the first meeting forward, consist (optimally) of 4 to 5 people and have a true purpose.  Everyone in attendance likes to know their time is not being wasted. “Don’t have a meeting just to have a meeting.”

With any actionable plan, a time frame must be considered and agreed upon by those working on the project.  The experimental time period gives a group a specified amount of time to try out some of the ideas presented to see if they are feasible to the overall goal of the committee.  This time period also allows the group to acquire various types of data needed to see which data is most appropriate for the charge set by the authoritative body and present a draft of the report to the authoritative body.  Once a time frame and a plan have been agreed upon, everyone must stick to it with no dissension.  Follow through is key on the experimental period as it gives the committee time to review and revamp the approach taken to that point if necessary.

Conclusion: Consensus decision making is not an easy road and must be approached with careful planning and concise communication between all parties involved.  Keep things as transparent as possible through all steps of the process and most likely everyone’s duties on a committee or board will be easier as well as more enjoyable.  Being on a committee need not be a headache or chore.  By taking Ms. Strausser’s advice, future committees may find they enjoy the process and be more willing to repeat the experience in the future when necessary.

 

Brandi Loveday is student pursuing a M.S. in Information Management and Policy at the Information Science Department at SUNY Albany. Brandi completed her B.A. in English via the Distance Learning Department at Empire State College based in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Brandi is originally from Tennessee and has lived in Schenectady, NY for the last 10 years. Four of the last ten years were spent as a Billing Manager at a local chiropractic office. The desire to influence current information policy, specifically privacy policies, led her away from English and into the ALA accredited program at SUNY Albany. Ideally, she wants to work within the federal government or influential corporations to study and affect current information policy. When not in school or working on homework Brandi enjoys movies, reading fantasy fiction, karaoke, playing Rock Band with friends, making mead (specifically melomels), and has just recently taken up learning to play the electric bass.

Brandi

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