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Consensus decision making

Consensus decision making is a decision-making process used by some cooperatives.  The consensus process helps groups to develop decisions that all members can live with, by focusing on addressing minority concerns. In contrast, "majority rules" voting overrides minority concerns, without regard for the effect on the group’s long-term unity. The consensus process is based on the assumption that every member of the group has a valid perspective that is crucial to making good decisions. It requires everyone in the group to be committed to common goals that are clearly understood, and to be able to differentiate between their personal preferences and what will help the group achieve its goals.

Consensus is defined by Merriam-Webster as, 1. general agreement and, 2. group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It has its origin in a Latin word meaning literally to feel together.[1]  Consensus decision-making refers to both the threshold for approving a proposal (the consent of all members, as opposed to a majority) and the process for developing, trouble-shooting, and eventually approving a proposal.

Is Consensus For You?

Consensus is not for every group. It is unfamiliar to many people, and requires a high level of trust, understanding, and skills among participants in order to work well. On the other hand, it often produces high-quality decisions, and the effort to make consensus work can pay off when it comes to implementing the decision.

Consensus becomes more challenging in larger groups, so your size should be a consideration in deciding if consensus is right for your group. It is widely believed that consensus is unrealistic for groups with more than a couple dozen participants, but there are some exceptions to this rule.  Exceptions include Country Natural Beef and the Fremont Arts Council (websites below).  It is also worth noting that the Quakers have a long history of practicing consensus in very large groups.

Objectives

As a decision-making process, consensus decision-making aims to be:[2]

  • Agreement Seeking: A consensus decision making process attempts to help participants reach as much agreement as possible.[2]
  • Collaborative: Participants contribute to a shared proposal and shape it into a decision that meets the concerns of all group members as much as possible.[3]
  • Cooperative: Participants in an effective consensus process should strive to reach the best possible decision for the group and all of its members, rather than competing for personal preferences.
  • Egalitarian: All members of a consensus decision-making body should be afforded, as much as possible, equal input into the process. All members have the opportunity to present, and amend proposals.
  • Inclusive: As many stakeholders as possible should be involved in the consensus decision-making process.
  • Participatory: The consensus process should actively solicit the input and participation of all decision-makers.[4]

How Consensus Works

There are many variations on consensus decision-making, some of which are described in the resources listed below. If you are considering using consensus decision-making, you will find a wealth of other information online by using a search engine. This will be very helpful, but keep in mind that some resources are better than others, and different groups will have different needs. The more you read, the more you will be able to discern patterns and determine what will work best for your group.

There is a version of consensus decision-making that is rather different from all others, in that it uses a form of voting, called consensus voting. You can read about this elsewhere on this site in an article called Crowd Wise.

In most variations of consensus, once you reach the decision point there are three possible responses to a proposal:

  1. Consent: expressing general agreement, support for and willingness to abide by the proposal.
  2. Stand-aside: expressing significant concerns or disagreement, along with (perhaps reluctant) willingness for the group to proceed with the proposal.
  3. Block: expressing serious concerns that either the proposal does not align with group values or would cause a catastrophe for the organization.


It is essential not to use a block like you would a “no” vote.  The sentiment attached to voting against a proposal in a voting situation translates to something more akin to standing-aside in a consensus setting. Blocks should only be used in extreme circumstances, in which the proposal may endanger the organization or its participants, or violate the mission of the organization. It is not enough that the proposal violates one’s personal ethics (this might call for a stand aside, but not a block); it must also violate the collective ethics of the group.  However, some groups choose to table or re-work proposals if they are met with multiple stand-asides.  This is referred to a "weak consensus," and is often viewed as inadequate for important decisions.


Much of the work of consensus happens before the meeting begins. You must build a foundation for consensus that allows everyone to understand the proposal and for concerns to be addressed.  This foundation can be created through:

  • Solid proposals, which take into account the group’s history with the issue at hand.
  • Clear communication, especially with those who you know might have concerns.
  • Focused discussion, led by an experienced facilitator who is able to set aside her or his personal concerns about the issue at hand.


Concerns, especially those that might lead to a block, should be asked for and raised early in the discussion. When raising a concern, you should be as specific as possible, and indicate if it is a minor worry or a major problem that would lead you to block the proposal if not addressed. Clear and direct communication enable all participants to work together to amend the proposal or generate alternative solutions if necessary.

Decision Rules

The level of agreement necessary to finalize a decision is known as a decision rule.[5][3] The range of possible decision rules varies within the following range:

  • Full consensus
  • Consensus minus one vote
  • Consensus minus two votes
  • Super majority thresholds (90%, 80%, 75%, two-thirds, and 60% are common).
  • Simple majority
  • Executive committee decides
  • Person-in-charge decides

Some groups require full consensus to approve group decisions. If any participant objects, they can block consensus according to the guidelines described below. Other groups use a consensus process to generate as much agreement as possible, but allow decisions to be finalized with a decision rule that does not require full consensus.

Consensus Blocking, Stand-Asides, and Abstentions

Blocking

Groups that require full consensus empower individual participants to "block" decisions. This provision motivates a group to make sure all members understand and accept a new proposal before it is adopted. Proper guidelines for the use of this option, however, are important. As stated above, participants are typically asked not to block a decision unless it seriously endangers the organization or violates its mission statement.  Some organizations allow members to block proposals if they feel the group does not have the capacity to implement them.  However, it is widely agreed that blocks should never be based solely on individual preferences.

When there is potential for a group decision to be blocked, members are encouraged to collaborate until agreement can be reached. Blocking members are equally responsible for identifying possible amendments or alternative solutions.

Other expressions of dissent

  • 'Stand asi'des may be registered by a group member who has an unresolved concern about a proposal, but is willing to let the motion pass.
  • Abstentions may be registered by participants who feel they are incapable of adequately understanding or participating in the proposal.  Group members may be asked to abstain if they have a personal conflict of interest or (alternatively) will not be affected by the proposal in question.[6][7][8]

Process

There are multiple stepwise models of how to make decisions by consensus. They vary in the amount of detail the steps describe. They also vary depending on how decisions are finalized. The basic model involves:

  • Hearing or collaboratively generating a proposal,
  • Identifying unsatisfied concerns, and then
  • Modifying the proposal to generate as much agreement as possible.

After a concerted attempt at generating full agreement, the group can apply its final decision rule to determine if the existing level of agreement is sufficient to approve a proposal.  Proposals may pass with a certain number of stand-asides, "consensus minus one" (often called modified consensus), a super-majority vote, or another model previously agreed upon by the group. 

Caution on Over-use of Consensus

Not every decision needs to be made by consensus.  If you try to reach consensus on every little decision, you will find that your meetings last a very long time and deal primarily with inconsequential issues. Most organizations choose to delegate smaller decisions to sub-groups or individual members. While some decisions are important enough to warrant a consensus of all members, it is crucial that you not get bogged down in micromanagement. If smaller operational decisions are left to committees or individuals, the membership will have more time to thoroughly discuss and develop solutions to major issues and engage in strategic planning and visioning. 

Spotlighted Discussions

These are spotlighted conversations from this page's Discussion Area.

See Also

External Links

References

This page originally adapted from the Wikipedia page as well as with permission from the Northwest Cooperative Development Center.

  1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consensus
  2. 2.0 2.1 http://www.consensusdecisionmaking.org/
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hartnett, T. (2011). Consensus-Oriented Decision Making. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada:New Society Publishers.
  4. http://www.ic.org/nica/Process/Consensusbasics.htm
  5. Kaner, S. (2011). Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-making. San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.
  6. http://www.frontierus.org/documents/consensus.htm
  7. http://www.nwcdc.coop/Resources/CSS/CSSIntro2Consensus.pdf
  8. http://www.webofoz.org/consensus.shtml<br>fckLRfckLR=== Unanimity versus consent ===fckLRfckLRUnanimity is achieved when the full group consents to a decision. Giving consent does not necessarily mean that the proposal being considered is one’s first choice. Group members can consent to a proposal because they choose to cooperate with the direction of the group, rather than insist on their personal preference. Sometimes the vote on a proposal is framed, “Is this proposal something you can live with?” This relaxed threshold for a yes vote can help make unanimity more easily achievable.  Another method to achieve unanimity is by using a special kind of voting process under which all members have a strategic incentive to agree rather than block.<ref name="SCFC">Heitzig J, Simmons FW (2010). Some Chance For Consensus Soc Choice Welf 35.