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Reaching Consensus in Group Problem Solving

All forms of Cooperatives and collectives can often run into trouble when trying to make tough decisions. This process of reaching a decision can sometimes become divisive and cause problems for co-ops, occasionally creating divisive and long-term negative group dynamics.

In any co-op, it is vitally important to facilitate positively structured processes for decision making in order to A) take the most suitable action, B) make sure every appropriate person's voice is heard, and C) the decision is reached in a truly democratic fashion. Even for co-ops that use Majority-based decision making, attempting to reach Consensus - when possible - is the best approach. Majority-based decision implies that not everyone is comfortable or happy with the outcome, while striving to reach consensus leaves the whole group with a decision they are comfortable voting for.

Below are tools for reaching consensus in group problem solving situations.

General Problem Solving Steps

Problems are best solved in co-ops through the following general steps:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Identify the cause(s) of the problem
  3. Generate and select a solution that addresses the cause(s)
  4. Create a plan for implementing the solution

Agreeing to a Structured Process

What we have difficulty with is the give and take involved in reaching agreement with others who have differing opinions about the outcome of each problem solving step. Therefore, before attempting to take on a difficult problem in the co-op, the group should agree upon a structured process to facilitate their discussion and process. Agreeing to conform to a structured process allows us to:

  1. Respect each other’s opinions
  2. Quickly generate a lot of information
  3. Quickly sift through to identify those ideas, which best suit the group as a whole

Solving Problems in Groups through Consensus

In groups, when attempting to reach consensus, it is best to follow these steps:

  1. Reaching consensus on the problem
  2. Reaching consensus on the cause(s)
  3. Reaching consensus on the best solution for the group
  4. Reaching consensus on an implementation plan

Consensus is an agreement on the option that has the broadest and strongest support, because all group members can live with it, even if it is not the number one choice for any particular member. If each member feels that the others have listened, each may be willing to accept an option that is not their first choice, but is not opposed by anyone in the group. No one is asked to support an option they strongly oppose.

Reaching Consensus More Quickly

You can use the following outlined process to reach consensus more quickly in co-ops when attempting to reach consensus to solve problems:

  1. Use brainstorming to generate the maximum ideas available, suspending judgment, criticism or evaluation until later
  2. From the common list, each member selects a limited number (3 to 5) that personally appear most promising for further exploration (typically overlapping interests reduces the list to a manageable number
  3. The group quickly reviews the remaining items, clarifying only when asked, and combining items that appear to be duplicates (if one member sees them as distinct, they remain separate)
  4. Each group member selects from this common list a first, second and third choice. The results often provide clarity on which items are of greatest interest to the group as a whole. In interpreting the results:
    1. Eliminate any items that did not receive a vote
    2. If an item has only one vote, but was the first choice for someone, ask that person to explain why, and have someone else repeat back the explanation so it is clear that the group understands, even if others disagree
    3. If necessary, repeat step 4 with the remaining items allowing only first and second choices