Consensus is often the last thing you need

By Andrew Bass | Newsletter

He’d been a silent volcano for the first two hours of the strategy session. But he couldn’t keep a lid on it any longer: “I don’t wish to sound arrogant,” (Not a good start, I thought – everyone recoiled, eyes rolled), “but I am the only elected representative round this table, I’ve brought millions of inward investment into my region, and I have built a pretty successful business which I just sold for a tidy sum, so I think I know something about marketing, and you are talking nonsense…”

An extreme example? Maybe, but a real one. How do you get a group to agree a course of action, and follow through, starting from here?

Well, if you want to create collaboration among stakeholders who have powerful and different views and incentives, the last thing you want to do is pursue a consensus. If you do, what you end up with most of the time is stalemate. Or worse: dumb and costly decisions. Or more insidious: lip-service agreements with no follow-through and so, no progress.

The Disaster Movie Formula

Groupthink causes groups of individually competent people to do stupid things together. It’s the stuff of disaster movies. You know the scenario: a bullying or overly charismatic leader claims you are either “with us or against us”, makes an example of one or two dissenters, and ends up with a group of yes-men. Everyone is so busy second-guessing the group or trying to hang on to their jobs and egos that they disregard evidence or accept faulty reasoning. Real-world results include the nearest the world ever came to a nuclear war, at least one lost space shuttle, and the collapse of a number of banks.

Infinite Delaying Tactics

Even if you avoid the perils of groupthink, there is another form of false consensus: lip-service. It doesn’t lead to such dramatic failures, but instead makes the organization wade through syrup to get anywhere.

Here’s how it works. Any really slick organizational politician knows that the best way to stall a rival’s project is not to argue with it, but is to fake lip-service consensus (I see executives laughing with coy recognition when I mention this in talks).

So you say “It’s a great idea,” promise vigorous support…then do precisely nothing. Next time the project comes up on the agenda, insist that you remain completely supportive but regret that pressure of customer demands meant your hard-pressed team couldn’t get to it. Lay it on thick. Then promise redoubled efforts in the next month.

You can keep an initiative stalled for quite a while doing this. I recently heard one ‘operator’ boast that the churn of managers in a rival department was so rapid that he just needed to stall for six months. By then, a new executive would come in and abandon their predecessor’s scheme, and the whole game could begin again.

So if not consensus, what?

Ill-advised consensus-seeking is a classic example of how an attempted solution becomes part of the problem (see I’ve had dramatic success by warning people off consensus altogether and encouraging them to disagree openly. It’s much faster and more constructive to acknowledge even major disagreements, and instead seek an intelligent and honest ‘accommodation’ – something all the parties can live with (credit where it’s due: this idea of an accommodation comes originally from the work of Peter Checkland on Soft Systems).

The funny thing is that encouraging dissent makes it safer for the disagreement to take place – the steam gets vented before the pressure builds up (it also diffuses volcanic board members such as the one who opened this article). By creating genuine accommodations where scope to do so exists, progress with multi-stakeholder projects can be transformed. For example with:

  • top teams who can’t or won’t agree
  • difficult public-private projects subject to heavy regulation
  • merger integrations
  • adjustments to matrix management structures, such as changing an emphasis from functional to geographic leadership
  • cross-functional collaboration
  • strategy setting with executives who are notionally team members but whose incentives mean they are also competitors

Key point: Don’t pursue illusory consensus among stakeholder who will never agree. Instead, sharpen disagreements, and seek: ‘an accommodation that all legitimate players can live with.’

And if you would like some help, give me a call.