Consensus Management

Consensus Management

Consensus building in clusters requires that cluster participants share information, air and discuss differences, and work together to analyze problems and find mutually acceptable solutions. After a decision has been reached, all cluster participants should feel that their viewpoint was heard and understood, and that they heard and understood the viewpoints of others in the group. They will support it because it was arrived at in an open and fair way. Yet reaching such a consensus is admittedly difficult in “standing-room only” cluster meetings attended by representatives of forty or more agencies. In such large unwieldy groups, proven methods do exist to manage consensus (see Section on SAG and TWIG).

Be aware that genuinely consensual decision-making within Clusters – that state of Nirvana where universal agreement is reached – is not possible in a context of competitive funding and the consequent drive for results-based action, and that the direct result is:

  • Information silos
  • Weakened planning
  • Inefficiency through lack of economy-of-scale
  • Reduced effectiveness of action through poor quality assurance
  • Diminished accountability

Too often, consensus management is seen as a process in mediocrity where a one-eyed man leads the blind in “a race to the bottom of the barrel” i.e in a process of identifying a solution that is the least offensive to all, rather than choosing the course of action that is most beneficial to all – in this case, to the victims of disaster.

“Make sure that whatever is written down is not so ambiguous that it becomes meaningless.”

Real consensus management, the type practiced by most public limited companies, for example, is not about that at all. It is genuine management discipline, the rules of which have to be learned.

Consensus management means that when a decision is reached by the group, there is total commitment to it by all members. It does not necessarily mean the decision was reached easily or that there were not widely differing views shared and debated during the group’s discussion. But once consensus is formally achieved, division of opinion, so far as that decision is concerned, should cease.

To reach consensus, the group must have a strong conviction to the mission, goals, and future of the Cluster.

Consensus management rests upon the basic conviction that people are honest, competent, and genuinely care about the work of the organization.

But what Is Consensus? Consensus is finding a proposal acceptable enough that all members can support it. If a member cannot support a proposal, they are asked, “What could be changed so that you can support it?” It is not a majority vote. In a majority vote, those in the minority may get something they don’t want at all. After a decision has been reached, all members of the group should feel that their viewpoint was heard and understood, and that they heard and understood all other viewpoints of the group. They will support it because it was arrived at in an open and fair way.

Reaching consensus requires time, the active participation of all group members, and communication skills: listening, conflict resolution, creative thinking and open-mindedness.

There is a difference between participatory management and consensus management. Those taking part in SAG and TWiG discussions frequently get this wrong. Participatory managers recognize a foundational management principle: authority and responsibility can be delegated, but accountability cannot. Participatory managers seek input from all whose views can benefit the process. However, final decision-making is reserved to those who ultimately bear the responsibility for the decision. As it is the Head of the CLA who is ‘accountable’ for whatever the Cluster decides, and not the Cluster Coordinator, it is hardly surprising that this person might object to having decisions foisted on his or her organization by people (s)he does not know and over whom (s)he has no oversight or control. This is a fundamental design flaw in the entire Cluster enterprise which only ‘trust’ will overcome.

“Responsibility means ensuring that the job gets done, not necessarily doing it yourself.”

Consensus managers, on the other hand, start with the proposition that agreement among all stakeholders must be obtained before action can proceed, a position that is intellectually defensible only if one believes that all stakeholders are equal and will suffer the same consequences as you if a poor decision is made. When the consequences of this assumption are considered, it becomes clear that:

  • Decision-making becomes a political process instead of a merit-based process with the pace and outcome controlled by the least flexible and most obdurate participants.
  • Consensus management is inherently biased toward inaction. All that is necessary to block any action is to prevent consensus. Self-evidently, this characteristic is not conducive to success in a competitive environment defined by fast-paced change.
  • Decision quality is degraded, at least from a purely humanitarian perspective. That is because the goal becomes identifying a solution that is the least offensive to all stakeholders rather than choosing the course of action that is most beneficial to the enterprise (this is the so-called, “Race to the bottom of the barrel”).
  • An inevitable consequence of using consensus as a surrogate for the executive function in an organization designed to operate as a hierarchy is a diminution of the very concept of accountability. When everyone is responsible, no one is accountable.

This is not to say that consensus management is never a good idea. In a SAG of true peers, all of whom share a common skill set, the same organizational perspective, and an identical stake in the decision outcome, it can work well. The trick is to avoid “racing to the bottom of the barrel” and to make sure that whatever is written in the SOF (or equivalent strategy document) is not so ambiguous that it becomes meaningless.
This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and were acknowledged when doing so.

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