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Choose Consent Over Consensus For Better Decision Making

Consent is a decision framework that facilitates diverse opinions and learning.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been pulled into a meeting about a big decision that ends with no result. No one completely agrees on which direction to take because there isn’t quite enough information to be sure. And no one wants to back down because it feels like everything is riding on the outcome of this one crucial decision. 

Time drags on and tensions run high when suddenly a voice cuts through the fray and says “I think we should go with this.” Of course, it’s usually the Boss who says this so everyone agrees, but no one feels great about the decision. Worst of all, a lot of great ideas probably went unheard because no one wants to disagree with the Boss.

Consensus can be crippling

The problem with making decisions by consensus is that you require 100% of the parties to say “yes” to a decision where there are too many external factors at play. Things like leadership hierarchies, office politics, and lack of information influence people's contributions to decisions.

On top of that, by having the entire decision process happen face to face in real time, you risk introducing bias and groupthink into the process which results in less diverse options and opinions. As someone who is never the loudest person in the room there are so many times where I’ve had good ideas go ignored because yelling above the fray is just not who I am, and I’m not alone.

In fact, we’ve spoken to over 400 knowledge workers across industries and the resounding majority say that their teams are often making in the moment decisions in a meeting, on Slack, or over Zoom. This is partially because human nature is to get a group of people together to talk through a decision. Unfortunately, synchronously seeking consensus is often not the most effective way to make decisions

Image says moving forward is more important than finding perfection
Successful businesses prioritize moving forward and learning.

Consider switching to consent

The consent model encourages groups to make decisions that are considered “good enough” to move forward with the goal of quickly learning through iteration. 

Rather than seeking consensus which requires everyone in a group to agree before moving forward, the consent based model invites group participation, asks participants to bring up any concerns or reasons not to move forward, answers questions, and ultimately allows the group to agree to a proposal where there are minimal objections. This model values divergent thinking through asynchronous participation, faster decision making, more learning and increased transparency. The consent model encourages groups to make decisions that are considered “good enough” with the goal of quickly learning through iteration. 

With the consent model of decision making, instead of requiring everyone to say “yes” it asks that no one says “no,” which is a subtle but important difference. By not saying “no” it doesn’t mean that someone agrees, it simply means that they won’t block the decision outcome. To quote our friends at August, “If you have the consent of the group, it doesn’t mean you have their full agreement and endorsement, it means that they have no objections to your proposed course of action.” 

Graphic showing the cycle of hypothesis, committing, learning, and applying in Consent Based Decision Making
Create a cycle that leads to learning fast.

Hypothesize, commit, learn, apply, repeat

The benefit of consent based decision making is that it allows teams to quickly iterate on a hypothesis with the information at hand, instead of striving for perfection. And with more businesses than ever operating with an agile mindset, being able to move fast intelligently is critical to business success. As Jeff Bezos says, “Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had.”

Since most decisions are two-way doors, even if a decision does not pan out, at least the information gleaned from that decision can be used to adjust course and test a different hypothesis. Allowing for the flexibility to revisit decisions within the consent model delivers stronger final outcomes because it allows for teams to constantly improve as their data improves, instead of being stuck in the quagmire of consensus.

The Consent Model in 7 Steps. 1. Start with a proposal 2. Establish ownership 3. Set a due date 4. Ask for input 5. Resolve objections 6. Decide and document 7. Revisit if necessary
Make better decisions, faster with the consent model

Putting the consent model into practice

Establishing new practices and breaking old habits within an organization is never easy, but poor decision making hygiene is even worse. Here are seven steps to bring the consent model into your organization:

  • ❓ Start with a proposal: This is often a decision that needs to be made, such as “Where should we have our next offsite?” and a handful of possible options or outcomes. Include the positives and negatives of each outcome, as well as any actions that would be taken for that outcome.
  • 👉 Establish ownership: Too many decisions are made without clear ownership. Decide at the outset who will be in charge of making the ultimate decision and own the process of reaching consent within the group.
  • 📅 Set a due date: Don’t linger but don’t delay about when the owner must make their decision. Allow enough time for all questions to be answered but not so much time that it limits momentum. 
  • 📣 Ask for input: The people closest to the problem with the most knowledge should be asked to weigh in on the options and ask questions. This should never be done synchronously in a meeting because it introduces too much bias. One way to reduce bias and groupthink is to have everyone document their ideas first and then reveal them all at once.  
  • 👩🏽‍⚖️ Resolve objections: Once again, you aren’t looking for consensus from everyone, but you do want to resolve any objections that would prevent the decision from being implemented. It’s good to remember that others have different perspectives than you and working through objections can bring to light information that was previously unknown.
  • 📄 Decide and document: With all stakeholders consenting, document the outcome with the reasons why that decision was made so that there is a clear source of truth for anyone that wants to seek clarification or revisit that decision in the future.
  • 🔁 Revisit if necessary: The beauty of taking a more scientific approach to decision making is that if a hypothesis is tested but doesn’t work out then oftentimes the decision can be revisited and revised based on the new information at hand.

With just a few changes to the way decisions are being made, we can make better decisions that leave everyone feeling good about the outcome, while also removing unnecessary and often uncomfortably heated meetings from our calendars.

Let's fix the way we work.

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