Is Consensus the Answer?
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For the past 25 years and with very few exceptions, Learning Forward’s Board of Trustees has made every decision by consensus. When I share this with people, the typical reaction is shock. How in the world are they able to do that and fulfill their obligations as board members? That the board meets just twice a year and has much to accomplish in a short time frame makes it all the more surprising that they are able to reach consensus so consistently.
So how does a board arrive at consensus for 25 years? It begins with the orientation process. During their orientation, board members get a firsthand look at what it means to be a board that makes decisions by consensus.
Newly elected board members attend meetings before their official service begins. Trustee-elects are asked only to observe during these meetings, not to contribute to discussions or decision making. Incoming trustees are amazed at how skillfully all board members facilitate the consensus process amongst themselves.
The board members credit consensus decision-making and other board norms for the congenial and productive nature of board meetings. At the beginning of each meeting, board members take time to collectively review the meaning of consensus.
The group has reached consensus when all members have had the opportunity to feel that their opinions have been heard and the recommendation on the table represents the will of the group.
Recognizing that it may not be their first choice, they understand why it is for others, and are often willing to choose to support their colleagues rather than call for a vote. Another option is to continue the conversation until an individual is able to sway others to his or her point of view or understand where the differences lie and support an alternative decision or course of action.
Over the years I have heard a number of challenges to the idea of consensus decision making. Some believe that forcing a board vote promotes more divergent thinking, while others think that the consensus approach squelches an individual’s best thinking and makes it too easy for individuals to defer to the will of the group.
But I have always advocated for consensus decision making in situations where there are no absolute solutions.
I believe that striving for consensus ensures that everyone feels responsible for sharing points of view so they can ultimately support the decision. Taking time to arrive at a fully understood and articulated decision ensures that efforts aren’t derailed later by those who voted no.
While I believe consensus is the best path, I am very interested in what others have experienced and have to say.
What are your thoughts about consensus?