Unattainable Consensus

There’s a difficult, and often ignored, problem within the “Participatory” style of management. The problem originates in the intelligence of all of the participants. Sometimes, well meaning good intentioned people disagree. We can disagree even when all our analytical tools are deployed; when all our personal agendas are put aside; and even when the best interests of the group are our only consideration.

Why it happens isn’t really the issue. The differences in our past experiences are enough to make disagreement almost inevitable. What is interesting is how we move forward once we encounter the immovable obstacle of honest dissent.

As expected, these decision deadlocks occur over a wide spectrum of situations, and the two ends of the spectrum provide two talking points. At one end the differences between the possible decisions are extremely minimal. The deadlock is occurring because the interested parties can’t decide between almost identical alternatives.

The good news is that if the final solutions are indeed almost identical, then it’s worth highlighting this to the group, because in the heat of debate we easily lose sight of how close we are to agreement. When the final solutions are almost identical it means, that in terms of functionality, it doesn’t really matter which solution is chosen. A toss of a coin will suffice to make a good decision, but rational people will resist that option.

At the other end of the spectrum, the possible choices have little, if anything, in common. For example building a bridge over a river, or building a tunnel underneath it. In these cases the problem is one of comparing apples to oranges and the lack of a mutually acceptable way to do the comparison. Equally true in these situations, it’s unlikely that the final decision maker doesn’t naturally lean towards one of the varied choices. However, just as with the coin toss, making an “executive” decision (at this point) still doesn’t solve the problem of the team not being able to select a winner from the short list of options.

When faced with indecision by their team, most managers, including those of us who claim to practice a participatory management style, are tempted to cut through the indecision by claiming executive privilege and making the final decision. Unfortunately, if this is done too often, and if done without preamble, it erodes the whole notion of consensus management. It also creates winners and losers within the larger team, something we’d like to avoid if possible.

Assume for the sake of argument that your team has selected three possible solutions to a problem; Solutions A, B and C. (one of these might be the option of doing nothing) However, they are now totally incapable of deciding which of the three to select as the final solution. What next?

You can safely assume that everything has been done, and done competently, to identify the most appropriate of the three options, to no avail. Your team cannot decide the winner in this horse race. How do we move forward?

The first step is to determine if there is consensus that one of the solutions must be chosen.

Getting consensus that something must be done, isn’t that difficult to obtain, especially if they’ve invested a lot of time getting to the solutions they’ve selected.

The next step is a peculiar one, but necessary if the entire team is going to support the final choice. Can you get the team to agree that they cannot agree on the final solution? That they are deadlocked and they can see no way to break that deadlock?

The objective is to get the team to understand that they’ve painted themselves into a corner. While they each believe in their solution, that they cannot and will not get others to change their minds.

There are then two solutions open to the manager which allows the team to move forward. The manager can make the executive decision and choose a solution.

Note, for this to work well, the manager must have stayed out of the decision making process up to this point. The manager must not have exposed his/her preference by word or action. This strategy prevents the claim that the manager has biased the whole process from the start.

The other solution is to toss that coin in the air and use a purely random process to make the final choice. This isn’t as arbitrary as it might appear at first glance. The dead lock exists because reasonable people have arrived at good, but different, solutions. Regardless of how that coin lands, you’ve selected a good solution.