Building Team Consensus is Wise Decision

Posted by Kristin Arnold on December 17, 2008

Your team has narrowed a brainstorming list down to five important items.  In some cases, an obvious option leaps out and the team comes to a quick decision.  However, most of the time the team is faced with a choice among many options.

If the team members are interested and have the time, they can combine and fashion the items into a better idea.  The team builds a consensus — striving to reach a decision that best reflects the thinking of all team members.  Consensus means more than “I can live with it.”  It means that each team member can live with and support the decision upon enactment.

To build a consensus, explain what consensus means and why it is important for the team to reach that point.  Ensure that all team members understand the issue and the most important items.  To prevent confusion, take the time to define the specific meaning of the words being used.

Clearly outline any constraints, i.e, time or money.  Remind each member to participate fully in the discussion and that they have the same formal power to support or block any proposals.

Finally, identify a fallback if consensus can’t be reached within a specified time.  This could be a majority vote or command decision.

Take the most important items from your brainstorming list and ask a few probing questions such as:

  • “All of these items are possible.  Do we have to choose only one?”
  • “Is there any way we can use the best features of each item?”
  • “What would happen if we took added or deleted features of several options.  Would that get us closer to what we want?”
  • “Could we try out several options in parallel before we commit to just one?”

Team energy increases as new ideas and possibilities surface.  This trial and error approach appears chaotic; however, the team builds a new, synergistic alternative based on the best of the best.

When it appears the team has coalesced and agreed to a new alternative, take a straw poll — a pulse check to see how close or how far apart the team is from reaching a consensus.  Remind the team that this poll is not a final vote.  It simply tells them how much work needs to be done to build consensus.  Try these sentence starters:

  • “It sounds like we are making progress.  Let’s check that out with a quick straw poll to see how close we are to a consensus.  We’ll go right around the table:  Sally?”
  • “Let’s see whether everyone either can agree with, or can agree to support, the most popular alternative.  Let’s start with Sally and go around the room.  Sally?”

Record the responses and summarize the results.  If everyone can live with and support the alternative, then you have a consensus.  Chances are that there will be some opposition, so find out what it would take to gain support.  Try these sentence starters:

  • “There seems to be a lot of support for this alternative.  What would it take for the rest to support this?”
  • “What is getting in the way of some team members to support this alternative?  What could we do to meet their needs?”

Continue to build agreement for the decision until you have a consensus, or time runs out and your team falls back to another decision-making method.  By building a consensus, your team has a greater chance of producing a quality decision, a more cohesive team, and smoother enactment of the decision.

Question:  How long does it take your team to reach a consensus?

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