Does Consensus Decision-making Lead to Compromised Solutions?

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Obtaining consensus involves getting an agreement from a group of colleagues on a solution. The process to obtain consensus takes time because everyone involved is supposed to have an opportunity to express his view and debate about it. Making decisions using a consensus approach is not always effective. The solution could be compromised for three reasons:

  • Shifted focus from adopting the best solution to getting a consensus
  • The best solution is tweaked in order to gain support
  • People become fatigue from lengthy debates and eventually, give in to a sub-optimal solution

To minimize the risk of adopting a compromised solution, there are three things you could do:

1.     Develop guiding principles

The guiding principles provide the criteria that the solution must meet. They form the core requirements, sometimes the minimum requirements, that could not be negotiated away. The guiding principles are essential to focus the team on the best solution. For example, two guiding principles for replacing a legacy system are that the new system must eliminate duplicate data entry and it provides a simple way to track work orders. If a proposed solution offers lots of bells and whistles but is restrictive in how one can monitor work orders, the solution does not satisfy one of the guiding principle and hence, would not be considered.

2.     Use a firm and impartial facilitator

An experienced facilitator who is impartial and knowledgeable helps to steer the team away from wasting time on ideas that don’t follow the guiding principles and are impractical. It is most unproductive when the discussion turns into circular debates that lead to nowhere. The facilitator ought to be confident enough to lead the team to make a choice. For instance, when a team member is adamant about a quick but more risky approach to implementation, the facilitator needs to be at ease in challenging the idea and in turn, helps the team review the alignment with the guiding principles.

3.     Avoid convoluted accountability arrangement

The person who is held accountable for the outcome should have the right to override the proposed solution if he deems appropriate. Problems arise when there is a complex decision-making hierarchy. For example, the engineering team lead is responsible for the work of his team. For projects that involve multiple engineering disciplines, a coordinator is assigned. For a special project, the assigned coordinator reports to the engineering team lead. When there is a disagreement between the coordinator and the team lead, does the team lead have the authority to override? If the line of accountability is not clear, there would be unending discussions. In many situations, the result is a compromised solution.

Building consensus is not necessary for all decisions. The goal of reaching a consensus could sidetrack the focus on solving the problem. Ego could get in the way. In some cases, a compromised solution could be acceptable whereas in others, the cost and potential risk could be substantial. When a business has a culture for consensus, it doesn’t mean that every decision needs to achieve consensus.

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