Philosophy of Science & Technology

Getting to Consensus

It’s hard to get a group of people to agree on something. But, I’ve found out, if a) all members of the group understand what consensus really is, and b) if there is a good process in place for establishing consensus before a discussion begin — it is possible to establish consensus quickly, easily, and with no broken glassware or hard feelings.

There are many definitions for consensus, including this one from the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. An opinion or position reached by a group as a whole: “Among political women . . . there is a clear consensus about the problems women candidates have traditionally faced” (Wendy Kaminer).
2. General agreement or accord: government by consensus.

“General agreement” does not imply unanimous agreement, however. When people do not recognize this distinction, a group seeking to make a decision by consensus can fail.

I’ll give you an example of how consensus can work, because I just experienced it over the past two days. First, some background. The ASQ International Team Excellence Award (ITEA) is the only team performance competition of its kind – the process seeks to identify teams that establish effective quality systems to get their projects done, and then use those systems impeccably. I had the opportunity this past Monday and Tuesday to be a judge for the 2009 competition, where I joined several other professionals with expertise in quality and performance management to review this year’s candidates.

Our trainers had a tough job though: in 36 hours, they had to get a group of 7 people working together effectively enough to achieve a consensus-based evaluation of competing projects. Not so difficult until you take into consideration that each project had to be evaluated on over 30 different unique points. (That’s at least 200 potential points of conflict for each project that’s evaluated.)

Achieving consensus was possible because our trainers first set expectations: Be sure to evaluate the candidates based on how they compare to the criteria, not to your own personal background or biases. Next, they gave us guidelines for action in the form of a process to follow to guide our decision-making. The process included personal note-taking, forming individual scores, collecting all of the scores together, looking at ranges and variability, and discussing our differences in all the cases where the spread of scores exceeded half of the total range. They let us know that the reason we were doing this in a group was to achieve consistency and sustainability – consistency in the judging from group to group, and sustainability of our processes as we moved towards consensus as a unit. Our discussions were focused on the points where we recorded the most variability, but not on all points. This helped us to manage our time well in order to sustain an effective process. Finally, we had a basis for evaluation – a 30 point collection of guidelines and a training program to help us use it.

Most importantly, we used our differences to identify “hidden meaning”. If we disagreed vehemently, we listed to opposing arguments, and instead of trying to convince each other of the truth or merit of each side we asked ”What does this difference tell us?” Often, we found out that the difference illuminated a key aspect of the problem that no one recognized at face value. Because we entered the discussions with a firm time limit, and the understanding that we were there to help each other learn about our collective product, we were able to succeed in achieving consensus in just a couple hours for each project that we evaluated.

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