Suppose you are leading a meeting in which you want everyone to contribute his/her thinking and support the final decision. So, what method will you use to bring the group to a final decision?  Many meetings are run without a clear expectation for the nature of group decisions.  Usually this leads to a situation in which participants operate with some unclear assumptions about whether the decision is theirs, or just the leader’s, to make.  As a result, what appears to be a consensus may not be.  (A previous post, Avoid the “GM Nod” in Your Meetings, provided one example of this problem).

In some management situations, the whole idea of a true consensus decision sounds unrealistic, too time consuming, or just too touchy-feely.  You could vote to determine the outcome, perhaps on some compromise proposal.  But compromise and voting creates “sides” and a vote does not necessarily bring out the same quality of thinking and commitment to the success of the decision.

I find that using consent offers an alternative way for a group to reach a decision without the expectations of consensus, or the liabilities of compromise.  It shares some properties of both, and can be a middle way to a decision that has the whole group’s support.

What Do I Mean by “Consent?”

The dictionary defines consent as “to give assent or approval,” especially what “is done or proposed by another.”   A consensus decision requires a unanimous decision and implies that everyone supports it more or less equally.  A decision by consent, however, is a more flexible model for group decisions.  When an individual decides to consent to something, it means he/she will allow it.

Gerard Endenburg promoted the idea of consent as an explicit option for group decision-making.  He is an engineer who began to experiment with the application of systems thinking and participative decision making in organizational management.  He realized that true consensus was unrealistic and perhaps unnecessary in many business decisions.  What was important was for members of the system to be able to freely express how a decision impacted the operation of their particular function within the system.[i]  More recently, John Buck[ii] and others have further developed Endenburg’s ideas for use in various settings.

How to Arrive at Decisions by Consent

Using decision by consent means that either each person with a say in the matter gives his or her consent to proceed or else there is no decision.  While some may be enthusiastic supporters of the decision; for others, consent means that they just have no fundamental objection to the decision.  That is, there is nothing about implementing this decision that will adversely impact their area of responsibility and so they consent to it.  This provides a third choice beyond just “yes” or “no” to some proposal.

Consent should be expressed out loud if it is to be an effective means of group decisions.  As noted earlier, some groups operate by implied consent when just because no one speaks against some proposal, it is assumed that it is OK to proceed.  This silent approach does not ensure any real alignment or support for the decision.

The process for arriving at a decision by consent is as follows:

  1. Present the proposed decision and check to make sure it is clear to all.
  2. Turn to each person in the group to get their basic reaction to the proposal.  If everyone is ready to go ahead, you can skip to the final, “no objection” step.
  3. Clarify, revise or amend the proposal as necessary based on the reactions received in step 2.
  4. Go around the group again to check for any remaining, specific objections to the revised proposal.  Each objection should be supported with a specific reason based on how the decision would impact an area of personal responsibility or interest.
  5. As necessary, use the objections to revise the proposed decision further.
  6. Check once more to see if there are any remaining objections that have not been addressed.
  7. Once the objections have been addressed, do one last check-in with each person that they support or have “no objection” to the decision as revised.

If the decision is still encountering some objections, then it should be withdrawn for further study and revision.  A decision by consent is not one where “majority rules.”

Example

A plant management team had decided to use consent as its standard means of decision making.  On this occasion, the management team was discussing a schedule of planned plant maintenance.  The proposed maintenance would cause production disruptions and mean that some production lines would have to work different schedules and build some additional inventory.   The initial focus of the maintenance plan had mainly involved production and maintenance.  But as the team shared their reactions and objections to the original proposal, the implications for the warehouse, customer service and other areas became clearer.  A revised proposal was developed which took account of the needs of other aspects of the operation. In a final check-in with the management team, the revised maintenance proposal received everyone’s consent.

Choosing How to Decide Affects Meeting Structure

Consensus, consent and compromise:  Each way of reaching a meeting decision has various implications for meeting results. The choice of a specific means of decision-making is a structural choice that affects the way people are likely to behave in the meeting, as well as how they will act towards any decision after the meeting.  For more about what I mean by meeting structure see Choices and Tools elsewhere on the site (www.meetingforresults.com).  I’ll have more about compromise and other means of group decision-making in coming posts.


[i] A “unanimous consent” or general consent is also a parliamentary procedure and is not what I mean here.

[ii] For more on consent as a means of decision-making, see John Buck and Sharon Villines in We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, 2007.

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