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Five Steps to Achieving Consensus–Even When It Seems Impossible

 

unnamedWith the fast pace of change in the world today, there is great uncertainty surrounding almost every decision we make. And, when there is uncertainty, there are going to be many different opinions about the best path forward.

Reaching a consensus is important because we need all functions and players in our organization to be aligned and moving in the same direction. Organizations can get stuck at a cross road, unable to pick a path forward, when they place too much emphasis on getting everyone on board with a controversial decision. This is a mistake.

To move forward with the speed needed to succeed in today’s fast-changing world,  we simply need to reach a point at which a few stakeholders say “this is the best course of action” and their colleagues, the other stakeholders, say “I can live with this decision.” When you have reached that level of agreement, put your action plan in motion. This is a true consensus.

Why does building a consensus matter?

When we ask the question: “Why does building consensus matter?” we must remember what “consensus” means. Merriam Webster defines it as general agreement, or a judgment arrived by most of those concerned.

A real consensus in #business is when MOST of the people involved agree - not all. Click To Tweet

Is it a lost art form? 

Reaching consensus can become difficult when factions develop, and each person is expressing views out of loyalty to his allies in the argument. People see the facts that support their opinions and are blind to the facts that support the other side of the issue.

I once worked with an organization in which this sort of stalemate occurred. The Marketing department and the Sales team had become warring factions. Revenue growth, which was once quite strong, had flattened, and nothing the teams did seemed to be able to revive it. The pressure was high to turn the situation around.

If you asked the salespeople, they would say that Marketing wasn’t doing their fair share. “Give us good leads, strong marketing materials, and demos,” Sales said, “and we can close any deal.”

Marketing, on the other hand, believed that they had given Sales everything required for success. The problem in the marketing team’s eyes was that Sales was using antiquated techniques for engaging customers, and was wasting too much time in unproductive face-to-face sales calls when they should be “smiling and dialing” the hundreds of leads that had been provided to them.

Once these beliefs had calcified in the minds of the teams, they were hard to dislodge, One day, the head of Sales and Marketing called the teams together, and asked them to come up with a joint plan for demonstrating sales growth in just four of the 25 sales districts. By forcing the teams to develop a plan, and limiting the scope to a controllable subset of prospects and customers, the problem became much more manageable. The prospects in each district were split into two groups, so that the sales and marketing teams could test two different approaches, to see which worked best. The learnings from the pilot revealed quite a few surprises on both sides of the argument and made it much easier to reach consensus on the best plan of attack to grow sales across the entire company.

By forcing the teams to develop a plan, and limiting the scope to a controllable subset of prospects and customers, the problem became much more manageable. The prospects in each district were split into two groups, so that the sales and marketing teams could test two different approaches, to see which worked best. The learnings from the pilot revealed quite a few surprises on both sides of the argument and made it much easier to reach consensus on the best plan of attack to grow sales across the entire company.

Is it an ally or roadblock in the team environment?

The intent to reach consensus can be either an ally or a roadblock in the team environment. When the stakes are high and leaders need to make a fast decision on which course of action is best, it’s tempting to allow different factions and functions to act autonomously. Functional leaders can make a fast decision when they don’t need to gain consensus with their colleagues in other functions. Once a decision is made, they can begin implementing immediately. The danger of this approach is that other functions are caught by surprise, and are not ready to do their part to make the plan successful.

I witnessed this recently when the marketing department of a large company, that I consult to, made a rushed decision to invest in new mobile capability. The problem was, they didn’t check with the operations group to see what would be required in terms of training and new operational procedures. Without the needed investment in operational readiness, the project was a flop. Next time, they will invest more time in building consensus across the functions on what will be required for success.

What are the keys to building consensus? 

First, you need to be willing to accept that not everyone will be thrilled with the decision you reach. Second, you need to decide, as a group, on the objectives you are shooting for, and the criteria you will use to make the decision. Only after these two steps are complete should you start the process of developing alternatives, and gathering and considering the facts that may sway the answer in one direction or another. By taking this systematic approach of objective setting, criteria definition, alternative development and focused fact-gathering, even the most adversarial teams can reach a consensus.

 What are some examples of companies that do this well?

When I think of benchmarks for good consensus building, I think of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who urges teams to “disagree and commit.”  Constructive debate is a crucial component of good decision making. It’s actually a bad sign if everyone is in agreement.

Alfred P. Sloan, the long-time CEO of GM, once said “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”  If you have too much agreement, you probably haven’t considered all facets of the decision you are facing.

Why is it best to have different personalities and schools of thought in the consensus approach?

Gaining input from across your company – from different geographic regions, functions, levels, and perspectives – is critical when entering uncharted territory. You want to have a diverse team, made up of some who are especially creative, some who are very analytical, some who know the nuts and bolts of how things work, and some who are good at building buy-in to the decision reached. You even want some skeptics and naysayers on the team.  Having a diversity of thoughts, perspectives, propensities, and experience enables you to build a more robust and practical plan and to anticipate and prepare for roadblocks.

Now that you have a better understanding of consensus and what it means for your business here are the five steps to achieving consensus:

  •  Identify and enlist the stakeholders. Represent all the most-impacted groups, but don’t go overboard on inviting everyone into the conversation. A group of 5-12 people will be much more effective in settling differences and devising compromises than a larger group would be.
  •  Define the objectives. This may require more thought than you think. One team, I worked with faced the difficult problem of addressing a new competitor, who had popped up seemingly out of the blue, and gained a big chunk of market share overnight. The team initially defined their problem-solving objective as “winning back 90% of customers lost to the competitor.” Upon further thought, however, the team realized that this objective would not help them reach consensus. Half the group thought the lost customers would never be regained, and half thought that they’d come crawling back in a month after the competitor failed to deliver on its promises. A better objective, they decided, was “Devise a new service offering that 30% of customers would be delighted with, and the competitor can’t copy.” This was specific enough, and aspirational enough, to stimulate the kind of creative discussion the team needed to combat the new threat.
  •  Define criteria for evaluating alternatives. List both the quantitative and qualitative criteria that the consensus-based answer must meet. Criteria may include caps on the amount the chosen solution can cost, how long the solution can take to implement, or how much risk is acceptable. Be clear about which criteria the solution must solve, and which criteria are merely “nice to have.”
  • Develop alternative courses of action. Here’s where the creative thinking comes in. What are all the different ways you can solve your problem? In my book, The Agility Advantage, I offer a technique for “checking the endpoints” For example, if you’ve defined the target customers as small, medium and large, is there an attractive “micro” customer segment, even tinier than what you would normally consider a small account, but potentially very profitable? This is an “endpoint” of the customer-size continuum (as is a “mega” customer, who is bigger than the biggest customer you’ve ever landed). Checking the endpoints is just one of many techniques I have developed for identifying creative alternatives to any problem you face.
  • Evaluate and select a course of action. Here’s where it’s most important to consider the facts from all angles, and make a choice that best accomplishes the objective, meets at least the “must” criteria, and that most of the stakeholders can agree on. Remember, not everyone has to be crazy about the action plan, but no one should be saying “I absolutely cannot live with this.”

If you follow these fives steps, you can get even the most divided groups to reach a decision. For more ideas on how you can get everyone on your team pulling the same direction, check out my new book, Fearless Growth.

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