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3 advantages of consent-based decision making

Note: this builds on my earlier post about consent.

I’ve worked for a number of organisations over the years, in various different industries and sectors. Looking into an organisation as a consultant, though, is interesting because you begin to notice things that you’d perhaps miss if you’re trying to fit in and be there for the long-haul.

One of the things I notice is that there’s a direct correlation between how good an organisation is at making decisions, and how effective it is in achieving its goals. Organisations that have structures and processes for making good, timely decisions thrive. Others stutter and fail.

Many organisations default to hierarchical decision making: whoever is most senior in any given situation makes the final call. That can work, and it’s absolutely the quickest way of getting things done in an emergency. However, the downside is that it breeds resentment: do what you’re told or get out.

The opposite of the hierarchical approach is consensus-based decision making. This is usually seen as the ideal approach if your group has got time to mull things over and get everyone on board. It’s difficult to do well when you’ve got more than 10 people, though, and it’s easy for one or two people to derail the process.

In Sociocracy, groups (‘circles’) are encouraged to instead use consent as an approach to decision-making instead of the hierarchical or consensus-based approaches. In Many Voices, One Song, a book I’ve been reading recently, the authors explain why:

If we ask for unanimous decisions, we ask “do you agree?”, this question tends to focus people on their personal preferences. In consent, we ask “do you object?” and this question includes both the range of tolerance and the personal preference.

We don’t see consent as a watered-down version of consensus. In our experience, consent shifts the energy towards doing, instead of convincing others of our own viewpoint. To focus on the range of tolerance instead of personal preferences means to acknowledge that people’s experiences and perspectives are different and might remain different. With consent, we can still operate together, guided by a shared aim. (p.138)

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.138

The ‘range of tolerance’ is something which the authors explain as the difference between someone having a personal preference versus them objecting to something.

For example, let’s say there’s a vegetarian who doesn’t particularly like Brussels sprouts, so she never cooks them at home. However, she would eat them if served at a friend’s house for dinner. She has a personal preference rather than an objection.

Of course, business decisions tend to be bit more high-stakes than this, so let’s look at three advantages to consent-based decision making that the authors of Many Voices, One Song outline in their book:

1. Consent balances groups and individuals

With consent, individuals will not have as much power as they have in decisions requiring unanimity. On the other hand, with consent, a majority will not have power over a minority.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

2. Consent allows for forward motion

It is easier to find common ground when working with the overlap of our ranges of tolerance. Once we have made a decision, we can carry out our plans and evaluate whether the changes bring improvement. Since we learn with every decision made (and we do not learn from decisions not made), every decision made gives us more options to learn and adapt to outside and inside changes. We use the slogan “good enough for now” to encourage groups to innovate and prototype quickly.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

3. Consent is safe

Like a safety net, consent makes sure that no one can be ignored. If someone objects to a proposal, that person will be heard and the objection addressed. Thus, consent secures equivalence. The slogan here is “safe enough to try” which emphasizes that we only move when it seems safe – but then we don’t hold back.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.135

I’m finding this approach increasingly valuable, and would encourage anyone interested in finding out more to come along to an introductory workshop run by Outlandish. They run them regularly, and beginners are very welcome!


This post is Day 38 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Giving consent

At the moment I’m working two days for Outlandish, a fellow member of CoTech. They’re big believers in, and practitioners of, Sociocracy.

When I wrote about Sociocracy in a previous post I neglected to use the word ‘consent’, but I’ve come to realise (partly through reading Many Voices One Song) just how fundamental it is to a harmonious workplace culture.

Consent is the default decision-making method in sociocracy.

[…]

By consent, a group can decide to do anything. We often jokingly say, you want a dictator for your organization? We can decide that by consent. (We recommend that the dictator role have a term end, however!) Groups can decide by consent to vote. Groups decide what their governance system looks like at all times. The only thing one cannot do is ignore reasoned objections.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.25-26

Many of the problems I’ve encountered in my career have been directly related the abuses of power that come with the ‘default operating system’ of hierarchy thoughtlessly adopted by most organisations.

Rather than the politics of the playground, Sociocracy is an grown-up approach to organisational power-sharing based on consent.

The assumption of sociocracy is that sharing power requires a plan. Power is everywhere all the time, and it does not appear or disappear – someone will be holding it. We have to be intentional about how we want to distribute it. Power is like water: it will go somewhere and it tends to accumulate in clusters: the more power a group has, the more resources they will have to aggregate more power. The only way to counterbalance the concentration of power is intentionality and thoughtful implementation.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.17

The authors recognise the limits of the water metaphor, but continue with it to help make their point:

One can think of a sociocratic organization as a complicated irrigation system, empowering each team to have the agency and resources they need to flourish and contribute toward the organization’s mission. We avoid large clusters of power, and we make sure there is flow. Water that is allowed to flow will stay fresh and will reach all the places in the garden, nourishing each plant to flourish. Sociocratic organizations nourish and empower each team to have the agency to flourish and contribute toward the organization’s mission.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.17

Consent is a great place to start without having to commit to overhauling your entire organisation overnight. It will improve decision-making and make your workplace environment more harmonious. You can simple as using the following structure in your next meeting:

  1. Someone makes a proposal
  2. Whoever’s chairing/facilitating the meeting gasks for any clarifying questions (which are then answered by the proposer)
  3. The facilitator asks for a show of thumbs (up, down, sideways). If it’s all thumbs up, the proposal is passed, if not…
  4. Participants are asked by the facilitator for ‘critical concerns’ (i.e. not just preferences). These are noted down.
  5. The group address the critical concerns by trying to find a way that the proposal would be agreeable.
  6. A new proposal is made (and the process is repeated through several ’rounds’) until the proposal is accepted, or you run out of time to discuss it.

I will, of course, have simultaneously over-simplified this and made it sound more complex than it is in practice. For that, I apologise. However, it’s definitely worth thinking about consent within the context of your team and organisation.

I’m helping Outlandish with the productisation of their offerings around Sociocracy at the moment, so am probably biased, but you might want to check out their upcoming workshops to find out more if any of this interests you


This post is Day 29 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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