While a great deal of corporate decision-making is top-down, there are occasions when task forces or work teams representing various divisions or departments need to operate by consensus. The selection of a uniform computer architecture, for example, that each segment of the company will have to accept will be easier to implement if everyone is on-board with whatever software is chosen. While it is possible to impose a decision from the top (based on the recommendation of the IT department), the transition to a new system is likely to be a lot smoother if an informed agreement can be reached by a cross-divisional work team.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Consensus building in a corporate context usually begins with an announcement that a task force or work team has been created to figure out how to implement a decision that has already been made at a higher level. All too often, the people put in charge of such groups are selected because of their seniority rather than their facilitation skills. Thus, when this happens, it is wise for the group leader to tap a skilled facilitator to help. Instead of waiting for each division to announce its stand on what it wants or doesn't want, consensus building hinges on the initial willingness of the team leader (or the facilitator) to meet with each department or division representative to hear (privately and confidentially) what their interests are as well as the reasons they hold the views that they do. With this results of such a survey in hand, the team leader can then generate an agenda and a work plan that take account of important overlaps and differences. He or she can also summarize (without attribution) the range of concerns that the task force must address. The technique avoids personalizing disagreements.
By requiring participants to sign written ground rules committing them to make every possible effort to respond to the concerns of all the participants -- and not just the concerns of the department they represent -- the chances of reaching a consensus are enhanced. The team leader should make clear that no formal votes will be taken. Only a plan agreed to by almost everyone will be acceptable. As the group approaches resolution (within the time frame spelled out by the team leader), the participants may need to be reminded that the best interests of the company require that they invent a "package" that comes as close as possible to meeting all the concerns presented by the team leader at the outset. No team member will want the leader to report that they were the one who held the group hostage or made it difficult for the group to complete its assignment.
Consensus can be achieved within a specified time in a way that meets almost all the interests of the groups or departments involved as long a the team leader knows how to facilitate a problem-solving effort (or realizes that he or she may need the help of a skilled facilitator). The goal is to do better than a majority vote that usually leaves a lot of unhappy departments. By getting everyone into a problem-solving mode, an inventive hybrid solution (not a lowest common denominator compromise) can be found. Worst case, if the group can't reach agreement, the team leader can still propose a solution that reflects the sense of the group.