The following is a guest post by Sheryl Smail of Pivotal – the facilitators
What is considered group consensus depends on many variables including the culture and
community, the nature of the task or decision, and the commitment required from
participants to implement any decision outcomes.
In addition, the effectiveness of different consensus building methodologies will be affected
by variables such as the time available, the size of the group, and the literacy and other skill
levels of participants.
What is consensus?
Consensus generates a decision about which everyone says, ‘I can live with it’.
It means arriving at a decision each member of the group can accept and support.
Fred Niziol & Kathy Free
Consensus is the process – a participatory process by which a group thinks and feels
together, enroute to their decision.
It is important to note that consensus is not unanimity – although some groups may require
unanimity for consensus as part of their culture.
Pros and Cons of Consensus Decision Making
Quality decisions require good
information and skill levels
Risk of watered down solution
When is Consensus Decision Making Most Valuable?
- When stakeholder commitment to the decision is important e.g. to implement
- When there is a high level of conflict or wide variety of perspectives among stakeholders
regarding preferred solutions
- When no single stakeholder has the authority to make the decision
Tools that Assist in Achieving Consensus
Sometimes consensus is readily achieved and obvious. For example:
- Clarify key issues and interests
- Brainstorm options
- Analyse and develop potential ways forward
- Totally mutually acceptable option emerges
However, even in these instances it assists transparency of decision-making
if it is agreed in advance what consensus means for a particular group.
The method below is recommended as a formalised consensus process for you to consider.
This consensus process (adapted from a 5 finger process and using gradients of
agreement cards) is used to reach agreement without jeopardising the quality of a
solution that has strong, but not unanimous, support.
- When the ideal is consensus but a decision needs to made within a timeframe
- When it is important that decision quality is not watered down
How it works:
Participants are polled on the proposal, by each participant holding up the card that indicates
their level of support for the proposal.
Can see pluses & minuses, but willing to go along with the group
Strongly disagree & can’t support
Consensus Building Process:
- If everyone shows ‘Strongly Agree’, ‘Agree’, or ‘Can see pluses & minuses’, but willing to
go along with the group’ then consensus has been reached and we can move ahead.
- If there are any ‘Disagree’ or ‘Strongly disagree & can’t support’, those people are given
an opportunity to explain to the rest of the group why they gave the rating and make
recommendations to change the proposal in order to make it acceptable to them. The
originator of the proposal has the option to make the change or leave the proposal as it is
and explains the decision to the group.
- The polling is done again. (Note: If the proposal was changed you start again at Step 1)
Otherwise, if everyone shows a ‘Strongly agree’, ‘Agree’, ‘Can see pluses &
minuses, but willing to go along with the group’, or ‘Disagree’, the decision is made, and
we move ahead.
- If there are any ‘Strongly disagree & can’t support’, those people are given the chance to
indicate why and make recommendations as per 2 above. Once more the originator of the
proposal has the option to retain or change.
- In the final review majority rules.
This type of consensus decision-making:
- Encourages groups to listen carefully when there is disagreement and encourages listening
twice if necessary
- Doesn’t allow a solution to be watered down because a few disagree
- Although there may be one or two who don’t like the final decision, this type of consensus
ensures that everyone is heard and heard well.
- Ingrid Bens Facilitating With Ease 2nd Edition San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005
- Fred Niziol & Kathy Free The IAF Handbook; Chapter 19 The Team Start Up; Jossey-Bass, 2005
- Sam Kaner et al, Facilitator’s Gide To Participatory Decision-Making 2nd Edition San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007
- Michael Wilkinson The Secrets of Facilitation San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004
- Sam Kaner et al, Facilitator’s Gide To Participatory Decision-Making 2nd Edition San Francisco: Jossey