May 11, 2023
When your business is in its infancy, and it's just you and your co-founder or maybe a small team of people who were involved since day one, consensus-think is one of the joys of working together.
That time when you can all sit around one table and be fully aligned to the vision, purpose and mission is an exciting and fulfilling time. It often feels like you can read each other’s minds because you’re so close to the source moment of the business. The potency of the vision and the direction you’re heading in is at its strongest and most clear.
And then all being well, your business starts to grow.
You hire new people, your reach expands, new opportunities present themselves and there comes a time when you can no longer, metaphorically speaking, sit around one table all together.
This is the moment at which the scope of opinion and the clarity around what the ‘right direction’ looks like has changed. It’s not that anyone sat around the table is wrong, but agreement becomes harder to reach because the possibilities have grown.
What you do next is critical to the future of your business.
One of the biggest barriers to overcoming consensus-think is the allure that it holds. Those early days when everyone was aligned and clear on where you are going are magical. Relationships deepen and there is a strong feeling of security when you can reach a shared decision quickly.
This kind of agreement is a behaviour pattern that you might want to maintain as you grow, and rightly so... a sense of alignment is an important part of what you need within your business. But the allure of consensus-think is a double-edged sword that you need to be mindful of to prevent it from grinding your progress to a halt.
In the early days of your business, consensus decision making was part of the glue that held you together, but it can just as easily be the glue that stops you from getting to where you want to go.
In its worst incarnation, consensus-think will lead your business down a path of endless discussion. This is especially true in businesses where there is a shared power structure among a founding team or where the one founding leader might not have the confidence to identify and reach a decision.
Where there is no clear path to a decision, consensus-think will lead to long and drawn-out conversations that often end up straying far from the original subject.
This endless loop of discussion creates the illusion that relationships are being respected by giving everyone involved a voice. However, over time, the frustration around the lack of progress can create more conflict than togetherness.
At the same time as the bond between you weakens through the lengthy discussions, your business progress is limited by the lack of clear, effective and time-relevant decision making.
One of the misplaced fears that prevents a business from moving beyond its consensus-think phase is the idea that relationships will suffer.
Consensus-think goes hand in hand with the time when the heart and soul of your business was being created but that heart and soul doesn’t have to disappear when you unstick the consensus-think-glue.
In fact, the heart and soul of your business can thrive and grow even stronger, providing you create the right time and place for it to take centre stage. The foundational feelings of security and alignment that are naturally borne from the early days of your business journey must be nurtured.
You need to maintain the feeling that you are all sat around a campfire together from time to time. We just need to delineate that campfire experience from the process of making business critical decisions.
Evolving beyond consensus-think is often at its ripest when your business grows to beyond 10-12 people. At this time in your business’ evolution, you have eyes on the growth that’s ahead but its common that the processes and practices you need to internally support your growth aren’t in place.
Here’s a list of things that you can do during this business-critical time to maintain the founding relationships and heart and soul of your business whilst creating the mechanisms to ensure that consensus-think doesn’t slow you down...
It might be the case that almost every decision in your business is made by a group coming together and agreeing the best course of action. Alternatively, there might be pockets of activity where decisions are made quickly and transparently.
You might not need to change every process around decisions-making in your business. If there are areas that are working fluidly and effectively, leave them well alone.
However, where you identify that decision-making is slow, feels cumbersome, creates feelings of conflict or frustration or simply is not keeping up with the business needs, that’s where you need to make some changes.
The best path forward when consensus-think is slowing decision-making down is to create a clear map of decision-making accountabilities. Identify the spaces where it’s not necessary for the whole group to agree a decision together and instead, define who is best placed to make certain decisions.
When you get really honest about this, there is often an intuitive feeling around which individual has the skillset, experience and scope of understanding to make the decision. It might be something that you’ve enjoyed being part of, but you must be honest with yourself when your involvement is slowing things down.
The key thing to supporting this process is making the decision-making accountabilities transparent. When everyone can see who is accountable for making what decision, it is easier to shift away from the time when everyone had a say.
When there is transparency around exactly who is deciding what, you can create opportunities for people to have their say in a group space or on a one-to-one basis. You can also create processes for retrospective reviews of what happened around a certain decision.
There is also scope for the person who is accountable for a specific decision to change. This can be done on a periodic basis, changing the accountabilities every 3 or 12 months for example.
Here’s an example from HolacracyOne, the company who created Holacracy. You don’t have to wholesale adopt Holacracy to benefit from the clarity of creating decision-making accountabilities. Check out the map of all their transparent accountabilities here.
The habits around consensus-think are sometimes borne out of people’s innate characters. For this reason, it can be beneficial to seek out training or support for yourself and your people, otherwise you can create unwelcome tensions and even conflict.
If you have reflectors amongst your team, these are people who need the benefit of time to make a decision. You might have people who carry a certain amount of trauma around decision making. If you haven’t already, check out the Trauma-Informed Collaboration course to support your learning curve on how trauma shows up in the workplace and ways to be attentive and aware of your own trauma responses. You may also have people in your team who simply lack confidence or experience in the kind of decision making that’s needed. The reality is that there is no situation within your team that cannot be overcome, even if it requires an external coach or facilitator.
Everyone in your team has the right to be in a role that they can thrive and grow in. This might mean they are accountable for a lot of key decisions but maybe they can be better recognised and valued in a role that is more nurturing or creative. It’s important to create safe spaces where all these possibilities can be talked about either on a one-to-one basis or in a group format.
Through the prevalence of the hierarchy, we’ve come to associate doing well and being recognised at work with being promoted and holding decision-making roles. This is a warped and detrimental mindset for your business and your people. Taking the time to develop a narrative that says value is created in different roles within your business is key.
If you recognise the scenario whereby business-critical conversations become drawn out within your business, to the point that a decision take ages to reach or even, never gets made at all, you need to bring some structure to your meeting spaces.
The full menu of Liberating Structures is a great place to get started if you’d like to introduce some fast and effective group tools for collaboration and decision-making. You might also want to consider joining the Liberating Structures Studio - Next cohort starting 22nd May 2023.
My favourite tool for creating effective structure in your meetings is to simply create a clarifying questions space and a response and reaction space.
The concept is simple; when there is a decision to be made that needs input from several people, start off with one person (ideally the person with the newly assigned accountability for this decision) pitching the context to everyone including any key information that’s relevant to the decision. Then allow everyone in the group to ask any clarifying questions they might have around the decision, the pitch or the data. Finally, give everyone the opportunity to share the response or reaction one at a time with no crosstalk or discussion allowed.
This format surfaces the responses of everyone around the table, brings forward information that’s relevant to the decision and enables everyone to contribute their perspective.
If you’d like some support around liberating structures or more robust processes like Holacracy’s integrative decision making, we have a few individuals including myself, Sally McCutchion at Greaterthan that are here to talk through what your business needs to evolve beyond consensus-think.
The main thing to remember when it comes to consensus-think is that we are all human and we need spaces to align, experience trust and share our opinions. However, letting the allure of group- agreement limit the decision-making power of your business is damaging to your business growth and relationships.
Getting honest about where your business is being held back by consensus-think will free up your culture. Don’t shy away from defining core accountabilities that mean decisions are made by individuals who are best placed to make them. Support all your people to define the accountabilities that they are most suited to and can thrive with.
And finally, enable your people to metaphorically sit around the campfire together from time to time. It is a fundamental human need for many of us to feel connected through heart and soul, just don’t let your togetherness slow you down.
Sally McCutchion is a Coach, Consultant and Facilitator who supports growing, purpose-driven businesses to lead beyond hierarchy. Sally has over 10 years' experience with both the theory and practice of self-management. She is a Certified Holacracy Coach and Consciousness Coach and has been part of the Greaterthan ecosystem for a little over a year. Sally contributes to the Greaterthan network through her expertise in business development, content creation and client projects.
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