Project Management

Project Management Central

Please login or join to subscribe to this thread

Topics: Change Management, Leadership, Organizational Culture
What is consensus?
In the modern world of project management, with its ever-increasing complexity and diverse and widely divergent stakeholders, the word "consensus" is used more and more. It is widely accepted that with an ever-widening stakeholder base, unanimity of opinion is an elusive goal. With widely divergent needs and expectations, some which are in direct conflict with other stakeholder groups, it is becoming more and more part of a project manager’s skill set to be able to lead these groups to a "consensus" that is acceptable. But what is consensus?

The Oxford dictionary defines consensus as, “an opinion that all members of a group agree with.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as, “general agreement, the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned.” PMI’s own Standards Program has its own lengthier definition of consensus modeled directly from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) definition. Paraphrased it states: Substantial agreement reached by directly and materially affected interest categories…signifying the concurrence of more than a simple majority, but not necessarily unanimity. Consensus requires that all views and objections be considered, and that an effort be made toward their resolution.

So, is consensus just another way of looking at negotiation and compromise? I would argue consensus building and negotiating, though related, are not the same thing. Nor is consensus simply a matter of majority rule. Consensus building needs to focus on the key parts that help define consensus.
• Substantial agreement
• Arrived at by the broader affected parties
• Not just a simple majority vote
• All views and objections being considered
• Efforts made to resolve objections

A simple majority vote discounts the concerns of the minority’s dissenting view. It rides roughshod over the entire consensus process. Failing to allow the minority view a full discussion and consideration simply means you are imposing the majority view on all. At the same time, an unbending dissenting minority does not hold veto power over the majority view. To do so voids the interest of the majority. Attaining consensus is hard work.

Consensus cannot be attained by forced mandate. Nor can it be attained by having a select few, working in secret, voting on what the decision/action will be. Consensus requires open discussion in full view of the affected stakeholders. Open discussion brings to light the real issues or concerns of the minority view. It also helps share the views and reasoning of those holding the majority view. Understanding the issues or concerns at play opens the door for true compromise and negotiation.

In situations where the numbers of stakeholders are exceptionally large you may be forced to have subgroups or committees work on the issue – it is simply a logistics thing. Current technology gives plenty of options for having widespread, real time discussion of issues. Yet technology cannot solve all the issues of having to address groups of affected stakeholders that can range in the hundreds if not thousands. In situations like these, subgroups or committees may be required. However, the process for selecting who serves on such a committee must be open and transparent and one that the affected stakeholders can accept. Otherwise, these stakeholders will never accept any decisions reached by a committee they had no voice in selecting. But even after committees are selected, their work must be done in an open and transparent way. Affected stakeholders should be communicated with regularly with the status and concerns being addressed by the committee. Doing otherwise turns this approach into a select few, working in secret to make decisions affecting everyone. Acceptance by the broader group will be hard to achieve if things are done in secret.

So how does one attain consensus? My view is that open, honest, and transparent discussion of the issues is key. Without open discussion consensus can never be attained.

What are your views? How do you attain consensus within the projects you lead?
Sort By:
Some things to keep in mind when trying to reach consensus:

1) achieving consensus does not necessarily result in the right solution. You can just as easily achieve consensus to take the wrong action.

2) come to a consensus as to what is subject to consensus - technical matters should be left the the respective subject matter experts. As example, on a road trip the destination may be by consensus however following the rules of the road are the responsibility of the driver.

3) only people with skin in the game should have a say in the consensus process.Those present but not affected should excuse themselves.

4) each party taking part in the consensus process should be required to provide a reason for agreeing to the proposed outcome. "I'm agreeing so as to keep the peace" can be problematic later.
Good points Peter. One I did not add in my original post is "how much is at stake." If it is a simple decision that does not impact many, then an elaborate consensus process is not warranted. However, if the decisions have large scale impacts then a more robust attempt at attaining consensus would be appropriate.
Hi Dave,

Here’s one of my principles as it relates to gaining a consensus:

Reaching true consensus requires the absence of assumptions and the adoption of one's ability to be wrong.

- Surrendering to one’s self and others that you can be wrong creates an environment that yields consensus and successful outcomes. Whereas consensus made among those who are never wrong is "future discord" masked as an agreement.
...
1 reply by Dave Violette
Aug 11, 2020 9:45 AM
Dave Violette
...
Thanks for the response George. So true, being open minded is crucial if one is to attain consensus. Doggedly clinging to one's personal view shuts down open discussion. We all must be willing to accept there may be other views out there that are just as valid.

Thanks for contributing to the dialog.
I think a more relevant question would be how do we avoid cognitive bias? Reaching consensus is great but what if this consensus is based on social perception? Something I have learned from the analyst in me is to step away from the 'what if' scenario but rather focus on the 'what if not' and this is something I also suggest when a decision needs to be made where consensus is needed. If everybody thinks 'what if this happens' we are very likely to end up in the same place i.e. cognitive bias, but if we start answering the 'what is not' we open up more possibilities.
...
1 reply by Dave Violette
Aug 11, 2020 9:50 AM
Dave Violette
...
Thanks Anton for taking the time to respond. You make a valid point. In my view your point is an integral part of open discussion. Using the "if not" question can and does create a different way of looking at things.

All good stuff. Thanks for adding to the dialogue.
Aug 10, 2020 6:18 PM
Replying to George Freeman
...
Hi Dave,

Here’s one of my principles as it relates to gaining a consensus:

Reaching true consensus requires the absence of assumptions and the adoption of one's ability to be wrong.

- Surrendering to one’s self and others that you can be wrong creates an environment that yields consensus and successful outcomes. Whereas consensus made among those who are never wrong is "future discord" masked as an agreement.
Thanks for the response George. So true, being open minded is crucial if one is to attain consensus. Doggedly clinging to one's personal view shuts down open discussion. We all must be willing to accept there may be other views out there that are just as valid.

Thanks for contributing to the dialog.
Aug 11, 2020 2:22 AM
Replying to Anton Oosthuizen
...
I think a more relevant question would be how do we avoid cognitive bias? Reaching consensus is great but what if this consensus is based on social perception? Something I have learned from the analyst in me is to step away from the 'what if' scenario but rather focus on the 'what if not' and this is something I also suggest when a decision needs to be made where consensus is needed. If everybody thinks 'what if this happens' we are very likely to end up in the same place i.e. cognitive bias, but if we start answering the 'what is not' we open up more possibilities.
Thanks Anton for taking the time to respond. You make a valid point. In my view your point is an integral part of open discussion. Using the "if not" question can and does create a different way of looking at things.

All good stuff. Thanks for adding to the dialogue.

Please login or join to reply

Content ID:
ADVERTISEMENTS

"Work is what you do for others . . . art is what you do for yourself."

- Stephen Sondheim

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsors