Some thoughts on Consensus vs. Collaboration

I’ve been giving some thought to the notion of “consensus building”. When I think of consensus building I imagine a situation where a bunch of people are sitting around debating an issue and the consensus occurs when the people at the table no longer wish to debate and can live with the proposed solution.  I don’t actually have any “official” definition from anywhere to back this up, as the definitions from dictionary.com aren’t too specific. I should mention that the entry in Wikipedia does briefly suggest that consensus “usually involves collaboration, rather than compromise”.

Despite this suggestion from Wikipedia, from my experience I tend to find that discussions around “consensus building” seem to be focused on compromise rather than collaboration. Again, it’s just a gut feel but whether the conversation is facilitated or not I find that the questions in the conversation tend to be along the lines of “if i gave up ‘x’, would you give me ‘y'”? In other words I find the conversations to be subtractive. Ie. how can the proposed solution be pared down until it isn’t disagreeable for most or all of the people in the room. (Apologies for the double negative.) This has to be a less than ideal situation for all parties. Nobody truly wins.

This differs from collaborative conservations which I would suggest are more additive. Ie. lots of “yes, and” with a goal of expressing and building towards an ideal solution for all parties and it would haven been impossible to have achieved individually.  My experience tells me that people leave these types of conversations energized, motivated and confident in their colleagues.

Maybe it’s just some pointless semantic babbling, but I’m thinking that “consensus building” is an oxymoron up there with “army intelligence” and “jumbo shrimp”.

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3 responses to “Some thoughts on Consensus vs. Collaboration

  1. Daniel,
    Years ago I was working for two organizations that used consensus decision making. Yes, especially when people first arrived, the conversations could feel subtractive. But as people gained experience and learned more about consensus decision making, the conversations shifted to be more collaborative and additive. We began to recognize that taking people who were coming from hierarchal decision structures, and plopping them down expecting them to be collaborative was unrealistic.

    I began to understand the differences at a deeper level through trial and error and not giving up too soon. I also really deepened my understanding through multiple long conversations with Quaker colleagues who had been living with consensus their whole lives in their personal worlds, while living in different structures in the world around them.

  2. I, too, have had a bit of experience with the concept and practice of consensus. I have had less experience with the corporate variety, which I think is often merely code for decision by committee, which is part of a cover-your-as-by-making-sure-that-no-decision-you-make-is-traceable-to-anyone-in-particularism.

    On the other hand, I went to a Quaker college in the American midwest and was part of many governance bodies and processes that used consensus. Personally, my best experiences were in situations in which consensus was a conversational norm rather than a tightly prescriptive process. Here, consensus is as much about how we “govern” a conversation as about how we reach an outcome or agreement. I think of the ideal of consensus as an agreement to seek an outcome that satisfies everyone, not because it compromises and reaches a lowest common denominator, but because it forces us to grapple with diversity and nuance and to seek “larger” solutions that can contain everyone’s perspectives and goals with shoe-horning them into crappy versions of people’s third choice options.

    A big clue to this in Quaker religious practice is the fundamental belief in “that light of God that is in everyone”.

    True consensus is, I think, an agreement to respect each other and to work hard to put that respect into practice instead of into the empty phrases of “mission” statements.

  3. I’m definitely intrigued by the comments on this post coming back to the Quaker model. I like the distinction between the approach and the outcome.

    Maybe the fundamental difference is that in corporate speak consensus means that the high powered exec tells everyone what they should think until consensus is achieved. Whereas the Quaker approach is about what Michael described and assumes a more holistic view of how the world works and an appreciation for diversity.

    I look forward to giving this topic a lot more thought.

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