Collaboration, not Consensus, Creates Lasting Solutions

Collaboration, Consensus, and Compromise are often used interchangeably in organisational life.  These three ways of resolving conflict are very different, however, and two of them can have disastrous consequences.  Only Collaboration creates lasting solutions.

The Death of Consensus

When was the last time you were in a meeting and somebody said, “We need to make a decision and take action?”  Chances are the stakes were high.  The problem was complicated.  Nobody wanted to step forward with a proposal for how to solve it.  If this is a familiar scenario, your organisation culture may be too consensus-driven.

In that meeting, it is likely that nobody came forward with a decision.  Instinctively, everyone in the meeting knew that whoever came up with an idea would be shot down.  Worse yet, they could be blamed for the outcome when it all went wrong.

At the turn of the century, (2000, 2001) it seemed to me that consensus was all the rage.  If we thought of every angle, and hashed through all the risks, how could we not find the right answer?  Truth is, most of the time when organisations use a consensus approach, NO decision is the result.  The problem spins on for months and months until it either dies a quiet death in some long-forgotten email folder, or it escalates to the top-most ranks.   Then a senior exec far removed from the details makes a unilateral decision that suits just about nobody.

And yet, the ideal of consensus is still rife in corporate life.

Why Consensus Is a Fiction

Consensus is a fiction because of our VUCA world.  In 2009, researchers Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short at University of San Diego determined that the average American was exposed to the equivalent of 34 GB of data per day.  Zowie.  And that was more than a decade ago.  Each of us are exposed to a different mix of more than 34 GB of information every day.  (Check out the original research here.)  It stands to reason that we can never have the same understanding of any topic or issue as someone else.  We process information differently based on our experience and personality.  And because of this, consensus is a fictitious concept.  So why aim for consensus?

Meeting attendees may say they agree to a decision and course of action.  But speak to each person after the meeting is over, and you will get a slightly different perspective of what was agreed and how it will be implemented.  In a consensus-driven culture, opposition to ideas or nay-sayers may be silenced.  That means there is less diversity of opinion, and even less information is reviewed when making the decision. It is highly likely that AFTER after a “consensual decision,” grumbling and passive-aggressive behaviour that blocks action will result.  Under the worst circumstance, Groupthink is spawned in a consensus-driven culture.  It is pure fiction that Consensus creates lasting solutions.

Compromise Is for Losers

A lot of well-intentioned people seek to make joint decisions via compromise.  These people believe that joint decisions must necessarily be painful, and they gird their loins and take the plunge.  On particularly complicated multi-issue decisions, the Compromise Colleagues are the ones who take an “I win on this issue, you win on the next one” kind of approach.  Or vice versa.  It doesn’t matter who wins first, Compromise will not create lasting solutions.  The reason is because it costs the loser too much on each round.  And that breeds resentment.  The outcomes may be balanced, but will never satisfy both parties fully.

The Beauty of Collaboration

Collaboration is not a synonym for compromise.  Far from it, collaboration requires active listening skills to surface each person’s Interests and Priorities.  Only when everybody understands everyone else’s Interests and Priorities, and has been clear about their own, can realistic solutions be suggested.  A realistic solution is one that potentially meets most interests and the highest priorities of all those involved.  Collaboration is the most likely way to find the strongest realistic solution.  Collaboration creates lasting solutions.

How to Collaborate to Create Lasting Solutions

Avoid evaluating each idea as it surfaces.  Evaluating each idea as it comes will likely result in the rejection of all ideas until the group has no ideas at all.  Instead, aim to create an overview list of as many potential solutions as possible.  Resist the temptation to explain any idea in depth at this stage.  Rather, outline each potential solution so all parties understand what it is and what specific aspects of the problem it aims to solve.  Any questions asked of an idea should only be in an attempt to understand it, not to evaluate it.

Once several solutions have been proposed, silence will fall on the group. Try to maintain that silence with everybody thinking about the solutions proposed for at least two or three minutes.  If you do this, someone may come up with a new idea that combines the best of the previous ideas.  And yes, this will happen BEFORE in-depth discussions on any idea take place, making this a far more efficient process than Compromise.

If the joint decision is among equals, this process will most likely work.

Unequal Parties

Sadly, it is rarely the case that people are equals in any situation.  So what can you do, assuming you aren’t a power-hungry jerk and instead you truly want to create a lasting solution?  Ask others about their interests and priorities, then summarise what you have understood they are.  This is the best thing you can do to approach a strong, lasting solution.  Parties with weaker positions in a joint decision will know they are weak.  Powerful people can objectively convey their understanding of the weaker needs, and the weaker party will at least know they have been heard.  Public hearing of weaker party concerns increases the likelihood they will be factored into the solution process.  It also increases commitment to the final solution from those whose interests are not fully met.

Create Lasting Solutions

At its heart, true Collaboration is an affirmation of relationship and of the importance of shared understanding.  In this age of narcissistic world leaders who break from long-lasting agreements, there is growing concern that these actions threaten world peace and indeed the sustainability of the planet.  Likewise, those of us who lead organisations that seek to provide sustainable and superior products and services to others, can do so by building and utilising our Collaboration skills to make a positive difference.  Collaboration is the only method that creates lasting solutions.

Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures