Consensus retards dynamic solutions. For example, Regina Dugan and Kaigham Gabriel write in “‘Special Forces’ Innovation: How DARPA* Attacks Problems” (Harvard Business Review, October 2013 edition):
Crucially, decisions about which projects to pursue must not be made by committee. Breakthrough innovations, by their very nature, do not lend themselves to consensus.
Yet, consensus taps our emotional triggers related to security, thus tempting us when it might not be the right decision-making process. Often in problem-solving, we don’t give much consideration to this question: Is a decision-making process conducive to the decision at hand? Consequently, we rely upon the same process to handle all decisions, all problems, thus chaining us to a range of mediocre solutions.
Consensus dissipates responsibility. An adverse outcome allows the retort, “I ran this by everyone, and they thought it the right decision too.” Additionally, consensus dissipates dynamism. While reducing risk, it retards breakthrough solutions because decisions are only as strong as the weakest link is. Finally, consensus dissuades dissent and conflict, crucial elements of innovation and creativity, and encourages homogeneity, their dangerous retardant. These weaknesses make consensual decision-making a potential foreteller of problems.
Of course, this doesn’t make consensus inherently bad. It works well when we seek conservative, predictable, quantifiable and scientifically-proven solutions serving to buttress the status quo. The problem is that we often default to it most when uncertainty is highest and breakthroughs needed most, again assuaging our emotional fears of insecurity and risk. In other words, when we need fresh, dynamic outcomes, consensus is likely not the best decision-making process.
Therefore, to break through consensus, we need to ask: Are we using the right decision-making process for the problem at hand? Very often, just as agendas determine meetings’ outcomes, our thought and decision-making processes predetermine our solutions.