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29 May 2014

Breaking through Consensus

The Need for Speed

Breaking through Chains of Consensus

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.


* DARPA: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency


8 Responses

  1. This is thought provoking and as an innovator myself I find it intuitively right. But it raises a problem: I need to work with conservative people, mostly doctors working in small teams of say 3-7 in their own practices. We tell them the first stage of change is the hardest, reaching consensus. Most fail, even though the innovation would benefit the whole. But without consensus, they don’t even start. How do we get around this block?

    1. Mike Lehr

      Harry, I like your question, and I see value in writing a post around it if you would grant permission to reference it.

      I spent time trying to determine the best way to approach your question. I discovered that essentially the assumptions in it narrow your options. So, in most cases, it produces the answer of just trying to continue what you’re doing, of endorsing the status quo. So my recommendation, if you are dissatisfied with the outcomes the process occasionally produces or perhaps the unusual business opportunities you do not get, is that you revisit your assumptions. I’ve identified four such assumptions in your question:
      1. You work with conservative people, especially doctors are conservative
      2. Reaching consensus is the hardest part of change
      3. Without consensus they don’t even start
      4. People must be conscious of the change they are trying to bring about

      Here are some questions to consider for each. In and of themselves, they aren’t necessarily the right ones, but collectively they’ll help you think of others that are more pertinent to your situation and help you answer your question. Each client will provide a different answer to your question.

      Regarding #1: Are all conservative? Are all equally conservative? Is the conservatism systemic, personal or both (i.e. result of job, industry, process not personality)? Why are we attracting conservative clients? Does that mean all have have the same personality? Carry the same weight in the group? What are the actual personality dynamics in the group? Who called you in? Why? Who is dominant? Who goes along? Who is contrarian? What other personality traits besides orientation around change might segregate the group and provide leverage for change?

      Regarding #2: What about the argument that it’s easy for anyone to agree to things and then not follow through? Why isn’t implementation harder? Planning is important, but not all things go according to plan and not all details can be captured, so what prevents “Hey, this is more than what I wanted to sacrifice for the consensus, so maybe I’ll just sandbag and trust this will go away”?

      Regarding #3: How do we know this is the client’s problem and not the approach? The post is about consensus being a decision-making process, realizing that it doesn’t work for all situations. This link might give insight where a more dominant, directed approach might work http://blog.omegazadvisors.com/?p=937 depending upon the personalities involved. Do all people enjoy making decisions equally? Do some fear it? Do all want responsibility for the decisions equally? Do some not want any responsibility? How much is what they’re telling you inline with what they’re feeling, what they want?

      Regarding #4: Do people really need to know consciously change is occurring? This post can help http://blog.omegazadvisors.com/?p=3083. How many of these small groups could be influenced by a single member extremely passionate and motivated for change? How often could announcing change be like making a mountain out of a molehill? Why make such a big deal of it, such a process out of it, just do it, gradually over time? Could our process be making change more onerous and intimidating than it needs to be? If we tell people something is going to be hard, are they more or less likely to make it so?

      In short, we can’t get around the block until we’re willing to accept our path won’t be straight.

      Again, thank you for your question, Harry. I liked it, and it’s important to us all. Enjoy your day! ~Mike

      1. Good questions Mike.
        I’d say my comments are not assumptions, they are observations. No, not all doctors are equally conservative, and some have been terrific change leaders. Generalisations are inadequate but may have some use.

        Our evidence is that fewer than 1 in 10 enquiries converts, even if they go a long way with the discussion, but those that do enjoy around 90% success, which is why I say reaching consensus is the hardest part.

        The client or the approach? Both are in a dance, we’ve done it lots of times and had to try lots of different things. The client has only done this dance once. Any way of improving the approach is most welcome, and if I knew the answer we would be flying.

        Change: we do the change by doing, ie we aren’t trying to change thinking or culture first, though they do change, we get people doing something different as fast as possible, and experiencing that it works. We also make it very very easy for the mechanics to work, so the doctors can concentrate on helping patients. The intervention generally works well now, still working to improve it, but the block is not in the intervention, it’s the decision to start. Get us round that every time and I’ll send you a big hug from UK.

        1. Mike Lehr

          Thank you for the comments, Harry. Stop by any time. Yes, I can definitely help based on the info. Whenever you’re ready, let me know. In the meantime, take care and thanks again for the visit. It was very educational. Enjoy your day! ~Mike

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