Thursday, November 24, 2005

Building consensus

A few days ago, I attended the semi-annual business meeting of a non-profit I'm involved with. Since we're a touchy-feely crunchy-granola sort of a group, we operate by consensus. That means that any one member can filibuster any proposal. So how on earth do we ever get anything done?

There are so many misconceptions about formal consensus process, even among groups that operate by it, that it's difficult to know where to start, but here's a quick overview of the process: an issue is presented, possibly accompanied by a specific proposal. Members can ask questions to clarify the issue. The group then discusses the issue, raising any relevant concerns. Those concerns are then addressed, while keeping in mind the concerns that started the discussion. If all is going smoothly, everyone's concerns are raised and answered satisfactorily, and the group reaches consensus. An individual member who is still unhappy with the outcome then has two options:

  • Stand Aside: "I wish to register a strong disagreement with the outcome, but I will allow it to take effect."

  • Block: "I feel so strongly that this outcome is unacceptable that I refuse to allow the group to take this action."
A stand-aside is a fairly strong statement, but an actual block represents more: a person who blocks a proposal must commit to working with the group to find an acceptable resolution that addresses both the concerns that motivated the original proposal and the concerns that motivated the member to block the proposal. You can't just stamp your foot and shout "No!"

Many people believe that consensus process simply leads to interminable discussion, with actual work accomplished only when the participants are so exhausted they will agree to almost anything. However, if the participants are focused and grounded and mindful of the difference between an unacceptable outcome and a merely unpleasant outcome, the process can serve to unite the group in common cause. It avoids such farces as proposals that are raised and rejected several times and then finally adopted without any substantive attempt to address the concerns against them. It also avoids situations where 50.001% of a group grinds its boot heels into the other 49.999%.

Perhaps in some far-off fantasy, the U.S. Congress could operate by formal consensus process, although I'd say that's not likely to happen in this century or even this millennium. However, I would hope that the philosophy of reaching across the aisle to address a broad spectrum of concerns could again find a home in Washington.