Let’s suppose your organization (or some part thereof) has decided to take a more principled approach towards the data and/or algorithms it uses by establishing ethics-based ground rules for their use. Maybe this stems from concerns expressed by leadership, legal counsel, shareholders, customers, or employees about potential harms arising from a technology you’re already using or about to use. Maybe it’s because you know companies like Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce have already taken significant steps to incorporate data and AI ethics requirements into their business processes.
Regardless of the immediate focus, keep in mind that you probably don’t need to launch the world’s best program on day one (or year one). The bad news is that there is no plug and play, one-size-fits-all solution awaiting you. You and your colleagues will need to begin by understanding where you are now, visualizing where you are headed, and incrementally building a roadway that takes you in the right direction. In fact, it makes sense to start small—like you would when prototyping a new product or line of business—learning and building support systems as you go. Over time, your data and AI ethics program will generate long term benefits, as AI and data ethics increasingly become important for every organization’s good reputation, growth in value, and risk management.
In the following 4 part series about initiating a functional data and AI ethics program we will cover the basic steps you and your team will need to undertake, including:
I recently read Warren Buffett’s authorized biography The Snowball. It was a chewy read, at just under 900 pages with copious footnotes and fine grained details about what he ate, parties he attended, and vacations he took, in addition to background profiles of many of the companies he bought and larger-than-life personalities he associated with.
The bits I found most interesting concerned Buffett’s concerns about corporate ethics. In general he sought to put his money behind individuals he felt he could trust, not only because he believed they could make money, but because of their ethics in business dealings. Of course, he didn’t always choose well. And sometimes he compromised—and later regretted certain choices. Continue reading “What Warren Buffett said about Ethics”
If you work for an organization that uses data—and just about all organizations do, or will before long—even if your job isn’t specifically about data, your ability to make decisions using data, and decision about data, is becoming more and more important.
Organizations are discovering they need to decide things like
• which problems to solve with data,
• who to hire to solve those problems,
• what kind of training to provide employees,
• what the long term strategy will be, and
• how it is going to explain its data use to the world.
An important subset of these decisions that involves everyone—decisionmakers, employees, and customers alike—falls under the general category of digital ethics, which can encompass how data is collected, stored, used, and shared.
To illustrate, lets look at two examples of digital ethics in action, one surprisingly successful, and one disastrous.
First, the happy story. My friend Aaron Reich is basically the futurist in residence at Avanade, the global technology consulting firm. From the vantage point of his high level insight into many of their consulting projects, last year he called out a few examples where companies achieved remarkable improvement in ways that they can help their customers using data and artificial intelligence. One of these companies is a financial institution in Europe which used AI to predict which customers were likely to “churn”, or leave for a competitor. This was a huge problem for them, and obviously for their customers. By applying machine learning to their customer data, they were able to better understand their customers’ needs, improve their communication, and cut churn in half. This is obviously a win-win for both the company and its customers.
Next, the scary story: in 2015 it became widely known that Volkswagen had “cooked” the emissions test data from millions of its diesel vehicles in order to sell more cars.
• Relatively few VW personnel who had significant roles in the scheme were also present in the US—and thus subject to US jursidiction. One was an engineer sentenced to 40 months in prison…even though he was just doing what his bosses wanted him to do (which is of course not a defense under the law). Another was an engineering manager who was arrested when he entered the US to vacation in Florida.
• VW set aside $31.7 billion for fines, settlements, recalls and buybacks.
• VW experienced a $66 billion drop in value on the stock market after the fraud was revealed (and continued to underperform the market average for some time)
• An engineering company which assisted VW in defeating emissions testing was fined $35 million—this amount was imposed because it was deemed the maximum the contractor could pay without putting it out of business.
• Even though Germany didn’t used to have a provision for what the US calls “class action” lawsuits, in response to “dieselgate” German lawmakers created a new form of collective legal action that, in November and December 2018 enabled 372,000 German owners of VW cars to seek compensation for being the victims of this fraud.
What’s the point? Why should ordinary business, government organizations, and non-profits take notice of digital ethics? Most people are unlikely to find themselves in the shoes of the people who successfully reduced churn at the European financial institution, or those who participated in Dieselgate. But many will. And we should all be prepared to find ourselves somewhere on that spectrum. We are increasingly like to discover potential benefits from, and problems with, the ways our organizations use data. We can recommend, and sometimes resist, changes our organizations make. The key is to become more educated, and more fluent, in data and digital ethics. It’s like a muscle—you already have it, but you have to exercise it and train it.
In this series of posts about digital ethics, we’re going to cover issues like:
• What does “ethics” mean—and when is ethics important? Ethics are not clearly defined for many situation, and individual’s views of what is ethical can depend largely on context, (for example, healthcare, politics, or finance), and on individual backgrounds or professions.
• What are potential business gains, and avoidable negative consequences, that can result when organizations develop and apply standards of digital ethics internally?
• Who is responsible for digital ethics? Once again, there is no universal answer to this question, but it’s something that every organization and every individual must be prepared to answer for themselves.
• Who needs to talk to who about digital ethics? And here the answer touches on customer relationships, shareholders, employees, leaders, government, and more.
Please join me as we explore this topic and help make it relevant to everyone—this is definitely not best left exclusively to professors, lawyers, and spin doctors.
All three contain countless nuggets of recent scientific insight into behavioral economics, or why people and markets behave as we do, as explained by three very cogent thinkers. All three focused on defining the abilities, strengths and weaknesses of different brain areas; how human impulses mesh and are sorted and acted on; predictable biases of both “rational” and “emotional” sorts; and, what we can do to avoid—and manipulate—biases and errors. Interestingly, all three authors acknowledged the increasing difficulty academics are having in drawing sharp lines between “rational” and “emotional” behavior when confronted with contemporary knowledge about brain function, but all three attempted to draw distinctions between “rational” and “emotional” decisions nonetheless—with varying degrees of success.
The book I enjoyed the most was Jonah Lehrer’s, which I could oversimplify by describing as “neuroscience discovers B.F. Skinner” because of his focus on learned behavior. But perhaps that’s because Lehrer’s approach best fit my personal preconceptions about behavior—and the fact that B.F. Skinner was still working at the psych department where I received my undergraduate degree in psychology way back when I was in school.
I recently participated in an in-person discussion about leadership attended by a number of people I know through social media. Because the instigators of the discussion, Pam Hoelzle and Ethan Yarbrough, publicized the event online, the composition of the group and the conversation itself were flavored by a social media perspective. The discussion delivered several valuable takeaways, but one idea that stood out because it was useful and a little counterintuitive was this: Effective social media participation is like effective leadership.
By “effective social media participation” I mean purposefully interacting with people via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media to find people and information we need to accomplish business and personal goals.
By “effective leadership” I mean motivating high performing people to work towards a common purpose, whether or not we are are the “manager” of those folks (one can lead by influence even when one isn’t in a position of authority).
During our discussion three common threads came out that connect effective social media participation and effective leadership: selection, reciprocation, and vision.
Selection. In both social media and leadership we benefit by choosing our contributors carefully.
In the context of social media I often call this “filtering”. A LOT of potentially useful information is Tweeted, blogged, Buzzed, or otherwise published by people analyzing (or simply regurgitating) what they discover. In fact, there is so much of this information, and meta-information, there isn’t nearly enough time to skim it all efficiently much less read it all. After participating in social media for a time–if it wasn’t obvious to us from the beginning–most of us recognize that just because someone Tweets brilliantly and has a large following doesn’t mean we’ll find the time to read their stuff very often (sorry, @StephenFry). Social media is best managed like a lavish all-you-can-eat buffet: even something that looks very tasty won’t make it onto our plates if taking it would require sacrificing something we desire even more. In social media an information source must be consistently relevant and efficient for our purposes to be useful, not just beautiful in our sight.
Similarly, in a leadership context an impressive resume is just a starting point when determining whether there’s a good fit between a potential team member and a position on our team. Which is why personal relationships and recommendations from people we trust are so valuable when recruiting team members–and when choosing social media sources. One must be selective to be effective.
Delegation is the powerful outcome of good contributor selection in both social media and leadership. Whether social media networks or work groups, ideally we implicitly trust our teams to produce quality results for us. Otherwise we’re tempted to second guess our contributors, which deprives them of the rewards of our recognition, duplicates effort, and leads us down the path of information overload. Like we trust the curator of an art gallery to collect and display a worthy collection or art, like we trust the editors of our favorite publications to discover and accurately portray stories for us, like we trust our auto mechanics to keep our cars running, we should trust our teams to do their jobs. If and when we don’t feel we can rely on our team, whether we’re working as a leader or as a participant in social media, that’s a not-so-subtle sign that we will benefit from improving our approach towards selection, reciprocation, and vision.
Reciprocation. Both social media and leadership require reciprocation to be sustainable. Other people contribute to our successes, and we contribute to theirs. That’s the nature of the bargain. The biggest mistake I see would-be social media “power users” and would-be leaders make is not focusing enough on what success looks like for their team members. A true leader (as distinguished from a “manager”) provides team members with what they value above and beyond their pay checks, for example, by encouraging them to take responsibilities that will help them develop personally and professionally. And just as leadership requires more than a checkbook and a list of instructions for employees to follow, social media mastery requires more than pumping out branded messages to subscribers. Social media rock stars listen to what is said in their networks, recognize needs, and respond by offering referrals, links, analysis, or whatever else they have to help meet those needs.
Vision. Last but not least: to be effective in either social media or leadership we must communicate a clear, consistent vision that lets people know what we want them to contribute, and thus (directly or indirectly) what they will be rewarded for contributing. If we can’t sustain the insight we need to define and communicate our vision we’ll have a difficult time selecting people who can contribute to it, and neither we nor our team members will be particularly good at providing what the other needs.
One final thought. As a leader, or as a participant in social media, we get out what we put in. Just as putting time, focus and energy into leadership is essential to be an effective leader, putting time, focus and energy into social media is essential to be effective in social media. Those of us who believe leadership or social media are among our core responsibilities are thus obligated to make studying and practicing our craft a high priority for so long as we wish to be effective.
My previous post describes the benefits and limitations of the five-degree consensus process that I recommend to clients who use consensus decision making as part of their repertoire of business skills.
In this entry I offer you a downloadable chart plus a condensed, one-page explanation of how to use a consensus scale which you may want to print out for your own use or e-mail to friends and co-workers for their use. (If you’re really hard core, print the chart on special white-board paper for laser printers. Then you can mark and erase right on it as much as you want.)
To download it to your computer, right-click with your mouse (or on a Mac, option-click).
When, again, is a consensus process particularly appropriate? See my post from December 8, 2005 for a more detailed answer to this question. In general, a consensus process may be valuable when:
you want a proposal examined carefully. A consensus process pushes people proposing a course of action to clarify their reasoning and pushes others to wrap their minds around the proposal, encouraging everyone to understand it, ask questions, and offer input.
you fear weak follow-through, and thus you want to secure support up front or quit before setting a decision up for failure. A consensus process pushes everyone in a group to assume responsibility for a decision, including follow-through down the road.
you aren’t in a desperate hurry. Although a rapid decision may be reached by consensus, for speed alone you’re frequently better off assigning a qualified solo decision maker.
A simple consensus process can reveal whether the members of a group agree about a proposed course of action while promoting discussion that can lead to agreement.
Polling a group using a five degree consensus scale “takes the temperature” of a group, instantly demonstrating when a proposal requires no further consideration either because it already has universal support or because opposition is overwhelming. When consensus for or against a proposal does not already exist, the scale identifies whose concerns need to be addressed and their degree of difference from others in the group, so that an effort can be made to close the gap or abandon the attempt to reach consensus.
Productive discussion is encouraged because it’s easy and acceptable for group members to express uncertainties, differences of opinion, and alternative approaches without appearing hostile, disruptive, or uncooperative towards the group or the group’s leader. Consensus is not a foregone conclusion using the scale, but the give-and-take atmosphere it facilitates helps with obtaining buy-in, discovering new options and changes in the plan, and enabling movement towards or away from support for a proposal.
Many consensus scales are in use utilizing hand gestures, cards, colors, or numerical tallies. The simplest might be the three-degrees scale such as “hot, neutral, cold” or “yes, maybe, no,” or “go, caution, stop,” but I find that a slightly wider range is useful in most cases. The following is a five-point scale I have adapted from a system sometimes called “shades of consensus” or “levels of consensus.”
After a plan of action has been proposed, each participant in the decision chooses a number from one to five to signal their degree of support. These numbers signal roughly the following:
1: Yes. Let’s do it.
2: OK. It’s good enough.
3: Maybe. I have questions.
4: Wait. Can we change it?
5: No. Let’s do something else.
After everyone has weighed-in, all ones and twos show consensus support for a plan, although time might be well spent clarifying what, if anything, could be changed to bring twos up to ones. All fours and fives shows consensus opposition to a plan, although discussion may still be useful to generate a shared sense of why a proposal was rejected and to spur thinking about alternatives. Threes suggest more explanation is needed.
Some number of ones or twos alongside fours or fives demonstrates a lack of clear consensus and need for further discussion or in-depth exploration of options, if consensus remains the group’s goal. Polling a group with a consensus scale is an iterative process, which is to say, multiple polls can be taken to discover movement in consensus rankings, or lack thereof, after discussion.
It’s worth emphasizing that the whole point of this is to walk through the process, not to achieve a pre-determined outcome. What is more, deadlock is an entirely acceptable result using this technique. Using a consensus scale does not guarantee that a particular proposal will ultimately receive either consensus support or opposition. A strong contrary position taken by even one participant is enough to deny “consensus decision” status – but of course, there are always alternative proposals, and alternative ways to arrive at decisions besides consensus.
When a group is deadlocked, the value of a consensus process is that it reveals the existence of the deadlock and, hopefully, the reasons for it. Typically this leads to a new proposals which address the concerns on both sides of the consensus chart in a way which unifies everyone.
If a consensus can’t be reached, but a decision must be made regardless, it may become necessary to abandon the effort to reach consensus and to use another decision-making style instead. For example, if a board must arrive at a certain decision within a certain time frame, a failure to reach consensus may mean that a simple majority vote will be required instead. Or in a business group, it may become necessary for the senior person in the hierarchy to make an executive decision, delegate, or otherwise choose a different course for decision making. Either way, a group should begin a consensus decision-making process knowing the consequences it will face for failing to come to a decision, whether that means accepting responsibility for no decision being delivered or understanding that the decision will pass out of their hands and on to another process or person.
Regardless of the ultimate result, a consensus scale makes it a no-brainer for a diverse group of people to express and develop individual levels of understanding and enthusiasm, while making it easy for leaders to gauge the support a proposal will receive if it is adopted.
AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (just over 4 minutes listening time–it’s a 2 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.
There is an apparent conflict between making decisions efficiently, which is to say, using a low-cost process for decision making, and making efficient decisions, the decisions that are most likely to lead to good quality results.
Decision process is important in several ways. For instance, delegation is an efficient decision-making process when it reduces the number of people involved and thus the total number of hours put into making a decision. This is true whether or not the person given decision-making authority has the most expertise in the area of the decision. Delegation also has potential intrinsic benefits. It can build decision makers’ expertise and help them develop in their organizational roles. In large part one learns to be a better leader by leading, and a salesperson by selling, and so on. Thus, even if the decision arrived at by a delegatee could have been improved upon by someone with more expertise, an organization benefits by using delegation as a process because of the time savings and the delegatee’s expertise building and role development.
But there can be costs associated with quick decisions, and decisions involving fewer people, as compared to slower decisions and decisions involving more people.
Decision quality, as well as the decision makers themselves, may benefit immensely when goals, assumptions, and alternatives are fully discussed. Even the most experienced, most qualified, most respected, and most intuitively gifted decision makers will face decisions that are outside of their expertise, or for which they lack adequate information, or which fall into their personal blind spots. Properly framed challenges help decision makers “check their math” and discover answers that may have been hidden.
Or as Richard Doherty was quoted by USA Today as saying about the turnaround at Apple when Steve Jobs resumed its leadership: “[H]e asked these amazing questions, and the company started to transform.”
Answering questions also helps decision makers articulate their decisions to the degree necessary to sketch a vision that others in the organization can get behind and follow through on. As well, those who ask questions develop their domain expertise, and refine their art as decision makers, by running through the mental workout of formulating and presenting questions.
But decisions which include the input and approval of larger numbers of people can be inefficient from a process perspective. Learning curves, egos, politics, or simply the sheer volume of people who want to be heard can make group processes extremely time consuming.
Your best practice will be to remain aware of the potential tradeoffs between efficient decisions and efficient decision-making. Make strategic choices somewhere between the two extremes, accept the potential downsides of your choices, and be prepared to deal with pitfalls should they appear.
Too much talk, not enough action: how to switch it around
AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (about 9 minutes listening time–it’s a 4 MB download, which will take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.
In certain organizations people are always going to meetings where practically nothing gets decided. All talk and no action–what’s going on?
Action isn’t always better than talk. Sometimes the best solution to a problem is to do nothing. But when action is needed, or when talk is getting in the way, it’s time to scan for obstacles like these in your organizational culture.
1. Fear of accountability. Accountability means decision makers experience the consequences of their decisions. Placing responsibility for decisions in the hands of people who are properly motivated by the consequences will lead to better decisions over the long haul. But in the real world things often don’t turn out as planned. When an organizational culture resorts to blame and personal attacks, people won’t want responsibility for decisions. The personal risk is too high. Even when action or innovation is desperately needed, decisions are avoided or deferred. The status quo, in which nobody has to stick their neck out, offers a relatively safe harbor for individuals fearing punishment and retaliation, regardless of the long-term negative impact on the organization.
Where fear of accountability may be a problem, key questions to ask are: How do we cope with others’ mistakes? What response to mistakes would be the best for our organization and our people over the long run?
The mistakes made by the team responsible for a bank’s web site and the research and development team for a toy company, for example, might seem rather different. But everyone who has had more than a cursory level of business decision-making responsibility has made mistakes. And experimentation, which means accepting the risk that results won’t always turn out the way we want them to, is a powerful tool. So the more important question is not whether someone has made mistakes, but how they handle their mistakes. (“Fail quickly and move on” is one successful CEO’s advice.)
2. Defaulting to consensus. Consensus means getting input from everyone in a group and requiring unanimous consent before moving forward. Consensus can be a powerful mechanism for motivating every member of a team and for uncovering and resolving hidden issues that team members might otherwise let lie. However, overuse of consensus can be cumbersome, impractical, and enervating to teams bogged down by too many details.
Where overuse of consensus may be a problem, key questions to ask are: What is important about using consensus for a particular decision? What would be the benefits of taking a particular decision out of a consensus process?
To find a healthy balance, rather than relying on one form of decision making for every issue, try experimenting with different decision-making mechanisms periodically, such as consensus on one end and veto-free delegation to one person’s judgment on the other.
3. Boredom. Some people attend meetings simply because they don’t have enough to do, or don’t like their assigned work. While ambitious people often take on extra work in order to get ahead, projects can get bogged down when too many people are involved, and everyone’s work suffers if individuals or teams split their focus too many ways.
When boredom may be a problem, key questions to ask are: Whose contributions are necessary at this stage for this project? What is important about their participation? What are good ways to deal with someone’s boredom?
If someone is bored enough with their present job, it’s time for them to change. Neither they nor the organization benefit if they aren’t focused on the work already on their plate.
4. A meeting culture. In some organizations the best way for people to get noticed and get ahead is by participating in meetings. In a certain highly competitive corporate culture I know, people believe they receive credit for what they do only through the political act of presenting their work in person at a meeting, lest their contributions be ignored or even credited to someone else.
When a meeting culture may be a problem, key questions to ask are: How are careers and meetings connected? What’s important about this linkage? How could this connection be improved?
Competitiveness in an organization’s culture can lead to great strides for both individuals and teams. But competition can work against an organization’s long-term best interests if it encourages people to hold each other back while pursuing personal quests for recognition.
5. Inconsistent leadership support. An organization’s leaders may pride themselves on their motivational skills even while their on-again off-again support for innovators sabotages personal initiative across the organization.
If partially completed projects are an issue, ask these questions: How have our leaders actually rewarded action? How consistent is support for innovation according to people on the receiving end?
Consistent support gives innovators the confidence to follow through and the incentive to try again, while giving others the courage to take the plunge.
I want to give special thanks to Don Lange, owner of Straightface HQ, a 3D visual design shop in Seattle, for the spirited conversation that lead to this entry. Don’s background includes working as a lighting specialist for Hollywood film productions on which, he tells me, teams of highly autonomous production experts meet just often enough with just the right people to stay coordinated while working super-efficiently in parallel. So if you are looking for people who understand high levels of delegation, pay attention if you see “Hollywood” on a resume.
AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (about 10 minutes listening time–it’s a 4.6 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.
Consensus decision making pays for itself when it delivers robust decisions backed by everyone in a group.
Business decision makers have a wide range of decision-making processes to choose from. Both the speed and the quality of decisions can be affected by the decision-making process.
The choice of how a decision will be arrived at should take into account the issue and the people involved in an effort to minimize the cost and maximize the quality of the decision. But many businesspeople automatically make decisions in whatever way they feel most comfortable, or simply perpetuate the ways in which decisions have been made before, without looking at the fit between the decision and the decision-making style.
Consensus is frequently discussed but often misunderstood as a decision-making style. For example, some leaders will assume that team members’ silence after hearing a proposal shows their consensus, where the truth may be they are simply reluctant to express their doubts.
Strictly speaking, a consensus requires the unanimous consent, or approval, of everyone participating in the decision. Partly because each participant has veto power over the decision, participation in a consensus decision-making process gives each participant a strong sense of joint responsibility for the process and the decision. Every participant receives both motive and opportunity to give their blood for the cause.
While the word “consensus” has a touchy-feely sound to some people, in practice it is no more and no less than a specialized wrench for the well-equipped business toolbox. To clarify the value of consensus decision making it helps to compare consensus to command, delegation, and democratic decision-making styles in terms of advantages, disadvantages, and how responsibility for a decision is distributed.
Centralized decision making (“command”). Probably the most familiar and, in recent years, most criticized decision-making style is centralized or “command” decision making, where a leader is directly responsible for every decision within a certain sphere of control. This style can have the advantage of enabling quick, coordinated action, particularly when a deadline is imminent. Its disadvantages can include depriving subordinates of the responsibility, learning, innovation, and personal rewards of making decisions themselves. It can also result in inefficiency or even bottlenecks at times if review and reconsideration are needed before subordinates will take action.
Distributed decision making (“delegation”). For decades now mainstream business thinking has emphasized letting go of the simplicity and familiarity of the command style in order to obtain the benefits of distributed decision making. In contrast to command, a challenging and critically important function of “high-delegation” leaders is to serve as facilitators of decisions made by their team members while resisting the temptation to reconsider and re-issue decisions themselves.
Delegation offers efficiency by reducing the number of people required for each decision, while maximizing ownership of consequences by the individuals who receive decision-making responsibility, boosting their motivation, focus, production quality, and follow-through. However, while delegation serves to distribute decisions across a number of people or groups, the act of delegation does not by itself offer an effective process for allowing a group of people to collaborate in making a single decision.
Majority vote decision making (“democratic”). Consensus is frequently confused with “democratic” or “majority vote” decision making, which it resembles to a certain extent. A majority vote is useful for bringing large numbers of people in on a single decision with minimal cost. It can also set the stage for debate between people who have strong views about a decision, particularly for people with comparable power in a group. Finally, a democratic process results in a decision every time a vote is taken (assuming a tie-breaker process is in place).
Democratic decision making has important strengths in a business setting–for example, when involving large numbers of people such as shareholder groups in a decision. It also has weaknesses. For starters, up to 49% of participants can still wind up being “losers” even though they were included in the decision-making process. This outcome is less than ideal when an organization is counting on everyone to implement a decision enthusiastically. In addition, a vote may be slanted by apathy, inadequate information, or the influence of authority figures who express compelling opinions. Even when discussions do take place before voting, many members of a group may choose to keep important questions, concerns, or alternatives to themselves.
Consensus decision making. Because a consensus decision is preconditioned on participation by everyone in a group, it maximizes “buy-in” and effort from group members during decision making and execution. By the same token, when things don’t go exactly according to plan consensus fosters a sense of goodwill that increases patience, adaptability, and willingness to participate in damage control. The consensus process also encourages discussion of potential obstacles already known to participants, allowing work-arounds to be built into a decision in advance.
Consensus can be very efficient from a cost per decision standpoint. When everyone in a group already has compatible views concerning a proposal, consensus can produce a rapid decision with little or no time spent on a wind up and pitch beforehand. As a project moves forward, leaders can ask for consensus input from teams to discover quickly what kind of support they have and make adjustments if necessary before things go very far off course. In addition, if participants represent groups, consensus can be scaled to larger numbers of people without equivalent costs.
Compared to delegation or command, consensus could take longer or dilute responsibility for follow-through. Other disadvantages of consensus might include taking the time to listen to those whose views don’t conform to mainstream expectations. In addition, it’s possible that a consensus process won’t result in consensus support for any specific course of action, and thus no action will be chosen, which could frustrate someone who wants immediate action.
The following examples demonstrate when consensus might or might not be appropriate. For a mid-sized company, firm-wide consensus would be a poor choice of decision-making style for redesigning the company logo if that project could be better and more cheaply decided by delegating it to one person or a small group of people with appropriate backgrounds. But to redesign an office floor plan for more effective and collaborative use of group space, consensus would be an excellent decision-making style because it solicits the best ideas and the most enthusiastic long-term involvement of everyone who will be using the space.
For any group where harmonious cooperation on many levels and unity on major decisions is essential, consensus decision making can be invaluable. For example, in small business partnerships partners can ill afford to harbor serious reservations or discord over important decisions. Thus, where one partner is leaning towards letting an employee go while another partner could go either way, using a consensus process can help both partners quickly lay out and review options, arrive at a joint decision, and feel supported, respected, and trusted by one another moving forward.
Tool summary: When to use consensus for decision making.
Use the command style for decision making when decisions are needed very quickly, as in a crisis, and one person will be able to make decisions effectively.
Use delegation to increase efficiency and maximize the contribution of every team member.
Use a majority vote to include a large number of people at relatively low cost.
Use consensus when you want high quality input and commitment, with follow-through, from a group.