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:
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.