Good Decisions Between Consensus and Consent

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Who decides and how can good decisions be taken? For a long time, this question did not even arise in many hierarchical organizations. In case of doubt, the decision is up to the boss or a small high-ranking leadership circle, which in the best case features a high degree of diversity and honors disagreement but which in the worst case scenario only consists of claqueurs. As more and more organizations try to become more agile, new answers to the question of who decides and how to decide are of central importance. After all, agility means subsidiarity, i.e. that decisions must be made as decentralized as possible in self-organizing teams. Only how?

Democratic Majority Decision

Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.

George Bernhard Shaw

The days of autocracy, in which an absolute ruler decides at will, are fortunately over in most states since the Enlightenment. It has been followed by (parliamentary) democracy, in which the decision-making lies with a (representative) group elected by the people. The method of choice for decision-making in this group is majority voting, i.e. the vote of the majority is decisive.

This leads to many kinds of “politics” in the worst possible sense, i.e. the hollow, but all the louder, tactical battles for votes and majorities instead of fruitful debates on the matter. When, after this long struggle, a proposal capable of winning a majority has finally passed, many legitimate aspects of the defeated proposals have fallen into oblivion.

Systemic Consensus

The majority voting principle reaches its limits especially in the case of many options. Contrary to popular belief, it is in this case not a good approach to consensus, because the relative majority of votes (even and especially with many abstentions) in the end only represents the opinion of a small minority. This shortcoming can of course be remedied by requiring an absolute majority or, in extreme cases, even unanimous resolutions. The more proposals on the table, the less realistic and practicable these approaches becomes of course.

In situations with many choices, Systemic Consensus helps to come as close as possible to consensus. For this purpose, the degree of rejection on a scale from 0 (no objection) to 10 (completely unacceptable) is noted for each option, rather than the individual group members’ one vote. The option that is least rejected by all is then chosen, which is the option where the resistance of the group is lowest.

The degree of rejection can also be a great opportunity for discussion. The explanation of the reasons for the resistance always leads to a better understanding of the opinion, points of view and preferences of the group members. In summary, such a systemic consensual proposal has the following characteristics (cf.: SK kurz erklärt):

  • causes the least dissatisfaction in the group …
  • is most easily accepted by all …
  • comes closest to consensus …
  • therefore comes closest to the general balancing of interests
  • thus generates the least conflict potential
  • is therefore the most suitable solution to the problem

From Consensus to Consent

By consensus, I must convince you that I am in the right; by consent, you ask whether you can live with the decision.

Annewiek Reijmer

Like democracy, sociocracy is based on the principle of equal rights, but does not implement this in the form of “one person, one vote“. For this purpose it uses consent which means that a decision is considered taken as soon as there are no more serious objections to it and everyone can give their consent.

Thus the central question of consent is not who agrees on the basis of which consideration, but who has which objection. A mere rejection is not enough and every objection must be justified, including an integrative proposal to improve the solution. In this process of integration, it often helps to limit the pending decision in the sense of sailing by sight to the next concrete step, to provide it with success criteria used to decide the next steps after this first step.

Consultative Individual Decisions

Consent naturally leads to a higher acceptance of the decision, but quickly reaches its limits in larger groups beyond the usual team size because the integration of the various objections can become very time-consuming. A variation of this or an approximation to it is the consultative individual decision, in which in extreme cases, such as with AES (cf. Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations), everyone in the company can make far-reaching decisions as long as he or she has consulted and integrated the objections and views of a sufficient number of people.

Various companies such as oose or it-agile rely on less radical variants of this consultative individual decision. They first designate the decision maker for a specific decision with consent and empower him or her to make the decision incontestably after sufficient integration of the opinions of persons to be consulted (if appropriate also jointly determined in advance).

Consent or the consultative individual decision and systemic consensus are similar inasmuch as both have the goal of taking the opinions of as many people as possible into account in decision-making. Consensus, however, is rather a process of iterative refinement of a single solution (against which no one has any objections in the end), while systemic consensus helps to make a choice as close to consensus as possible among many possibilities.

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Originally published at on March 13, 2019.

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