Management by Paul Engle
Industrial Engineer's monthly column about engineering management (October 2012)
The importance of gaining consensus
“Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.” - Late author and screenwriter Michael Crichton, Caltech Michelin Lecture, Jan. 17, 2003
While Michael Crichton was a true visionary, legendary for taking unpopular stands, the fabulously successful author misses the mark with his views on the importance of gaining consensus when making decisions.
True, at times consensus building is inappropriate. During crisis management, strong leadership and quick decision making must address the immediate threat. These times are exceptions. Successful organizations poll all stakeholders during the decision making process to optimize the solution and gain support for implementation.
Until 30 years ago, American management was hierarchical. Decisions were made at the top and implemented by the rank and file. Only the foolish or naïve would question top management’s decisions in public. The result? Some famous failures on a grand scale. More importantly, most of these failures might have been avoided if management had taken the time to listen to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders before embarking on ill-considered programs.
American management began to reconsider the top-down approach when they studied Japanese management practices during the 1980s. Japan made enormous inroads into the automotive, electronics
and other industries that had been the exclusive turf of American companies. Consultants noted the strong leadership tempered by a methodical, systematic approach to decision making that relied upon thoughtful consensus of all stakeholders. While this approach appeared to be slow and rarely resulted in dramatic change, many Japanese companies outperformed their global competitors.
American companies incorporated this approach. Silos were identified and broken down. Organizations were flattened. Cross-functional teams were organized to improve understanding of the entire process. Newly empowered line managers provided valuable input. And companies became more responsive and less prone to costly mistakes.
Successful consensus building requires a few key ingredients. First, executive management must embrace and visibly support dissent from stakeholders. Treat objections as valuable input. Document and address all issues during the decision making process. Consensus differs from unanimity in that the group views the ultimate solution as the best for all concerned, not everyone’s first choice.
Next, all stakeholders must be heard. Letting one functional area dictate solutions without input from other departments leads to resentment and ineffective processes. Respect for all team members through listening and careful consideration represents a key ingredient to success.
Third, the group needs to support the decision making process by committing sufficient resources. One popular tactic intended to defeat the process includes skipping team meetings or coming unprepared. Another tactic includes disruptive behavior, such as taking cell phone calls or answering email during meetings. The team leader or facilitator must identify this type of behavior and quickly replace uncooperative participants.
Finally, team members must support the decisions publicly. Criticism outside of team meetings may undermine the group and hinder implementation. Consensus requires team members to participate in good faith. Once their objections have been heard and considered, stakeholders must back the group’s final decision.
Can consensus work in your company? A better question might be whether your organization can survive without a sound approach to problem solving that includes all stakeholders.
Paul Engle is a management consultant with an MBA in finance. He has more than 25 years of experience in management, operations, product development, sales and marketing, strategic planning and business process improvement. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.