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Consensus Decision Making in a Room of 19
I liked a recent experience on the City of Worcester’s Task Force for Sustaining Housing First Solutions. In the current climate of incivility, especially on social media, consensus-oriented approaches to hard problems are especially appealing. Here’s how this one worked.
Smart editors, including Barbara Poppe, prepared a set of 26 recommendations. The goal was to have each of the 19 representatives around the room agree that their organizations would officially endorse the recommendations. Each recommendation would be read, and then each representative would give a thumbs up, a thumbs sideways, or a thumbs down.
Thumbs up meant your organization would endorse the recommendation as written.
Thumbs sideways was a request for floor time to ask a question. All questions were asked in series without answers so that commonality of questions could be identified. Then questions were addressed in bulk.
Thumbs down meant your organization would not endorse the recommendation. A thumbs down was expected to come with a proposal for alternate wording.
In about 90 minutes, all 26 recommendations were reviewed and approved unanimously, several with extensive modifications.
The thumbs up/down/sideways technique is notable for how it cuts away discussion about agreement. Oftentimes, volunteer (non-business) groups fall into a dynamic where one person states a shared principle or interest, and others take a long time agreeing or adding their own statements of shared interest. All of this is unnecessary in the context of a document that needs to be approved. The thumbs focused discussion on differences.
By being able to iterate on the text in the room, with most key stakeholders present, objections didn’t stop progress, get overruled, or result in a watered-down document. Instead, they resulted in recommendations that were both more concrete and also more widely supported. It’s hard to have people voting directly on complex issues, but iteration in this way seemed to make it work.
“Thumbs up” were the most common because a substantial amount of work had already been done on the text. We were voting paragraph by paragraph, which made each piece manageable.
“Thumbs sideways” were the second most common. Usually, participants asked their question, received clarification, and turned their vote to a “thumbs up.”
“Thumbs down” were rare. They did occur, most notably when Worcester City Councilor Konstantina Lukes expressed a strong desire for one recommendation to be issued with a “shall” instead of a “should” wording. Much discussion resulted, with the end result that Councilor Lukes gave a thumbs up without changing her insistence on the importance of “shall” and without the wording having been changed. It was a failure to reach consensus that we papered over.
This shows the trouble with strict or 100% consensus decision making approaches. Councilor Lukes held the power to scuttle the entire recommendation, or to present the entire document as non-unanimous. Instead of doing that, she conceded her point and went along with what was a clear majority. Perhaps some more work could have been done to address Councilor Lukes’ concern, or to formally note the concern in the official recommendation.
Besides this last issue, it was a good process. There was official consensus on all 26 points, and true consensus on 25 points. It felt efficient. It felt that all voices were heard. It has certainly produced a better result than simple majority rule would have. I hope to use the technique in the future.