Good Decisions Between Consensus and Consent

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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