Friday, September 20, 2013

The utility of consensus

When teams choose to work together they need to commit to the betterment of the team leading in consequence to a betterment of their individual situations. This commitment towards the best interests of the team is what leads to teamwork and is a key element for achieving consensus.

Earlier I had written about situations where it is futile to seek consensus. When it is necessary to take some quick, hard decisions, a tough leader (think Welch, Jobs etc.) has no business building consensus. But tough times don't last and crisis is not an everyday phenomenon. If it is, then it is better to take a hard close look at your business model and dynamics.

In Business As Usual times it is far more advantageous to actively build consensus as part of your leadership strategy. While in the previous article we saw a study of futility of consensus, let us examine here the utility of consensus.

  • Write your own lottery ticket - When your team decides what they want to do, instead of being told what to do, they have a personal stake in the outcome. As a leader your job is to lay out the larger vision, while letting the team carve out the mission for themselves. Writing your own lottery ticket was an experiment performed in studying human behavior.  In this experiment, half the room was given printed lottery tickets while half the room was given blank papers and asked to write their own random six digits to make up a lottery. Before drawing the results, the researchers tried to buy back the lottery tickets by bidding for them. Guess what? The people who had written their own numbers were more reluctant (five times more reluctant as per the research) to part with their tickets, even though they had exactly the same probability of winning the jackpot as those who had been given printed numbers.  
  • A convinced team is a committed team - Even where the leaders like Jobs or Welch were seen to be autocratic in their approach, they had a larger than life reputation preceding them, which made teams want to tag along with their decisions. This conviction of the team in your abilities cannot always be presumed by all leaders. A bad year or a failed business decision is likely to erode your dictatorial powers pretty quickly. We had Groupon CEO Andrew Mason stepping down on the back of a ruining financial quarter and plunging share prices. In his open letter to employees he says "... My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers."  That says it all, doesn't it?
  • Et tu Brutus! - You may be able to pull rank on your team and get them to agree to certain decisions. You cannot make them deliver the success you envisioned if you had the super human capabilities of carrying out all the actions themselves. An unwilling team led into a battle they are not sure they will win, or even want to win, will either desert the ranks or find ways of sheltering themselves by simply going through the motions. It is far better to have the team solidly behind your ideas by listening to them and adapting the plans to what the team feels is the best way to achieve success. That buy in from the team, while costly in terms of timelines and compromises to the original goal, is what will guarantee a do or die attitude to achieving the goals the team has set for themselves. 

One of the pitfalls to avoid is faux-consensus. This is a false feeling of consensus based on team's sign offs on paper while in reality, doubts still linger. Often leaders will get teams into a room and lay out the 'what' they want to achieve and ask the team to come with 'how' they will achieve it. Larger teams often are broken into cross functional groups and asked to brainstorm on the 'how'. What emerges is a purely academic exercise with no clear ownership or buy in for the action items assigned to this team.

What is necessary is for the team to first deliberate on the 'what' agree on a common imperative they all feel is worth achieving. If this goal can be signed off by the team with commitments of timeline and individual ownership towards goal breakdown items, the 'how' can be left to the teams to work out over time as they proceed working on the goal.

It is to be noted that majority agreement is not consensus. Consensus is when everyone agrees to the common goal. This means arriving at a solution where diverse views and agendas have been addressed everyone feels there is something for him  in the end result. Such a result is indeed likely to be robust and may turn out to be far better than the original idea.