While exploring governance in business over the past couple of years I encountered both Sociocracy and Holacracy. Both of these approaches to governance have been associated with self-directed groups, and both have wrongly been identified as forms of anarchy. I’ve read about these approaches, attended introductory workshops, and participated in discussion groups – but I don’t claim expertise (I’m not a trained facilitator in either Sociocracy or Holacracy). I have applied some of what I’ve learned in daily practice, particularly consent decision-making which I feel can lead to better and faster decisions.
What is Consent Decision-Making and Why Use It?
The basic idea behind consent decisions (aka formal consensus) is that the consent process splits-the-difference between autocratic decisions that are quickly mandated, and endless debate as can be encountered in group consensus decision-making:
- Mandated decisions can be quick because just one or several people with the authority to issue a mandate to others are involved. Mandated decisions can also suffer from a narrow perspective that lacks understanding of the underlying issues, knowledge of and experience with the practical tools required for execution of the decision, and the ineffective forcing of activity through reluctant managers who do not support a decision where they had little or no input.
- Groups attempting to achieve complete consensus can stall forward progress due to various factors such as individual members aggressively protecting their individual interests and positions. Under these conditions consensus can enter endless cycles of debate that impede progress – at least until a decision is mandated upon the group with undesirable results as noted above.
In consent decision-making group members openly formulate one clear proposal for who will do what by when. This proposal is intended to achieve a specific goal for the group rather than to carve out and defend personal ideas and interests. Through brief iterations members:
- raise concerns they may have about the proposal (e.g. will this proposal violate local zoning laws?)
- discuss concerns so members understand issues in context (e.g. if we need a zoning easement to enact the proposal then we could miss our launch date)
- refine the proposal to address the concern (e.g. Michele will advise by Friday if the proposal will violate local zoning laws otherwise we will proceed with the proposal)
Members may raise reasoned objections to proposals, sometimes called paramount objections. Paramount objections are not personal preferences but clearly articulated reasons why a proposal would not achieve the group goal, either directly or because the proposal would interfere with a member’s ability to contribute to achieving the goal (e.g. an objection because the proposal will exceed the budget by $10,000). A member may not feel that the proposal is the very best decision but, as long as the proposal does not interfere with achieving the goal, the member consents to permit the proposal to move forward without objection. When no further objections are raised within the group then the proposal is moved to execution.
Note that the group isn’t seeking agreement but the absence of reasoned objections. This nuanced difference between consent and consensus can make a significant impact on how quickly group decisions are reached that are “good enough and safe enough” to maintain forward momentum toward a clearly defined goal.
As you might imagine, getting individuals to initially adopt a consent decision-making posture can be challenging. One path is to integrate the process into daily discussion by slowly introducing the language of consent decision-making without making an overt attempt to formally introduce the consent process:
- “I propose…”
- “Does anyone have any concerns with this proposal?”
- “Does anyone object to this proposal?”
As members begin to embrace the give-and-take flow of cooperative problem-solving that consent decision-making offers, then you may find that the process migrates naturally within the organization via individuals who take the process with them to other teams where they are members. A more formal approach may later be considered useful in company-wide training to help ensure that everyone uses a common language and approach to consent decision-making.