The term “consensus” has perhaps become so presumably desirable that groups or convenors may decided to seek consensus without really considering whether it is suitable. In some circumstances, consensus is needed because the product of the collaborative process requires it. A mediation may require a consensus decision to settle the case because a lack of consensus means the matter will go to trial. Other times, the recommendation may need the power of consensus. But also consider when consensus is not suitable. This may include:
- No cohesive or meaningful group exists
- When there is a choice of evils rather than a problem-solution context
- Emergencies, action is needed and consensus will take too long.
- Triviality, cost effectiveness
- The group is not ready, or too early or no final decision really needed
- Does the entity requesting ‘consensus’ need it or is there another reason? E.g. ‘seek cover.’
- Is this a situation where a ‘terminal’ decision is really needed?
- Would a “sense” of the group/stakeholders suffice?
- Would an educational phase be more appropriate? (leading toward a later decision)
- Does a consensus ‘decision’ tend to make it irreversible?
- Is there a relational context deeper than making decisions? Should we try for that?
Sources: tonymorganlive.com; Starhawk, Truth or Dare; Alternatives to Consensus, Phillip Levy @ voxeu.org
Complaints about consensus
- Decision errors such as status quo bias and reactive devaluation may be enhanced
- May give excessive power to person/entity wanting to hold up the process
- May limit creativity or expansive solutions, ‘stay simple’
- Could encourage ‘groupthink:’ e.g., pressure to go with the majority to preserve harmony, self censorship, inquiry into decision flaws discouraged.
Concept source: Decision Traps, Paul Russo & Paul J. H. Schoemake (Doubleday, 1989; Simon & Schuster, 1990)
Because consensus is a decision making process, there may be circumstances where decision clarification is more suitable than actual decision making. This would provide a preview of likely future decisions and the factors to consider when such are eventually made.