Consent is a Third Option
Our organizations and networks are systems.
If we want to thrive, we need conditions that meet the range of tolerance of all parts of the system. We need governance and decision-making that integrates diversity and fosters equity. Why? People who work together realize that no one person or entity has the full picture.
In order to take action together, we need buy-in and support from all those who are responsible for carrying out decisions, as well as those who are impacted by decisions. People who were not bought into the decision can withhold their support and actively (or passively) resist it. Problems that were ignored in the beginning can be costly to fix later. Future opportunities can be lost when trust or relationships are sacrificed.
Decision-makers can save time in the short run by ignoring when people are out of their range of tolerance — but pay many times over in the long run.
Why not majority rule? Why not consensus?
People often think there are only two choices for how we make group decisions: majority voting or consensus. Most people don’t realize that circles of decision-makers (“circles”) have a third option – decision-making by Consent – that can be preferable to either of these for governance decisions.
There is another option
The Consent Principle means that a decision has been made when none of the circle members has any significant objection to it; i.e. when no one can identify a risk that the group cannot afford to take. Those risks typically involve conflicts with the stated purpose or strategies, or the creation of conditions that would make it very difficult for a member to perform his or her role. Under those conditions, the group or person would be out of their range of tolerance.
An objection is supported by reasons that can be understood by other members. The intent is to understand those reasons and to find solutions that address the objection and bring the group back within its range of tolerance.
Eco-system of Consent
You can think of the range of tolerance like a trout in a mountain stream.
A trout can live and thrive with some variation in conditions. But, if the water gets too warm or too cold, for example, the trout will not survive or reproduce. We say, “The trout cannot tolerate the conditions in the stream.”
At the same time, the trees that shade the stream and keep the temperature acceptable for the trout, also have a range of tolerance in which they thrive and reproduce; as do the host of insects, other fish, crustaceans, leeches, and worms that the trout feeds on; as well as the water plants that give it shelter. To have something as glorious as a mountain stream full of trout requires that conditions meet the range of tolerance of all the interdependent parts of the system.
Our networks and organizations are systems, too. If we want the kind of elegant coordination we see in natural ecosystems, we can use use the framework of the Range of Tolerance as a tool. We can inquire together, and identify the ways forward, that are within the Range of Tolerance of all the parts of our systems.
When group members are getting out of their range of tolerance, it can show up as bad behavior. For example, when board members stop attending meetings, grumble in the parking lot, or break into factions, they are saying they cannot tolerate conditions.
The Collaborative Decision-making process takes these problems out of the parking lot and onto the meeting table.
In the Collaborative Decision-making Package we introduce the Principle of Consent.
By Consent, circle members:
- Can choose to adopt any process, form, or method that enables it to make its decisions and carry them out.
- Can choose to use forms of decision-making other than consent, as long as: (1) the conditions for use are specific, documented, and have a defined term; and, (2) the choice can be revisited if a member is no longer in consent.
- Can empower leadership roles and select the people who fill them.
- Can defer to individual, autonomous initiative.
- Can add or remove any member. When a circle considers adding or removing someone, the member being considered for addition or removal shall not participate in the consideration of or consent to the decision.
Why not majority rule for governance decisions?
A system is defined as a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole. By definition, groups of people making decisions together are complex systems.
Majority or autocratic rule enables decision-makers to ignore important feedback from the system, i.e. reasonable objections from other stakeholders.
Any short-term gains in efficiency from this kind of decision-making are often lost in the long-term as decisions are carried out. People who were not bought into the decision can withhold their support and even actively resist it. Problems that were ignored in the beginning can be costly to fix later. For these reasons, majority or autocratic rule is often a flawed choice as the basis for governance decisions.
Using the principle of consent, efficiencies can be found elsewhere:
- Once a high-level decision is made, circles can delegate autonomous decision-making and authority to individuals and teams around issues that are not complex, and/or that are within their expertise, to get things done.
- Members do not need to debate or persuade other members to minimize their objections. Debate is often more about winning than about wisdom. Circles use dialogue as a method of discourse, which is more about learning, so that the circle can wisely adapt its decisions and keep moving. Often, what is learned for one issue, can be applied over and again in subsequent conversations.
- When people know their concerns will be accounted for, they are likely to develop trust. Trust has been demonstrated in the research to reduce “transaction costs” over time.
Why not consensus?
Life is full of risks, complexities, diversity, and “both/and” situations. We often have to make decisions and try things out with an acceptable level of risk and without complete certainty. When we cannot make a decision or move forward until everyone agrees, or we treat every decision as a group decision, we diminish the agility we need to work in complex environments. For these reasons, consensus is often a flawed choice as the basis for governance decisions.
Consent often has better outcomes than consensus:
- Consent does not require agreement. Even if I don’t agree with your concern, I can listen to you and work to understand our different perceptions. Everyone can disagree on the perfect solution, and still consent to generate and try out new solutions that integrate our differences, within our range of tolerance.
- Consent is not about accommodating the “lowest common denominator.” It is about discovering solutions that emerge from the collective intelligence.
- Members don’t “block” governance decisions. If they cannot accept the proposed policy, they describe their objections with reasons that can be understood by other members of the circle and that reflect the shared purpose. The rest of the circle listens with the intent to understand those reasons, so they can find creative ways to adapt the decision to address the objections and meet the range of tolerance of the group.
- Consent is met with “good enough” solutions to move forward, including a timeframe for evaluation and a willingness to adjust and learn as we go.
Not all decisions are consent decisions.
We consent on governance decisions, when we need all the parts of the system. When issues are within someone’s domain, we empower individuals to make day-to-day, operational decisions with a level of autonomy to get the job done. A group might designate familiar operational roles such as a Chair, Point Person, Coordinator, Lead, Manager, or Teams to carry out governance decisions.
Clear delegation frees people from feeling they always need to make decisions together. Since the policies consented upon by the circle already have the buy-in from the people who are responsible for carrying them out and by those who are affected, operations become more efficient and cooperative.
But, is it ever possible to get a diverse group of people to agree?
We think not! Happily, using a tool like the Range of Tolerance of the group, provides a different focus than finding “agreement.” Instead, we find the places of Consent.
Check out this video of a real-life situation:
You’ll get a taste of how the practical tools and processes can allow people with completely different points of view to find joint solutions and move forward together.
Collaborative decision-making means listening to feedback deeply enough for the whole system to adapt. Finding the consent and range of tolerance among all parts of the system — the business, organization or network — contributes to resilience and responsiveness, like healthy systems in the natural world.