Learning To Reach Consensus

In a team environment, the decision process often gets very complicated. In the building systems integration industry, teams of many disciplines must work together to achieve a client's vision for each particular project. These are often complex projects, requiring multi-disciplinary expertise, being served by individuals with varying degrees of commitment, and often, competing schedules for both manpower and materials.

With disparate goals and agendas, these teams are often fractious and, too often, litigious. However, there are several steps that can be taken to ensure that teams work in a high-performing way, reaching decisions and agreements based on simple, consensus-building techniques.

There are a number of proven strategies that can help teams in decision-making. These frameworks for creating team-based decision-making can help determine the best approach and work through the decision process with your project team.

Building The Foundation
In order for any team to reach consensus, there is a set of basic assumptions that need to be understood by each member of the team. Everyone must believe that it is in their collective interest to contribute to the success of the project, sharing an understanding of common ground, commitment, and capability.

The following list can be used to assess the team's willingness to reach consensus. If any of these three elements are missing, an outside facilitator may be needed for skill building, before the team can take responsibility for any important decision.

• Common Ground-The team must agree on who the "customer" is and what is expected. They also must agree on the tasks and responsibilities necessary to meet those expectations. Common ground is achieved when the team operates from a shared set of values and ethics and shares a high level of integrity.

• Commitment-The team must be committed to the successful achievement of the project's goals, and the team members must not work toward personal goals at the expense of the project. A committed team supports each member's success and helps each other when one member wavers or is challenged by unforeseen circumstances. When decisions are made, team members respect the views of other members even when they don't agree.

• Capability-Each member of the team must be open to changing or compromising their point of view, listening attentively and respectfully, expressing their own needs, in an open and honest climate. Team members trust and respect one another, and encourage discussion of differing opinions.

Making Group Decisions
When the team is ready to handle decision-making, the next step is to consider the options for reaching consensus. Too often, teams assume that every decision should be made by consensus, which usually causes team members to waste all of their time in meetings. To avoid this pitfall with any issue answer these two questions: Who should make a specific type of decision? How should the decision be made?

There are certain decisions where it just doesn't make sense to involve everyone. One option is to select one person from the team to make decisions in cases of emergencies or when you need a designated "leader," especially when that person has more relevant experience than the others.

Another method is designating a working committee. This sub-team is appropriate when a decision requires representation of the team's diversity but when involving everyone is impractical or too time-consuming. Finally, there are times when decisions should involve the whole team. This method should be used when critical decisions are being made requiring multiple perspectives or broad expertise.

Five Steps To Reaching Consensus
For those situations where consensus is appropriate, adopt a process that assures efficiency without sacrificing effectiveness. There are five critical steps in a consensus-building process. Don't skip any steps. The missing input will come back to haunt you in the end.

1. Determine the deadlines and logistical parameters, clarifying the constraints of the decision. What are the fixed, non-variable conditions that have an impact on the decision? What budget, contractual, legal, or societal limits must be honored?

2. Determine client and team member's needs. What issues must be satisfied in order to achieve a successful decision?

3. Ensure that sufficient information is collected to assure the best outcome. Avoid premature decisions where data or individual input is missing.

4. Identify potential options and alternative scenarios. Save this until the previous three steps are complete. Many teams start here and delay reaching consensus by trying to rationalize and making erroneous conclusions. The key is identifying how well each option meets the needs and goals of the project.

5. Plan for the next action. The team's work doesn't end with a decision. How will the decision be implemented? Who's responsible for the outcome? When will it be completed? How will progress be communicated to the client and the team? How will the results be measured? And finally, what is the fall-back scenario for unexpected challenges to the decided process?

Getting To Yes
Too often teams begin their decision process by discussing options to the solution. The creative energy wasted in this approach comes from trying to convince and change the minds of others, before "rules of engagement" and the decision process can be discussed and agreed upon.

Instead, begin by asking team members to explain the need that they are trying to meet, asking them "why" they hold the position they do. In Japanese management theory, asking why at least five times is seen as necessary before the core of an issue can be uncovered. Doing this for the whole team at the outset will help the group reach consensus and a common purpose for the benefit of the client, the project, and ultimately, the team itself.