Using Consensus to Enlighten, Not Limit, Decision Making

This month’s newsletter focuses on the art of decision-making and particularly the practice of consensus decision-making.

The lead article was written in response to three recent conversations we had with various board members. In one, a colleague asked: “As a new board member, I hear consensus referred to but I don’t really understand what it means. None of our board members has much experience or training in consensus. How do we know when we should push through to consensus or when a majority vote is appropriate?”

In another conversation we heard a colleague say, “We can’t afford to operate under consensus because we can’t take hours and hours to make decisions.” In a third, we asked a colleague who had worked in Quaker schools for many years how they were able to make decisions in a timely way. He responded, “Our decisions didn’t take long at all. We knew what we were doing. We had practiced for many years and we knew each other pretty well. It never took us hours and hours to make a decision.”

In thinking about these conversations, the following question arose: “How can we learn to use consensus so that it is not limiting, but enlightening, and serves the needs of the group?”

We are grateful for the help of Lysbeth Borie from Eugene who provided us with many insights on this topic.  Lysbeth, along with her colleagues, has helped Waldorf schools understand and practice consensus decision making for many years.  She has a deep appreciation of the challenges of reaching real consensus in a collaborative organization.

Along with helping edit the lead article, Lysbeth provided us with a short essay about consensus and mandates, and helped us gather a collection of helpful resources that we will also post on the site.

We have chosen pictures this month of flocks of birds in flight, showing how from a seeming chaotic random flight of many birds, beautiful patterns emerge. If you have ever seen them in flight like this, you will understand the connection with our work in organizations building consensus.