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Mobilization Tool Kit -- Consensus and Paralysis

achieving consensus and avoiding paralysis

There are many different models for decision making. All of them have their advantages and disadvantages. The two most popular are Robert's Rules of Order (used by many unions) and the thousand flavours of consensus, used by many youth groups.

Consensus was invented as a way of achieving broad buy-in from all participants for decisions reached, rather than making decisions by simple majority vote. It is sometimes more work to make a consensus decision, but it is usually a stronger decision because everybody supports it.

The idea of consensus decision making, is to modify proposals until they work for everyone. The danger is paralysis, when one or a few of those involved refuse to go along with the best efforts of compromise that others have made. Because a single person can hijack the consensus process, I recommend a less ideological process that allows for a few dissenters, but only when an impasse is reached. However, the goal should always be to create decisions that work for everyone.

For consensus to work best, the following jobs should be assigned:

The facilitator's role is to manage the meeting, and help articulate consensus decisions as they evolve.

Every good meeting starts with a review of the agenda, to add new items, change the order of discussion, and determine the length of time for each issue. Once an agenda is approved, discussion will generally flow as it outlines.

The facilitator should generally introduce speakers on a first-come, first-serve basis. Exceptions to the first-come rule will often revolve around persons who have spoken much more than others, or hardly at all, or improving balance. (e.g. gender, age, culture)

Someone should be asked to introduce each item on the agenda, and if appropriate, close with a suggested decision.

Generally, those in agreement do not need to speak. This avoids endless repetition and shortens the length of the meeting. Those who are not comfortable supporting a motion in its current form, are encouraged to share their concerns and offer a modified decision that they are able to support. In a good process, discussion goes back and forth between proposers and dissenters, until an acceptable middle ground is reached and consensed to by the whole group.

There is also a middle ground. Often people may not support a decision, but also not feel strongly enough about it to "block" consensus. To stop the decision from going forward. Instead, such persons can offer to "step aside" and let the decision pass the group.

Facilitators can help this process out considerably, by helping articulate the common areas of agreement, and forming a decision that can be supported by all.

A straw vote can often be used effectively to speed up discussion in a multiple-choice area. For example, if a group is debating what slogan to use for their latest campaign, many ideas can be screened down to a few by asking people to stick up their hand (vote) for each of the possibilities that they like. The most widely supported ideas will quickly become apparent, and discussion can focus on their merits and liabilities.

For more difficult decisions, particularly when many people are involved, break-out groups can speed the process considerably. This can be particularly helpful during a crisis situation where a large number of people have to tackle a lot of difficult situations quickly.

When the discussion seems to go around and around with little progress, and the discussion of a single issue is taking too much time, ask the most vocal supporters of the various perspectives to form a small group, and go elsewhere to hash out a compromise. When they have managed to break the logjam, they are asked to return to the large group and make their proposal to everyone.

With goodwill, it is not hard to make decisions. With suspicions and misunderstanding it can be very difficult. The harder a decision is to make, the more important is the process. Make sure all the groups you work with have an agreed-upon method of making decisions. This does not have to mean an inflexibility, but the willingness to use the process when the tough decisions are being made.


The Activist Tool Kit is a project inspired by YAEC:

Youth Action Effecting Change
yaec@eya.ca     www.yaec.ca
PO Box 34097 Station D Vancouver BC V6J 4M1 CANADA

The Activist Tool Kit was written and built by Al Rycroft of SunshineCommunications.ca.

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