Nonprofit organization often value participatory decision making. Yet often nonprofit leaders think the only way to achieve participation is to strive for consensus. Groups often fear working on a consensus basis because they are afraid of the time it will take to make a decision. They are afraid of being caught in a spiral of discussion, more discussion and yet more discussion and no resolution. They may be afraid of this because they may assume that everyone has to be 100% behind a decision for the group to move ahead.
When a group is considering an issue, ideally there is a discussion that considers a wide range of options. Then the discussion comes to a clear end point with a decision. Once a decision is made the group moves to action. This image illustrates this ideal.
Americans tend to be quite action oriented and in our culture we can get impatient easily, wanting to jump to a decision. And thus more frequently it feels like this:
Part of the group thinks a decision has been made and others thinks the item is still up for discussion. And still others may not be clear what decision is on the table.
Once the nonprofit group is clear about what they are deciding, a useful tool for testing the level of agreement is the consensus continuum.
Applying the continuum
I was part of a nonprofit board that used this continuum when it was deliberating about a very challenging situation. There was no good solution to the high stakes problem we were facing. There were only several bad choices to choose from. Which bad choice was better than the other? We deliberated for a long time. Deliberation happened over multiple meetings, over multiple weeks. Ultimately we were able to make a decision that everyone in the group could live with even if it was not their preferred option by using this tool.
How many people you need to have in the 1-3 zone will depend on how high stakes a decision it is. Using this as a check in can move along even decisions that may seem like they are low stakes but are taking a long time. You may find it is higher stakes for some in the group.
There was no good solution to the high stakes problem the nonprofit board was facing. There were only several bad choices to choose from. Which bad choice was better than the other? We deliberated for a long time. Deliberation happened over multiple meetings, over multiple weeks. Ultimately we were able to make a decision that everyone in the group could live with even if it was not their preferred option by using this tool.
Making time for process
Nonprofit groups often want to jump to action and resist taking time on ‘process’ issues. Being clear about how the group makes decisions is a core process issue that rarely gets discussed. Taking the time can actually save the group both time and angst in the long run.
Have a group that needs help with how they are working together? Reach out for a coaching session.
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