In response to a recent blog that raises the question of how far ahead we’re thinking Malcolm writes:
“Interesting questions. How would you propose to frame these questions meaningfully? Would you try to apply measurement, e.g. decision tree DCF or option valuation? How would you contend with the less easily measured “children’s laughter”? Even if you could offer a measure or set of measure, how would you translate it/them into a pithy but emotionally meaningful framework – to move a population, ideally a majority, to act?”
I know Malcolm well enough to know that he and I could have a stimulating and wide-ranging conversation about this. We could easily move from identifying and clarifying the issue(s) to considering both mundane and creative solutions. Our speculative “solutions” would serve to loop back and clarify the issues. In most organizations those kinds of conversations are the exception.
Way too often people rush to propose a solution before there’s sufficient alignment on the real issue and the appetite for resolving it. They see an issue or problem; they think it ought to be resolved, so they propose an idea for resolving it. They then become an advocate for a solution instead of leading a conversation to clarify and generate interest. Others, in response to the advocated solution (to an unidentified issue, around which there is no alignment) become critics. The conversation becomes attack | defend. No collaboration.
Slow down. Don’t rush to propose solutions. Listen deeply, with others, to hear the real issue. Then, together, initiate conversations to clarify, align and listen for what can be accomplished.
Thanks Malcolm. Nope; no proposals yet. But I’m guessing you think it’s an issue worth considering.
Consensus: A colossal waste of time and energy; a sell-out of what’s valid and fitting; concern with protecting an image. Consensus does not even deliver what it promises — everybody on the same page — let alone what would have real value — everybody on a page worth being on.
One popular working definition of consensus has to do with getting a group to the point where people can say, “I understand and I agree”. Understand and agree with what? The validity; the appropriateness of the direction or decision is not at question — just the degree of acceptance among those participating in the conversation. Consensus is a lowest-common-denominator approach. What can we decide or what action can we take, that everyone can agree with. Or, is willing to say they agree with.
Gee, if the boss wants this it sounds like a consensus to me. What’s it worth for me to say I disagree? Is it worth my next bonus, or risking my acceptance within the group, or making a fuss? Well, I guess we have consensus then.
Think about it. The aim of consensus is agreement yet agreement is tragically over-sold. Of what value was the flat earth consensus? There was certainly a tremendous cost when bold, thinking people dared to question the consensus and lost their life as a result. What was the value of the consensus that the sun revolved around the earth… or that some particular food is bad for you…oops now it’s OK… oops, sorry it is bad for you. There was a consensus among some at Enron, World Com and Tyco about what decisions or actions were appropriate. But those actions were judged as illegal and cost thousands of people hundreds of millions of dollars, including both their livelihood and their life savings.
Arriving at consensus view does not require you to engage in a conversation that reveals some fundamental validity — something more valid than an opinion that we can all agree to agree with; or to support. Consensus is concerned with personal opinions and points of view. It seeks a position that is a balance between “most acceptable” and “least objected to”. It is a question of what people can “live with and support”; not what’s best for the company as a whole.
Consensus does not require an integrative solution or decision that serves what’s best for the whole company. It is designed to minimize upsets and disagreements without requiring a resolution of them. Consensus helps people find a way through issues, that they can live with; that they don’t find too objectionable.
As children we’re taught to share, to compromise, to play nice. That often translates into “go along with”. Consensus requires people to give something up. They give up having a conversation that reveals a fundamental issue in favor of agreeing to reduce the effect of a symptom. They give up conversations that discern what’s appropriate in favor of what’s agreeable. They give up what they can see as having some validity, or engaging in conversation listening for what resonates for everyone.
They stick to their opinions and points-of-view until a particular view begins to emerge as the dominant view, then they go along with that. They capitulate. They agree that they have had a say and that they can “support” what others have found agreeable, for whatever reason. But what does “support” mean? Does it mean, “I will mobilize all my resources behind making it happen”? Or does it mean, “I will not actively work against you, for now, if you go ahead with that”? (I, on the other hand, am clear about the best course of action for me or my part of the organization.)
The experience of giving up something is what allows people to say, after the meeting, “Well, I didn’t really agree”, “that didn’t apply to me or my department”. Or when the agreed action or decision turns out to be a poor one, “I didn’t agree with that in the first place.” Expediency trumps alignment. Agreement out-votes what’s fitting, appropriate and feasible.
Of course, one dreaded alternative is that people appear to give up nothing. They don’t listen for what’s fitting and feasible; they stick to their point of view, by turns righteously bludgeoning and cajoling others to agree with them until “consensus” emerges. But it only appears that they give up nothing. What they really give up is communication that would produce increasingly powerful results.
Consensus is well-meaning yet appallingly misguided. The willingness to settle for consensus avoids the real conversation. It provides the illusion that people are on the same page while getting there in a way that encourages harboring resentment; holding out, and settling for what they can agree on; not necessarily what’s best for the organization. It exalts appearing to agree, to avoid the messiness of a real conversation. It is as if people are saying, “This is the best we can do — at least we’ve agreed on something and we’re not arguing,” and believing that this has tremendous value.
Puh-leese! Abandon consensus and start listening for what really needs to be addressed, resolved or accomplished for the whole organization. Then serve that. Develop yourself, and others around you, to become or to do whatever fulfills what you are up to together. Forsake merely getting by the current circumstances or getting through the issues in favor of generating a conversation in which you can hear together what would resolve something fundamental while developing the organization to the next level.
A recent Harvard Business Review article on cooperation and change caught my attention. It provides an interesting illustration of what alignment is and is not. The headline of the article states:
“Managers can use a variety of carrots and sticks to encourage people to work together and accomplish change. Their ability to get results depends on selecting tools that match the circumstances they face.”
This brief statement raises several issues related to causing alignment in organizations. Some of the issues are raised by what is said, some by what is not said.
Not Carrots, Sticks and Tools
Alignment is not created by carrots and sticks – carrot and stick thinking makes it impossible to achieve real alignment. Those wielding the sticks and offering the carrots, by the very nature of the implied threat and bribery, create disconnection and separation from those they are seeking cooperation with.
“Selecting tools” is not the route to alignment. Tool selection places the focus on the tools and risks turning those you are seeking to align with into tools as well. It is difficult to cooperate with a tool; it is easier to learn how to use a tool. The level of engagement with those you are using as tools, or using tools on, is generally not high – leading to a low level of uncoerced compliance.
“Matching the circumstances” is also problematic unless one includes people and what they could accomplish together in their understanding of “circumstances.” If one matches only the circumstances they miss consideration of the current relationships among people and between them and what they are out to accomplish together.
Conversations Generate Alignment
Getting people to change is a very weak basis for working. The real issue is having people work together powerfully to accomplish what is required. Alignment is essential to accomplishment, to developing people and teams to produce greater outcomes, and to providing more powerful leadership. It is grounded in a fundamentally different relationship with people than the relationship of “getting them to do what you want”.
People-in-conversations is the territory of generating alignment. It is a relationship that is fundamentally different than trading opinions, consensus or compromise. It is a relationship in which people have a commitment to each other, to serve what is called for next in their organization. To serve what is missing and available to be fulfilled or accomplished.
Alignment has occurred when people, in conversation together, can come to hear a fitting and inspiring direction for their work group or organization. Trust and mutual intention are the foundation of alignment – deeper levels of trust provide a solid base for greater levels of accomplishment. Listening for what is called for next, and honoring and serving that, begins to reveal a basis for trust: people realizing there is something they are up to together.
Alignment is a question of what is fitting. It has to do with hearing a fitting direction for the organization or work group – where the fitting direction is not “made up”; it is heard by people in conversation together recognizing what it will really take to realize the promise and potential of what they are up to together.
Alignment is neither agreement nor consensus. People can agree on things that are not “fitting”. Examples abound where people in organizations have “agreed” on a business direction or strategy that was soon revealed as not fitting. The business press is full of these stories: back-dating options, acquisitions that immediately drive the stock price down and other bone-headed moves. Leaders in these organizations could get others to agree or they could reach a consensus but they could not hear that it was not fitting or not a fit for their organization.
Leadership has to do with initiating and following through with the conversations from which alignment can emerge – establishing trust and mutuality and opening up new directions. With alignment there is resonance and inspiration. Inspired people working together in a fitting direction are way beyond carrots, sticks and tools to force cooperation.
1 Armstrong, Lorne. The Tools of Cooperation and Change. Letter to the Editor, Harvard Business Review, March 2007, pp. 136, 137.
2 Christensen, Clayton; Marx, Matt; and Stevenson, Howard. The Tools of Cooperation and Change. Harvard Business Review, October 2006, Boston, MA. pp. 73.