We’re living in an era of unprecedented uncertainty, and there are too many factors at play to give us a chance at making the “right” decisions. Our predictions, and modeling aren’t as reliable as they used to be. It’s no longer possible for one person to have all the right data to make the right decision. We need to be more collaborative than ever before and to enable this, we need a better way of making sticky & speedy decisions as a team.
Building consensus takes a long time, and the final product can be pretty bland.
Consent is a mindset that you and other hold when making decisions that allows a group to make a decision that integrates diverse perspectives into the path forward that also allows for valid objections, without striving for 100% consensus.
If you have the consent of the group, it doesn’t mean you have their full agreement and endorsement, it means that they have no objections to your proposed course of action. We value to this bias to action as it means that we can try something, glean data and make iterations.
Instead of asking for all "yes"es, Consent is about asking for no "no"s.
Before we get into the practice itself, take a quick pause - the Zulu and Xhosa people of southern Africa have been using this practice for ages! They use call it “indarba” and the process is used to simplify discussions between many parties.
This type of decision-making process was recently and famously used during the Paris Accords on Climate Change to integrate the perspectives of 195 countries and reach an agreement on a path forward that nobody would block.
You can see in their document that they started with many possible ideas – each bracketed word and sentence is an option for language to be included. In fact, the entire thing is in brackets! Over the course of a week, the group of global leaders worked through the document and on each point were asked to articulate their “Red Lines” – reasons why they would block the language if accepted. If they had a red line, the leader would also need to provide solutions to find a common ground on the point.
Using this method, the group was able to integrate all perspectives and ultimately draft an agreement that none of the 195 countries would block.
With that, here's what a facilitated Consent process might look like:
Step 1: Have a clear proposal. A well-crafted proposal is the superpower the consent process. A strong proposal always starts with “I propose we…” and states a clear direction for the team to consider. The longer you practice consent, the easier it gets to sense when a proposal should be made and to form one that’s useful to move you forward.
Step 2: Ask clarifying questions of the person who made the proposing. The goal is to understand the proposal, not to shape it. Stop asking questions once you understand the proposal. Seriously. Only ask questions!
Step 3: Respond with helpful data. Offer reactions to the proposal that will help the proposer make edits. Avoid interrupting each other’s reactions or building, at least until everyone has had a chance to react. If you proposed the change, take notes and avoid defending your idea - be open to the edits.
Step 4: Edit with what you’ve heard. With rich data in hand (or in your head), the proposer edits based on what you’ve heard. What you do is up to you – avoid being swayed by forceful critique or the highest paid person in the room. Then restate your proposal.
Step 5: Everyone, ask yourself: Would this cause real harm before we could adjust our decision? Is this safe to try? If you have an objection, object with data and with a specific change that makes the proposal safe to try. As the proposer, you decide whether the suggested change addresses your original tension. Once you’ve reached a point where your tension is fully addressed, and the proposal is safe to try for everyone on the team, you’re ready to integrate.
So now that you know what it looks like, let’s spend a couple minutes talking about: “Why Consent?”
In an ideal world, every meeting would end with all participants agreeing 100% with all decisions. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. And what happens more often than not is people block our ability to act on a decision after they have left the room.
Of course they don’t do this with bad intent, but ideas get blocked all the time because we are uncertain whether or not the idea is the best idea, whether or not it will actually work or solve the problem.
One of the mindsets critical for success is that 100% certainty is a fantasy.
We should only strive for consensus when we have all of the information we need to make the decision. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. In the face of uncertainty, we need to prioritize a bias for action so that we can gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible – gathering data that makes the uncertainty more, well, certain, and ultimately getting us closer to making the best decision.
When we use Consent the default answer is always "Yes". As soon as a proposal is made, we assume that we are going to take some action, and we need to seek out objections – reasons why you would block and idea – and use them, rather than hiding them from view until it is time to act.
We use this process to help us integrate all data into a decision and act on all ideas that are “Safe to Try”. The Consent process is not the right process if you do need unanimity and it also isn’t ideal for wordsmithing - if something is safe enough to be wordsmithed, it is safe enough to try!
So, let’s quickly review some tips that help with gaining and giving consent:
- Shape ideas into specific, and actionable proposals - we talked about this a little, there is a huge amount of power in starting your idea with “I propose”
- React with data – and with a change - Don’t just tell us if you love the idea or hate it, give the proposer specific edits that you would like to see in the proposal
- “Exit row rules” e.g. “Do you consent?” - go around and ask each participant if the idea is Safe to Try, you’re more likely to make sticky decisions if everyone verbalises that they are “in” way
- Adopt the mentality of a scientist, not a politician - share a hypothesis that you are trying to test and improve rather lobbying support for your than idea
It all starts with a proposal. Next time you see your team going in circles on a topic, or you hear someone ask: “What do you think we should do about X” or “We need to make a decision about Y” - lightly facilitate them through the process by asking “What do you propose?” At that point, volunteer to facilitate the decision and ask the group for Questions, Reactions, and Objections using Rounds.
Consent is a practice that helps us make speedy, sticky decisions collaboratively as a team.