The how-to alternative to command and control rules
by Carolyn Chase
onsensus is a means by which a group can come to a decision
that everyone in the group can support at some level. While many think of
consensus as a fuzzy reaction to other hierarchical or majority-rules systems,
Rules for Reaching Consensus by Steven Saint and James R. Lawson points
out that this process is becoming more and more required as teamwork emerges
as a key business and community organizing tool:
"In today's business environment,
where outside competition is so great, organizational survival depends on
"In seeking mutual agreement, the consensus process
fosters individual difference, personal self-reliance and self-esteem, creativity
and innovation, cooperative attitudes, improved interpersonal communications
and relationships, responsibility, and accountability. As managers and teams
follow the process in both its letter and spirit, the organization will
change from a counterproductive, internally competitive organization to
an internally cooperative, synergistic enterprise. ...
"Organizations of the twenty-first century are
evolving into dynamic systems comprised of networked teams of educated knowledge
workers.... Managers are no longer the sole decision-makers and must build
cohesive teams that frequently make group decisions... The manager's new
role is to facilitate collective decision making among diverse individuals
and teams. The purpose of this book is to help managers and team leaders
build consensus among members of the group."
I have not considered myself a "fan" of the
so-called consensus style of decision making. As a grassroots organizer
and a civilian participant in a variety of meetings for local government,
committees and non-profit groups, I have much preferred participating in
groups using the so-called "command and control," exemplified
by Roberts Rules of Order. But after reading Rules, I learned that my dissatisfaction
lay in the fact that many groups who purport to use consensus as a way of
operating are really operating ad hoc, without any real rules at all. Therefore,
the process is dominated either by chaos or politics, which can severely
limit the effectiveness of any group. Rules lays out a methodology, a process
and rules for making sure that consensus is actually achieved by a group.
To achieve effective consensus requires a process and
rules. The consensus process allows decisions to be made so that the better
efforts of a group can emerge. Rules begins by introducing the benefits
and some misconceptions about consensus and goes on to explain succinctly
how to set up a meeting and process geared to use consensus effectively.
The authors aren't "starry-eyed" about consensus
and don't present it as the be-all and end-all of problem solving - part
of what I liked best about the book. It presents the likely problems and
boundaries around group decision making and designs rules and presents realities
for the factors that stop group process.
For instance, one decision rule is called Evaluate Individual
"If there has been thorough discussion of group purpose
and values and how they relate to the unresolved concerns, and individuals
have been heard, understood, and considered in the total decisions, any
further impasse is most likely due to personal dynamics or vested interest,
not group purpose. Concerns based on ego or vested interests originate with
the questions: 'What is best for me and mine?' rather than 'What is best
for the group?' While vested concerns are often phrased in terms of strategy
or issues, there are underlying tensions about authority, rights, personality
conflicts, competition or lack of trust. Most likely, these kinds of concerns
won't be resolved in a business meeting or work session. If team members
aren't trusting each other to speak and act in good faith for the good of
the group it is impossible to proceed. Trust is a prerequisite to the consensus
"In trying to avoid the 'Tyranny of the Majority,'
we do not embrace the 'Tyranny of the Minority.' A vote requiring a 66 to
90 percent majority for passage could approximate consensus if the group
has exhausted its ability to cooperate."
The book is well-structured, and easy to read and use
as a reference. The majority of this usable book are reference pages for
"The Consensus Process and Rules." The authors bring an interesting
combination of business and community management experience, which has resulted
in a book useful to anyone working in groups.
If you are looking for a way to move a particular group
forward, try introducing a copy or copies of Rules into the mix. Your first
foray into consensus could be around the issue of adopting these practical
rules for effective group decision-making.
Rules is published by Pfeiffer & Company, San Diego.
79 pages. paperback. $9.95.
Carolyn Chase is Executive Director of San Diego Earth Day and the
Earth Day Network, Chairperson of the City of San Diego Waste Management
Advisory Board, board member of Hawkwatch International, and recipient of
the 1994 Spirit of San Diego award.