Book Review

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 internal cooperation.....
"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 Motives:
"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 process."
"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.