Consensus and the Danger it Poses to Strategic Decision Making

This morning I was thinking about ‘group think’, ‘decision making’, ‘tribalism’ and the various outcomes that can occur depending on the methodology and how much weight is given to consensus especially when we use consensus to reduce accountability or delegate a significant decision to a group.

We need to really understand what it means when we are thinking about getting a consensus and where the danger lies in using the consensus of a group of peers for decision making rather than focusing on buy-in. They are different things and can lead to vastly different outcomes. It’s important to understand how we should weight the value of consensus and the methodology of coming to a consensus in order to help predict the future value of strategic decisions.

As I was thinking about all of this, I came up with the following paragraphs that summarize my feelings on this pretty well.

“Allowing a group of your peers come to a consensus on a strategic decision leads to a mediocre result, or an average at best result and is an easy way to lose or misplace accountability. However, getting buy-in from a group of peers on a decision that you are accountable for requires strategic thinking and analysis, research, and confidence.

This can lead to exponentially better outcomes yet the fear we may have that we may make the wrong decision may lead us to rely on group consensus or tribalism instead which more often than not cements our path, at best, to mediocrity instead of enabling us to achieve exponentially great outcomes. In your professional and in your personal life, it’s best not to let a group of peers make a decision for you by way of consensus. There is too much at stake to take that risk. “

This is not to say that your peers, or even a random set of people on the street, are incapable of making good independent decisions, but it does mean, at least in my experience, that when you task a group to come up with a strategic decision, you should anticipate a mediocre or average result and corresponding outcome if enough thought hasn’t been put into the methodology to ensure that consensus is used and weighted appropriately.

Let’s take an extreme example, let’s say a large company wants to move into a new vertical. Do you take 150 people from the organization and task them with coming up with a consensus on how to move the company forward? Of course you don’t. Similarly, the weight of consensus has to be appropriately weighted for any strategic decision, and this goes for decisions in a professional capacity and in a personal capacity.

Group decision making based on a consensus can lead to mediocre results for a variety of reasons.

Accountability: When a decision is made through consensus, you lose centralized accountability. When the appropriate people are tasked with the decision, focus is put on them to provide the direction and own it. This direct placement of accountability means a select few are ultimately responsible AND accountable which puts the onus on them to ensure their strategic decisions are properly researched, in alignment with expectations from all facets, sponsors, and priorities, and ultimately are able to get buy-in on the decision. (Buy-in is different from consensus)

Tribalism: “Group think” and tribalism have an impact on human behaviour, and there are evolutionary reasons why this is so. From an evolutionary perspective, evolution favoured people with survival instincts which included thinking like and being part of the tribe. If you thought differently from the tribe, you may have found yourself no longer in the tribe, or may have just been killed immediately effectively limiting your survival. Therefore, the genes responsible for inducing fear (this happens in the amygdala in the brain) when thinking about or speaking out against the tribe get favoured in evolution. This is a completely unscientific explanation of this very real trait of human behaviour, but we see tribalism today. Due to this trait of human behaviour, the role of tribalism in using consensus for strategic decision making can’t be dismissed. Consensus does have a role in strategic decision making, but the methodology is important, and the methodology needs to account for the very real possibility of tribalism impacting the final decision and ultimately the outcome.

In your personal life, would you ever leave a decision to your peers and let them come to a consensus on what you should and will do? Think about the following questions and the decisions that need to be made throughout ones life…. “Should I take this job in the North Pole?”, “Should I spend a year travelling the world in a tuk tuk?”, “Should I start a business or quit my job?”, “Should I go on a date with this person or not?”, etc, etc , etc…. It’s needless to say that letting your peers come to a decision for you is a disaster. Do you want to risk it? I wouldn’t.

So, where does consensus actually fit?

I’m completely aligned with using and considering consensus as part of the methodology as long as special considerations and weighting is put in place relative to the strategic weight of the decision. Getting “buy-in” is different than letting a consortium of people come to a consensus on a strategic decision. Letting a consortium of people come to a consensus spreads the accountability very thin and leaves the group to be more influenced by the negative tendencies associated with group thinking. Keeping accountability with one or a very small number of people helps ensure that appropriate research, analysis, and strategic thinking has been done. Strategic decisions still have a collaborative component and the other parties that will be impacted by the decision still need, at some level, to have input, the opportunity to challenge your work, and ultimately the person responsible for the strategic decision has to have all their ducks in a row and be able to confidently present their work that explains and justifies the strategic decision. That is of course, if your decision has impact on other people or entities.

Can this go wrong?

The methodology I’ve outlined can go very wrong, and you can get a decision that leads to a much worse outcome than what the consensus would have been otherwise if you have the wrong person at the helm or lack of internal controls on ensuring the validity of strategic decisions. This is actually one of the reasons people are often too keen on delegating their decisions to the group – fear of getting it wrong.

The right approach and right people are especially important for the big decisions that are hard to change later if you get it wrong. Using consensus as a strategic part of the methodology and not the basis of the methadology can help weed out disastrous outcomes. Sometimes, even people accountable and responsible for a decision will delegate that decision to a consensus, and that’s also a disaster for the reasons already mentioned in this article. It reduces the fear the decision maker might have in making the wrong decision, but it should not inspire any confidence that the decision will be any better than average or mediocre, unfortunately.

An average strategic decision will ensure an average or mediocre outcome at best no matter how effective you are at execution. Top decision makers understand the difference between consensus and buy-in and how they can lead to significantly different outcomes. Consensus needs to be used properly, and buy-in is mandatory. Ensuring the right decisions are made is the best way to achieve exponential outcomes and requires effective people to be able to make those decisions who will ensure their decision making has buy-in and isn’t just outsourced or delegated to a group of their peers. As individuals we need to be incredibly cautious regarding outsourcing our life decisions to our peer groups, and in our professional life, it’s important to choose strategic decision makers who will take accountability instead of delegating the significant decisions based on what they believe the consensus to be among their peer group.

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