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Effective decisions with consensus

Published on 2018-01-14

I often sit in ineffective meetings. I am bored and annoyed. I am not bored and annoyed because it is a meetings or because it takes a lot of time. I am bored and annoyed because it is ineffective.

There are meetings that are not ineffective. I have been in some. Those were the ones where everyone involved knew some rules. These rules are not black magic, but they are also not all that easy to explain. Still, I will try:

Value the social aspects

A meeting of the kind I am talking about mainly exists to make decisions. But it is also one of the rare occasions where your team comes together. It is a social event.

Generally, a team works better if the people know each other and have similar goals. This is called cohesion. A meeting is a great opportunity to build cohesion.

If you think about effectiveness, you probably think about "How can we get to a decision as fast as possible?" But I think you should allow yourself to get side-tracked sometimes. Get to know each other and grow as a team. This will greatly improve things in the long run.

Stick to the topic

This one is obvious and I will not waste too much time with it: Contrary to what I said before, you should of course always try to stick to the topic.

Decide by consensus

Before I had experience with consensus-based decisions, I thought it was a grossly ineffective method. It turns out the exact opposite is true. The reasons for that are not actually that obscure:

So how does this work in practice?

At first you have an open discussion. People bring forward what they think are relevant arguments on the topic. Once someone has the feeling that there is an option that everyone can agree on they spell out that option. If no one disagrees you have a decision.

Simple as that.

A more detailed description of the process can be found in RFC7282.

Be aware of common fallacies

The biggest issue with consensus-based decisions is that they are susceptible to social forces. You should be very critical of your position in the team. If you are seen as a leader, empower others. If you have more knowledge, share it. If you are not sure yourself, say so. This allows others to confidently voice their opinions and contribute to a better decision.

Another big issue is that people talk too much without advancing the topic. Always think before you talk: "Is this really a valuable contribution to the discussion?" Be especially aware of bikeshedding.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people are quiet and do not talk much in meetings. It is important to involve them in the discussion, for example by doing a flashlight round.

If it is hard to come to a conclusion, talk about the option to not make a decision, i.e. leave everything as it currently is. Maybe this is the option you all can agree on. Or maybe it is bad enough for everyone to compromise on something else.

Just do it

I honestly believe that if you follow these few rules you will have great meetings. Of course, this requires that everyone involved knows about them. Also, give yourself some time to grow as a team.

On a wider scope, I think these rules should be taught in school (instead of these awful debate clubs). We waste too much time sitting through ineffective meetings, making bad decisions. There are important things to do. This has to stop.