Systemic Consensing

How to find minimal viable decisions in a group

foundation-culture-and-collaboration loop position

No. People

3+

Time

>= 30 minutes

Difficulty

moderate

Participants

The team

What is it?

A method helping to make sustainable decisions in groups of any size without conflict. Consensing aims at the consideration of all voices of a group, including those of the reserved or silent group members. The group members first develop as many suggestions as possible. After that, for each proposal its objection is measured by the whole group. The proposals are sorted according to this objection. Consensing does not require agreement, affirmation or even preference. Consent is reached by choosing the proposal with the least objections.

The proposal with the least objection * produces the least dissatisfaction in the group … * is most easily accepted by all together … * generates the least conflict potential * therefore promises most likely a viable solution of the upcoming task / problem * comes closest to the consensus * … and with any number of suggestions * … and any number of participants.

Why use it?

Group decisions are difficult processes that often lead to conflicts. Standard ways of finding a decision in a group may not unveil the full potential or even lead to lose-lose situations. I’ve seen decision making often as argueing, debating or majority voting. What will you see in practice in general?

  • The group discusses the individual options until individuals give up in frustration and ultimately the solution is decided by the toughest people. For the group, this process is often very frustrating and contributes to a poor image of group decisions. The willingness to engage in discussion in the future is decreasing. This means Consensus by fatigue and is sort of decision by resignation.
  • Someone in the group takes the lead and takes a path - and likes to do it with his fist on the table. While this solution means that ultimately one person dominates the entire group, many may be happy that someone saves them from the endless discussions. You can call this the boss decides.
  • The group decides on formal “majority voting” between the options. At the same time, valuable concerns may not be heard. Though this method of decision finding is formally legitimated by the group there is the danger that the possible potential is not exhausted.

A completely different approach is systemic consensing, hopefully overcoming the drawbacks by a creative process.

How does it work?

The approach has a few different phases:

  1. Determine the question for the problem that has surfaced. A group wants to make a decision that is shared by everyone involved. The group develops a question that can not be answered with yes or no. But it may also be that the question is already in the room and only needs to be formulated.

  2. Creative phase: Collecting solutions (for example as a brainstorming). In the second phase, proposals for solutions are made, paying attention to creativity and diversity. All ideas and wishes may be brought forward and stand side by side on an equal footing. The proposed solutions are not commented and discussed in this phase.

  3. Assessment phase. In the this phase, each solution proposal is assessed by each group member with so-called “resistance points” (R-points). Zero points means “no resistance” or “I can support this solution”. The highest score to be awarded is ten and means “strong resistance” or “I strongly disagree with this proposal”. The rating is recorded on a matrix.

  4. Evaluation Phase. Finally, the points awarded by the participants are added together for each proposed solution. The lowest score solution has the least resistance in the group and is therefore closest to consensus.

Additional hints

When collecting the options it is sensible, to add a so called “zero option” which is context specific. It is normally phrased as “leave everything as it is”, “let’s decide next time”, … The zero option can be considered as „limit of reasonability“. No proposal has a chance of being accepted by the group, if the rank of the zero option is lower than all others.

If you interpret the highest rankings for options (ten) as “veto” (like: ‘I’ll resign immediately if we do this’) it is advisable not to accept the option with lowest rank if one of the group members has “vetoed” agaist it. One can ask what the participant needs, so that his resistance is reduced. Often solutions are found here, but sometimes the person is already happy that the group is aware of his resistance.

Even if two solutions have almost equally low results, it’s worth taking a closer look. Maybe one of the solutions was pushed from the outside and the other in the group. Then one could reconcile these two solutions again.

You can also use different metrics than a 0 - 10 scale.

For the process to work, it is important that the participants understand it well. This can be achieved by a test run with a simple question.

In practice I gave a group for a training a 10 euro note asking them how to spend that money - and drive their decision with systemic concensing. I think the surprise ( - are you honest? You really give us that money? - ) helped to put the group members in a state where they could discuss the quetion unbiased. This also showed how unrealistic power options by e specific participant ( - give the money to me - ) are handled.

Prerequisites

  • All participants should be affected to the more or less the same amount
  • All must have more or less the same information concerning the problem
  • Flipchart or whiteboard or the like for the visualization of the results

Further Information

By “consensing” we mean the creative process of finding the best possible approximation of consensus, that is, the greatest possible agreement among people. “Systemic” we call the process described here, because it systemically leads to a constructive and cooperative behavior of all parties without being dependent on their goodwill or other qualities. “Systemic Consensing” was first developed and described by the Germans Visotschnig and Schrotta, they published 2005 a book (“Das SK Prinzip - Wie man Konflikte ohne Machtkämpfe löst”) about this way of decision finding.

There is a free ebook in German language “Einführung in systemisches Konsensieren” .

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