free culture · open source

Are you really using consensus?

I’ve participated in a variety of free culture organizations over the years and most go through a phase where they state they make decisions by consensus. Even in other situations such as sports teams and the local farmers market I’ve experienced this pattern where people try to make decisions by a form of consensus, unanimous agreement. This is often okay for low stakes decisions or obvious decisions, but when conflict arises it becomes an issue.

Processes and definitions of consensus

There are different issues with simply stating that decisions are made by consensus. Often this state of consensus-based decision making is part of the unwritten processes of an group or if it is documented it might just mention consensus. Very occasionally there is a documented process but this tends to be rare.

The biggest two issues that come up are not having a documented process for reaching consensus and not defining what consensus is. The are myriad processes and definitions for consensus and by not defining this expectations for consensus can be quite different. Wikipedia has a good overview of different processes and definitions for when consensus is reached. Without this in place often the person seeking a difficult decision ends up repeatedly engaging with people and trying different solutions in an attempt to find one agreeable to everyone, when only finding one that is acceptable might be possible. Other times the strongest voices my end up vetoing a possible decision, sometimes even unintentionally.

Be intentional

The group benefits by being intentional in documenting how you will make decisions. If you decide that there is a consensus model that will work well for you group that is perfectly fine. Explicitly choose it and write it down! Then as more people join they will know how decisions are made. When you have heated decisions to make then you can refer to the process you defined during cooler times. Decisions still won’t always be easy, but process itself won’t be the issue.

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