October 24, 2014
   
A Systematic Approach to Making Decisions Based on Consensus

Nonprofits are largely consensus-oriented organizations, yet many struggle with making decisions that invite maximum participation and efficiency. Consensus-Oriented Decision Making helps by providing step-by-step guidance that accounts for group dynamics, resolves conflict, and maximizes communication.

Authored by Tim Hartnett, a professional group facilitator and mediator, Consensus-Oriented Decision Making is based on a model which, as the name suggests, stresses consensus—not unanimity—to help groups first propose a decision and then finalize it. The process builds on full participation by all parties – to ensure that all points of view are considered and to create a sense of unity and cohesion in the group.

The consensus-oriented decision making model, called CODM (pronounced co dem), emphasizes efficiency, as well as participation. Notes Hartnett, “Without an effective process, a group trying for greater participation is likely to suffer a serious loss of efficiency. Eventually, groups that cannot make decisions effectively are likely to frustrate members so much than participation declines or the group fails at is mission.”

The CODM process, led by a facilitator, follows seven steps, as follows:
  1. Frame the topic. The objective is to agree on what the group’s goal is.

  2. Open discussion. Participants are invited to identify different ways of seeing the problem and suggest solutions.

  3. Identify underlying concerns. The group is asked to give attention to underlying needs and concerns.

  4. Collaborative proposal development. Facilitation is key in order to avoid competitive and adversarial debate and to give alternative ideas a complete airing.

  5. Choose a direction. At this point, the group is engaged to discuss pros and cons of different possible solutions.

  6. Synthesize a final proposal. The goal is to collaboratively develop a single proposal so that it satisfies all the needs and concerns of the group to the maximum extent possible.

  7. Closure. The group’s decision rule—a vote by simple majority or supermajority, unanimity, or some other rule—is implemented.
Even with successful closure, the group’s work is not necessarily over, advises Hartnett: there may be a need to provided empathy to those who may not be satisfied with the result, or assistance may need to be enlisted to implement the decision.

Beyond detailing these seven steps in CODM, Hartnett devotes a considerable part of the book to providing guidance on how to deal with the ins and outs of achieving them.

For example, when it comes to identifying underlying concerns, he provides a template for charting the concerns of specific stakeholders. He explains the differences between a position (“a specific plan that someone may advocate”) and an underlying concern (“a problem that needs a solution”) and how once an underlying concern is identified, alternative positions can be considered.

Much of the appeal of the book stems from its grounding in understanding what motivates people and their needs. Recognizing that different groups have different needs, Hartnett stresses that the model he offers is highly flexible and can be modified..

Groups that need to make decisions also need to continue to work together after those decisions get made. Going forward, they’ll also likely have to make more decisions together. Besides offering a systematic approach to what can be difficult, even vexing, matters, the CODM model offers a highly valuable benefit in that it helps build the team.

Consensus-Oriented Decision Making is available from New Society Publishers.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
April 2011

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