consensus flowchart by tree bressen
In our modern society, there are five distinct ways that decisions get made. Each entails power dynamics, and make no mistake: Decision-making is all about the exercise of power. Here’s a snapshot:
There is evidence that, prior to the advent of civilization and overcrowding, when resources were abundant and accessable to all, society was largely anarchic: that is, individuals (even within tribes) made their own decisions and lived with the consequences. At the local level in anarchic societies, with no regulatory system to prevent it, bullying by psychopaths could occur, but in a world of abundance individuals were free to leave the influence of such bullies at will. In pre-historic and indigenous societies, consensus methods then evolved to deal with disagreements and to manage psychopathic members of those tribes that settled in cohesive communities.
As the world became more crowded, abundance gave way to scarcity and stable tribes and communities became increasingly transient. Anarchic decision-making became untenable as frontiers and resources became exhausted, and consensus methods became more difficult as numbers swelled and the sense of community disappeared. In some areas, decision-making became centralized in monarchies and oligarchies, essentially fascist systems. In others, less centralized, local warlords seized power and made the decisions. Both these new systems were unstable and often led to continuous wars and revolutions, but these usually produced nothing more than changes in the people in power — the contested anarchic or monarchic/oligarchic system remained. Countries like Afghanistan continue to waver between anarchy (decision-making by local warlords) and war. The laissez-faire “free market” is a form of contested anarchy, with the ‘tribes’ (corporations) of local warlords (CEOs) constantly fighting for dominance.
As the cost of war rose, some nations decided to establish a new system for decision-making called ‘democracy’, in which the factions fighting for control would hold a staged war called an ‘election’, and then voters, responding mostly to propaganda, misinformation and bribery, would judge the ‘winners’ and install them in power for a fixed term. While less violent, the result of majority-rule democracy is the same as the result of war: the ‘winners’, and more particularly those who finance and wield influence over them, end up with all the decision-making power. In this system, the voters have no real stake in decision-making at all.
In recent years, winner-take-all majority-rule democracy has been replaced, at least on a trial basis, with proportional representation democracy, where no group is declared the outright ‘winners’ and those selected to represent the voters must continuously negotiate with each other to achieve some sort of consensus on each issue. Critics of this system argue that this is too time-consuming and unstable, but in those nations with most experience in various forms of democracy, this method is growing in popularity (at least in peace-time).
So there seems to be something in human nature longing for a return to the two decision-making systems that prevailed for most of our time on Earth: anarchy (which both right-libertarian “free market” adherants and anti-government neo-survivalists espouse), and consensus.
I’m a theoretical anarchist. I like the idea of living without authority, and everyone making his/her own decisions. But I think, in this age of staggering overcrowding, inequality, complexity and scarcity, it’s hopelessly naive. We’ve seen, in cults and corporatist abuses from the wild West and the mafia to Jim Jones and Scientology to Enron and Madoff, the consequences of clinging to anarchic ideals. Perhaps after civilization collapses, when overcrowding and inequality and scarcity give way again to abundance, we can re-embrace such ideals.
But for now, in my view, our only hope is consensus. So, let’s look at this very old (used by indigenous peoples for millennia) and very new method for decision-making. First, a definition from wikipedia:
Consensus Decision-Making is a group decision-making process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections and concerns.
Consensus is not unanimity, but it is agreement among all members of a group that any concerns or objectives they may have are sufficiently small that they are willing to be bound by the decision. While it is not always an appropriate method for making decisions, it usually works:
Consensus Decision-Making is an appropriate process whenever (a) there is an informed lack of agreement, and (b) there is a collective interest in achieving such agreement.
In other words, it won’t work if the group is insufficiently informed to have a rational position on the issue at hand, or to appreciate the essence of any disagreement they might have with others. If you’re ignorant of the essential facts, or don’t care about the issue, or aren’t or don’t feel bound by the decision, you can’t meaningfully agree to such a decision. And if you’ve been brainwashed or propagandized to misunderstand others’ position, and hence are unable to consider the issue objectively, consensus will likely be impossible. Likewise, if the decision choices are substantively aesthetic, matters of personal taste, consensus decision-making may be the wrong approach. And if the members of the group don’t trust or care about each other, attempts to achieve consensus may be fruitless.
Consensus decision-making also won’t work if people are so inexperienced in using it that they don’t realize the consequences of their decisions. Or if they can (for any of a variety of reasons) be coerced, sweet-talked or ‘bought’ by others in the group. Or if there isn’t enough time (or the group is unwilling to allot enough time) for the process to take its course.
Despite these drawbacks and limitations, this process is getting more and more attention these days. Businesses are increasingly forming as cooperatives and other forms of non-hierarchical ‘Natural Enterprise’, comprising equal partners who trust many decisions to the most skilled and informed partner, and make the remaining decisions by consensus. The ‘wisdom of crowds‘ uses the collective knowledge of a large group of informed and independent people to make better decisions than any expert or management group could make — while this isn’t a consensus process per se it does use the same ‘front end’ steps. Enterprises are realizing the value of improving collaboration with those within and outside the organization, and consensus decision-making can be an essential collaborative tool. And as the adversarial legal system collapses under it’s own weight, alternative disputes resolution processes that have much in common with the consensus decision-making process are getting increased use.
As our political systems, prone to reducing everything to ‘either-or’ dichotomies that pit large power blocs against each other or allow the rich and powerful to make undemocratic back-room decisions, fall into disfavour, the consensus decision-making processes that are often used in jurisdictions using proportional representation to negotiate past impasses, are being more extensively studied and used. And as more people tire of dysfunctional centralized systems and establish community-based bottom-up networks and organizations to bring about change, they are finding that consensus decision-making is a very powerful and effective process for such groups.
Here are my 10 reasons why consensus decision-making will be one of the most important capacities for people to develop and practice in this turbulent century. Think about what’s going on in the Middle East, or the disagreements that are hobbling your government, your business, or your community organization, and how consensus decision-making might be a better way, as you read this list:
If you’d like to learn more about the process, I’d recommend Tree’s Summary of Consensus Decision-Making, Consensus Queries, and Voting Fallbacks articles and Randy Schutt’s Examples of Cooperative Decision-Making Processes.
After I attended the Bowen Island Art of Hosting event, I waxed rhapsodic about the facilitation process, and its importance. I feel much the same way about the consensus decision-making process. And the two are connected: Consensus decision-making requires all participants to become competent at and patient with the process, but also requires excellent facilitation — someone not directly affected by the direction or outcomes of the process who can work objectively and dispassionately to:
This is a huge task, and one that requires great skill, practice, intelligence, tact, alertness, grace, adaptability, and patience. Good facilitators are hard to find, and a poor facilitator can fatally damage the consensus decision-making process.
Like facilitation, consensus decision-making is a capacity that can be learned, but one that must be practiced over a lifetime. We owe it to ourselves, our fellow humans and to future generations to get better at it, and start using it in every aspect of our lives. Nothing less than the future of our planet is at stake.