Make better decisions using consent, not consensus

Instead of “Do you agree?” ask, “Is it safe to try?”

Jurriaan Kamer
11 min readJun 24, 2024

Below is an excerpt from my new bookUnblock: Clear the Way for Results and Develop a Thriving Organization.” Digital access is available now.
The piece starts with a short fictional story: Rob, the head of marketing, is bringing a new design for the food menu of the Magajima restaurant chain. Part one of this story can be read in “How a great idea got stuck in meetings.”

How progress stalled when the CEO wanted everyone to agree
Before the senior leaders felt comfortable investing in upgrading all of the printed menus to include full-color photographs of their dishes, Jill and Rob were asked to improve the data that underpinned their ROI calculations. They quickly got approval after Veronica and a few other restaurant managers ran experiments with positive results.

Today, Rob hopes to get the new menu design approved by the senior leadership team. He knows it might be tricky since Jordan, the founder and CEO, has always been very ‘hands-on’ in terms of design.

Rob brings printed mockups of the new menu, one for each executive. He puts them on their tables before they walk in. When the leaders start entering the room, the menu immediately catches their attention. Several pick it up and start talking about it with their neighbors. Rob is trying to read the room. Do they like it? He pays the closest attention to Jordan’s body language. It is not great.

When it is time, Rob starts: “So, I’m here today to get your approval for the new design. Most of you have already looked at it. Let me explain why my team believes this style works best.”

Before he can continue, Jordan interrupts. “I’m sorry, Rob, but I think we can save us some time here. I don’t like the new design. The fonts are too modern to my liking, and the red lines you use around the boxes are hurting my eyes.”

Rob feels a knot in his stomach. Although he is not surprised, he does wonder how he can do his job if the CEO constantly overrides his expertise…

Jordan continues: “I don’t think we need something as radical as this. I’d like a design that aligns more with our current look and feel. Could you work on a few options and show them to us at our next meeting?” Rob hesitantly consents. He takes the menus and leaves the room.

When Rob returns to his team, they are disappointed that the design they worked hard to create wasn’t approved. However, they don’t mind creating a few more options. They ask Rob: “Okay, so Jordan didn’t like it; what did the others think?” Rob admits he has no idea because he didn’t hear their opinions.

The new designs were ready within a week. But Rob has to wait another six weeks until there is an open slot on the senior management team’s agenda.

This time, Rob brings three versions of the menu designs and puts them on large printouts that he hangs across the boardroom walls. The leaders walk in and start looking and talking about the prints. He notices the positive energy in the room. Even Jordan seems excited.

When everyone has settled down, Rob introduces the three options and then asks, “So, what do you think?” He hopes there is a clear winner so we can get this over with.

This time, Jill starts: “Thanks for making these designs. I think all of them could work, but I prefer the third one because it is the easiest to read for our customers.”

Maria responds: “Readability is important indeed. But I prefer the first one because it has a fresh feeling.”

“Yeah, I agree with Maria. Design 1 is fresh but aligns with our current look and feel. I like it,” says Jordan.

The room goes silent. Rob wonders, since Jordan (the CEO) expressed their preference, does that mean we have a decision?

After a while, Lisa, the head of legal, speaks up. “I personally am more in favor of option 2. What I like about it is that the pictures of the dishes are a bit larger, which seemed to be the whole point of changing the menu in the first place.”

Jim, the CHRO, is shifting nervously in his chair. Rob notices that and asks him: “Jim, what do you think?” “Well, the thing is, I honestly don’t like any of these. The option you brought last time was much better, in my opinion. I love the radical change that it expressed. I’m convinced it will do well with our customers.”

Rob feels frustrated. Now what? He wonders if Jordan will step in and make the final call. However, forcing option one would mean going for a version that a majority of the executives don’t prefer…

Jordan speaks up: “Okay, listen up. It sounds like there is no consensus. I want all of us to feel comfortable with such a big change in our branding, so I propose we sleep on it and decide it during our next meeting. In the meantime, I suggest that Rob schedules 1:1 meetings with each of us to see if his team can work towards a version that works for everyone.”

Rob leaves the room and feels terrible. This situation is starting to look like “design by committee,” which, from experience, he knows will lead to a mediocre compromise. It will keep him and his team busy for another few weeks. He wonders why the senior leadership team needs to be so heavily involved in these details. They surely can spend their time on more strategic topics…?

Find everyone’s range of tolerance

In the story, Jordan, like many leaders, prefers to find a solution with which everyone agrees. At first sight, consensus has several advantages. First, it makes the group hear and integrate everyone’s perspective, which reduces bias and increases decision quality. Secondly, it creates buy-in, which increases the likelihood that the decision can and will be implemented smoothly.

However, this comes at the cost of delaying progress. Every week the decision is ‘stuck in management land’, the unimproved restaurant menu persists, and opportunity costs build up. When a team is ‘addicted’ to harmony or consensus, it runs the risk of increasing groupthink and compliance due to peer pressure.

Look at these diagrams to understand why teams get stuck when striving for consensus.

Adopted from “Many Voices One Song” by Ted Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez

Let me illustrate this with a petty example. Imagine I’m picking a cake for our company’s next big celebration party. Everyone has a preference. I love cheesecake (really, I do!), but my colleague prefers chocolate cake. The larger the group, the broader the range of preferences; getting unanimous agreement will become impossible.

If we instead aim for a decision that is within everyone’s range of tolerance, we might quickly agree that everyone can live with any sweet cake (not a quiche) within a set budget. However, I have a nut allergy, so anything with nuts in it is objectionable — it is outside my range of tolerance.

With consent, we seek a state of ‘no objection’ where our shared range of tolerance allows us to move forward. It’s about aligning what is acceptable. At the end of this chapter, I’ll share more details on getting consent.

Decide how to decide

When facing a decision, deciding how it will be made is essential.

Imagine how differently the story would have gone if one of these options were proposed:

  • “Rob is responsible for design, so he can make the final call and inform us.” (role decision rights)
  • “This is a reversible decision. Let’s not debate it for longer and try different formats with our customers and measure the impact.” (act, then revise)
  • If the CEO’s buy-in is critical: “I propose we let Rob and Jordan create a version together that they bring to us to see if it raises any objections from anyone.” (bring a proposal for consent; see below)

When facing a complex decision, or when it is important to consider everyone’s opinion but also go quickly, I recommend using Integrative Decision Making (IDM). It is a thorough process for consent-based decision-making. Even though the practice was invented for running self-managing organizations, I’ve seen significant benefits in applying it to (leadership) teams of traditional organizations.

IDM is based on four steps, I’ll touch on each of them below:

  1. Present Proposal
  2. Clarifying Questions
  3. Reaction Round
  4. Seek Consent

The art of making proposals

“If you have an opinion, you better have a proposal!” — Nelia Booden (leadership coach and co-founder of Unblock)

One of the biggest causes of digressions (I like calling them ‘rabbit holes’) in leadership teams is when somebody places a topic on the agenda without a clear need, request, or proposal. Of course, there is value in “just discussing” something and hearing everyone’s opinion, but don’t expect it to converge into a decision magically.

Discussing a proposal of an actual solution or experiment can shift this dynamic. If there is no proposal, ask if somebody wants to volunteer to make one. Ideally, the person(s) who experiences the problem or feels the most need for change makes the proposal. If it addresses something more collective, the proposer can ask for a round of input before crafting the proposal.

Here is a set of questions that we encourage proposers to answer when writing their proposal:

  • What triggered this proposal? What data or context is relevant?
  • What alternatives have you considered?
  • What is the desired outcome of this decision? How will we know it worked?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • What risks do you see? What could go wrong?
  • Who is affected?
  • What do you need from others to make this a success?

In the story, Rob was ready to explain why his team chose this particular new menu design, but the CEO cut him off — a missed opportunity to learn more about Rob’s thinking.

Spend an appropriate amount of time writing the proposal. If the decision is low-risk and reversible, be comfortable answering “I don’t know, but I suggest we find out” to some of these questions rather than spending much time doing research.

Answering these questions in a proposal can increase the quality of decisions and drastically speed up the process, especially when you invite participants to read them before the meeting. Therefore, I encourage leadership teams to bake these questions into a one-page template that they will use for every (major or complex) decision. This helps create an inventory of decisions you can refer to later.

If you’ve made this a habit in your leadership team and have experienced the positive effects, it will become easy for you to invite others across the organization to do the same. To track the behavior change, note how many proposals are being passed by the leadership team. And note who is bringing the proposals. A sign that your leadership team is adaptive and high-performing is when everyone regularly brings forth proposals instead of consistently having the same people do so.

Ask clarifying questions before reacting

Here is a simple yet powerful way to improve a team’s decision-making: When someone brings an idea, decision proposal, presentation, or report, ask questions first before sharing reactions.

Doing so engrains a habit of curiosity and can disrupt a team’s pattern of structureless debate. Here is how it works.

First, the group takes turns asking questions. Ideally, they are clarifying questions. These are questions to improve understanding. For example:

  • What do you mean by …?
  • Can you say more about…?
  • Why do you propose to …?
  • What do you need…?

Then, when there are no further questions, start a ‘reaction round.’ Everybody gets one turn to share their reaction/advice/opinion. During this round, people don’t respond to each other. When someone is speaking, everyone else listens, including the person who initially presented.

Here is what it looks like in practice, if Magajima’s leadership team would apply it.

After Rob explained why his team believes the new style works best, he asked clarifying questions. There were two:

  • Lisa: “What data did you use to develop this design?”
  • Jordan: “Why do you feel a radical departure from our current branding is important?”

After answering, Rob asks for a round of reactions:

  • Maria: “I like the freshness, but I find the text hard to read.”
  • Lisa: “I think the pictures could be a bit larger, which was the whole point of the redesign.”
  • Jordan: “I don’t like the red lines; they hurt my eyes. And the redesign is way too radical for my liking. I’d love one more aligned with the look and feel.”

By following this process, Rob would have learned a lot about what the leadership team cares about during his initial meeting (brand alignment, readability, and dishes) and be able to create one or more updated proposals aligned with these interests. If possible, he could make these adjustments immediately in the room or bring a ‘winner’ to the second meeting.

Tips & tricks
The structure is designed to postpone everyone’s urge to give their opinion until everyone understands what’s being said. This behavior shift requires practice for the whole team.

It is not uncommon for someone to have the impulse to judge, tear things apart, or ask unconstructive ‘gotcha’ questions. Judging solutions before they are understood can send a strong signal that ideas aren’t welcome. By sticking to clarifying questions, you set a tone for collaboration, not defense.

The most common pitfall is that people package their opinion in a question, for example:

  • “Shouldn’t we also …Y?”
  • “I think we should X, do you agree?”
  • “What about [something unrelated]?”
  • “Why didn’t you propose [my better idea]?”

If you are the proposer or are facilitating the conversation, be gentle when it is hard for someone to formulate a clarifying question. Name that their question is not a ‘clarifying question,’ and encourage them to ask it differently. Or encourage them to write their reaction down so they can share it during the reaction round.

If someone still struggles, stay flexible and say, “If I take what you said and turn it into a clarifying question, I think what you are asking is… and my answer is …” or “Thanks for sharing your opinion. I’ve heard it and would like to respond after hearing everyone’s questions and reactions. Is that okay?”

Also, if you don’t have the answer, simply say, “I don’t know,” instead of coming up with a fluffy non-answer.

Getting to consent

For complex problems, we often don’t know what the perfect choice is until we try it out. Therefore, Rob could have responded: “So, Jim, I understand you don’t like the design I’m proposing for several reasons. But do you think it will cause harm if we try it? Is it safe-to-try?”

Seeking consent is all about finding the difference between “I don’t like it” and “I can’t live with it.” Here are a few questions that can help:

  • Are there any objections to the proposal?
  • Is it good enough for now, safe enough to try?
  • Do you see any reason why adopting this proposal would hinder us from achieving our goals or lead to irreversible harm?

When somebody objects, they must help the proposer find a way to adjust the proposal to make it safe-to-try. Here are a few ways that could happen:

  • Make it smaller. Find an area where you can test the proposal while limiting its ‘blast radius’ if it blows up. For example, test the new menu in one restaurant first.
  • Make it temporary. Try it out for some time, then bring it back for evaluation. For example, agree to test the new design for a quarter.
  • Amend the proposal with additional working agreements. To mitigate the risks raised, make explicit agreements about mitigating or dealing with them when they arise. For example, agree to swap the design immediately with the old one when there is bad press.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from my new bookUnblock: Clear the Way for Results and Develop a Thriving Organization.

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Jurriaan Kamer

Org design & transformation | Author of ‘Formula X’ | Speaker | Future of Work