Group sessions that are well facilitated are quite effective at developing creative solutions and reaching consensus to address shared problems. In a facilitated session, the group attempts to reach agreement on a set of solutions. However, an essential element of any facilitated session is having agreement on the method for making decisions. Do you have a trusted method to make decisions and reach consensus? Here are several alternatives.
In some groups, decisions are made by majority. Whatever the majority of the participants want is the decision that is made. Majority decision-making can be quick. However, it can also lead to less than optimal solutions because not enough time was spent investigating potentially better alternatives. Majority decision-making can also result in less effective implementation because there is not full buy-in. People can walk away feeling that their views weren’t heard, and their needs were not met.
With the super majority, the group debates until a large majority of the participants agree with one alternative. The super majority target is typically 60 percent, 67 percent, or 75 percent.
While typically not as quick as majority rules, the super majority can still lead to less than optimal and less effective solutions for the same reasons as majority rules.
In a facilitated session, the typical approach to decision-making is consensus. Consensus is often defined as, “I can live with it and support it.” Consensus does not mean everyone thinks the solution is the best. Instead, it typically means the solution has enough elements that every person is willing to go along with it and support it.
The strength of consensus is that it encourages discussion until solutions are created that we are all willing to accept. It typically increases the effectiveness of the implementation because we did reach full consensus. However, there are three major challenges with consensus.
- First, consensus can be quite time consuming. It can take a very long time to come to agreements that all are willing to accept.
- However, an even greater problem exists with consensus. Often, a potentially great solution can be “watered down” in the spirit of finding something with which everyone in the group can agree. While we achieve consensus on a solution, the cost of consensus may be a solution that is far from optimal, and might be described as the “least common denominator.”
- I have even seen occasions in which consensus was held hostage by one person who decided he wasn’t going to agree until he got exactly what he wanted. The result was clearly not the will of the group but, in the name of getting everyone to agree, was the solution that was put in place.
5-finger consensus is designed to encourage significant agreement without jeopardizing the quality of the solution. Here’s how it works.
Once an alternative is proposed and discussed and the group is ready to check for agreement, the facilitator does the following. The facilitator explains that on the count of three, each person should hold up between one and five fingers indicating the level of support for the recommendation on the table.
- 5 means “Strongly agree”
- 4 means “Agree”
- 3 means “I can see pluses and minuses but am willing to go along with the group”
- 2 means “Disagree”
- 1 means “Strongly disagree and can’t support”
On the first vote, if everyone shows a 5, 4 or 3, consensus has been reached, and we can move ahead. If there are any 1s or 2s, those who indicate such are given the opportunity to explain to the rest of the group why they gave the rating and make recommendations to change the alternative in order to make it acceptable to them. The originator of the alternative has the option to make the change or leave the option as it is and explains the decision to the rest of the group. If a change is made to the recommendation, then it is a new first vote. If no change is made then it goes on to the second vote.
On the second vote, if everyone shows a 5, 4, 3, or 2, the decision is made, and we can move ahead. The 2s are in essence saying, “I don’t think it is a good idea, but if that is what the group wants to do, I won’t block it.” However, if there are any 1s, those who indicate such are given the opportunity to explain to the rest of the group why they gave the rating and make recommendations to change the alternative in order to make it acceptable to them. Once more, the originator of the alternative has the option to make the change or leave the option as it is and explains the decision to the rest of the group. If a change is made to the recommendation, then it is a new first vote. If no change is made, then it goes on to the third vote.
On the third vote, majority rules. The decision is made based on the majority of the participants.
I have seen times when, on the third vote, the group went with the recommendation and times when, on the third vote, the group felt a change to the recommendation was needed, and the recommendation was voted down. However, in all cases, 5-finger consensus encourages the group to listen carefully when there is disagreement. In fact, it encourages listening carefully twice if necessary. But, the technique doesn’t allow a solution to be watered down because a few disagree. Though, admittedly, there may be one or two who don’t like the alternative, our belief is that 5-finger consensus helps ensure that they all are heard, and heard well, and that the will of the group prevails.
Help your group get to “yes” more effectively. Learn more consensus-building, engagement, and group management techniques in our facilitation courses:
- The Effective Facilitator (four-day comprehensive training)
- Facilitating Masterful Meetings (two-day fundamental training
About the Author
Michael Wilkinson is the CEO and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies, the largest provider of professional facilitators and facilitation training in the country. Michael is a much sought after trainer, facilitator and speaker. He is a Certified Master Facilitator and a Certified Professional Facilitator. As a past president of the Southeast Association of Facilitators, the creator of the FindaFacilitator.com database and a board member of the International Institute of Facilitation, Michael is a national leader in the facilitation industry. You can get more tips from Michael’s books, including The Executive Guide to Facilitating Strategy, The Secrets of Facilitation, The Secrets to Masterful Meetings, and CLICK: The Virtual Meetings Book.