Charlie Tombazian on Gaining Consensus in a Tough Situation

I facilitated a group made up of two teams that were in conflict with one another over the past 9 months. The Sales/Marketing team from our largest field office lodged several complaints during this period that our Integration Center Team (Operations) at our Corporate Headquarters was not getting their orders for customers built and delivered on a timely basis. Until this meeting, the Sales/Marketing team took no responsibility for how they may be contributing to the problems, only expressing confusion and concern over how poor the timeliness of delivery had been.

After interviewing key members of both teams and realizing we may be headed for a session filled with contention and finger pointing, I used the Building Consensus Process I learned from Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies at the IAF Annual Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

The session went something like this: After introductions, I defined Consensus as being 100% commitment to support the group's decision, and explained we wouldn't have consensus if, after open and honest discussion, anyone in the group was unable to make that commitment. Once the group nodded their understanding and acceptance of this definition, I began by going over the agenda and asked the group if the agenda would achieve what they wanted to accomplish. Once a few items were clarified or added, everyone agreed we had consensus, so I moved to the next step in the Consensus Process, explaining that people disagree for essentially three reasons.

While I adapted Michael's reasons using my own terminology, they are essentially the same: task orientation differences (what we are doing, the information included, and what we are trying to accomplish), process orientation differences (how we are going to work on it), and personality differences (cultural, gender, experience, values, attitudes). I stated that it was fair game to address differences in the first two categories, but under no uncertain terms were we going to spend time on personality differences. If personality issues did surface, I would take them offline between the people involved. I completed this point by stating that we would focus on the problem and opportunity, not the individual. Once there was Consensus acceptance of this parameter for the session, I moved to the next step.

I used Michael's Delineation approach which begins by building a foundation of agreement by asking the teams to list the facts of our lack of timely delivery with which they could all agree. After making an extensive list, we validated together the fact there was much the teams agreed upon. This was a very positive and energizing step for the two teams since most of their dealings to this point had been negative and contentious. This step, combined with the previous one, thrust the teams headlong into a discussion of the problem and opportunity with a very collaborative spirit. It was clear to me at this point, that once the emotion was taken out of the interaction, the individuals could really work toward solving the problem and capitalizing on the opportunity. Had we started the process with the teams' differences and problems, I would bet a paycheck things wouldn't have been nearly as productive. This was a great lesson for me as a facilitator; agreement can be very energizing!

Delineation then continued with clearly identifying where the two teams disagreed. A list was made and then the sources of their disagreement were identified by me soliciting the teams' observations about the list of disagreements. Individuals from both teams concluded that their differences resulted from differences in the team's perspective of the order and inventory control process. As is so often the case, people in a particular function have good visibility into the part of the process they deal with, but not so clear visibility into the parts of the process they do not directly interact with. When the order and inventory management process was mapped on a wall from beginning to end, the teams quickly saw where the breakdowns were and where mutual opportunities to improve the process existed.

We finished the Delineation step by listing the alternative solutions for some process improvements, making certain there were plenty of alternatives to select from by breaking the two teams into smaller teams made up of members representing both Sales/Marketing and Integration Center (Operations). They were charged with reporting out their solutions. As each team reported out, only new solutions not covered by a previous breakout group were listed. I checked for consensus by asking if there were enough good solutions to choose from, to which the group signaled not only their agreement, but their delight at having come to this point so quickly and positively.

Next we promptly identified the strengths and weaknesses of each alternative, and even though there was some debate, I didn't dwell on the differences too much. This led right into being able to create a "Merge" list of those solutions that incorporated the strengths and potential positive outcomes from the alternative solutions. Again, the group could see that one or two solutions were emerging that made the most sense. But it was only after going through this logical and unemotional process that they could more clearly envision and embrace the solutions to their problems.

No weighted score assignment criteria steps were necessary, so we moved to the selection of two best solutions, and then to the development of an action plan to develop and implement the solutions selected. Owners for the various actions were determined and agreed to, and the final step put a timetable to the actions listed. This entire process took about 5 hours and included a 30 minute break for lunch.

This situation showed me the true power of the Consensus building process, in particular, starting with the general reasons why people disagree, taking personality differences off the table, and building from what people can agree on, rather than starting with and focusing on their differences. I sincerely appreciate the tool Michael and Leadership Strategies provided me and continue to use it in my facilitation at Avnet and with our customers and suppliers.

Charles Tombazian is Director of Global Strategic Planning for Avnet, Inc., a global provider of technology marketing, distribution, and related services based in Tempe, Arizona. Avnet generates over $13 billion in revenue annually from its operations in 69 countries worldwide in collaboration with leading technology manufacturers like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, National Semiconductor, GE Medical, Cisco, Motorola, Infineon, Toshiba, and Xilinx.


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