Sunday, 24 June 2012

Create consensus, not ‘Groupthink’

Is it ever possible to create group consensus without a little ‘groupthink’ setting in?

Well, first of all, what do these terms mean? Consensus means to reach “general agreement” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionarydefinition. ‘Groupthink’ on the other hand is a psychological term to describe when a group’s “strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”, most famously coined by Psychologist Irving Janis in 1972.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I recently had the pleasure of learning about Board Basics at a Vantage Point session in Vancouver. One of the challenges for many not-for-profit organizations is how to run an effective Board which sets the vision and mission of the organization and drives its future. Why such a challenge? Often because there’s a lack of clarity about the roles of Board members versus staff members, and there’s a huge amount of grey area between the work of governance (by the Board) and management (by the staff, headed up by an Executive Director typically).

Many Board members are new to the role, elected for their passion and commitment, not necessarily their experience or skillset. And that’s a great thing – passionate people build momentum, generate enthusiasm, and are more likely to get the job done. But when it comes to knowing exactly where the boundaries should lie between staff and board, decision makers and executors, there may be a case of too many followers, not enough leaders. If this issue isn’t explored, Board discussions may turn primarily into social events rather than generative vision-setting sessions, or at the other extreme they may turn into raucous arguments which never reach a conclusion and there’s only a pause because people have homes to go to. Or the group may reach consensus because they know they need to make a decision, rather than at a time when full exploration into alternative options has been creatively carried out.

Phew. It even sounds exhausting.

And I return to the original question. Is it ever really possible to reach consensus without letting ‘groupthink’ set in?

Perhaps not. Perhaps there will always be a bit of shoulder-shrugging and idea-swallowing if groups are ever going to get decisions made, and then turned into strategies for the organization.

But there are certainly some healthier ways to run your Board – or any group – meetings. Consider the following suggestions and keep an eye on the situation. Knowing the challenge is half the battle. The rest is doing something positive about it.

1. Start as you mean to continue 
If you have the luxury of joining or creating a group now, consider how you can organize roles and accountabilities, set objectives, and lay out ‘session ground rules’ to start the meetings positively, openly and collaboratively. As you mean to go on. Involve everyone in this process so that you can uncover individual motivations, passions, goals and aims – and make a note to refer to them later.

2. Lead a fresh start.
If you’re already part of a group that could do with a refresh, suggest the group holds a ‘Fresh start’ session where you cover these challenges, share individual views, reconnect everyone to the vision, roles and accountabilities and agree some ground rules for all future meetings. Encourage every individual to have the opportunity to air their biggest ideas here, and put any concerns forward. If you can all see what’s on the agenda of the people around you, you’ll be able to work better together.

3. Set a clear agenda.
You may have a clear agenda, but as soon as one discussion starts, everyone brings up all the other issues you’ve yet to solve. Stop. Think. Stick to the agenda. Explore all options. And hear from everyone. But keep it focused. Giving the group a clear objective for each meeting will avoid going round in circles.

4. Create accountability.
If you’ve led your ‘Fresh start’ session and you’ve heard each individual’s views and motivations, why not build on this to create accountability within the group? Warning: This could be dangerous if you don’t have a healthy, open, creative environment because people might step onto the pedestal of their assigned accountability and not engage with others. However, it can work to give different people a focus and when it comes time to discuss financials (for example) that person can lead that discussion.

5. Provide breaks.
Breaks give an opportunity for ideas to build and tensions to clear. It may sound simple but are you providing refreshments? Is there a place to get air or take a walk? Get the hygiene factors right and you’ll have a more focused, less distracted, and generally happier environment when you get back down to business.

6. Manage the process. 
Try assigning someone to be the ‘Observer’ in your next meeting. As well as being involved in discussions, their role is to note down how the process is running, who’s contributing, who’s staying silent, how discussions go and how agreement was reached, if at all. Take five minutes at the end of the meeting for the observer to share what they noticed, and plan some actions for next time if things need to change. Swap the ‘Observer’ role regularly keep the observations fresh and objective.

7. Celebrate, Evaluate, continue to grow. 
Every few months, take the time as a group to celebrate all that you’ve achieved. Ask each person what they’re most proud of and where their hopes are for the future. Remember to evaluate where there could still be improvement, and plan what you’ll do differently next week or next month. The best groups remain dynamic, reflective, positive, open, collaborative and progressive.

Where’s your group or Board at the moment?

Where do you want to be?

What will you do tomorrow/ next month to move closer to your goal?

Good luck and enjoy the process. 


  1. I found this post fascinating.

  2. Thanks KarenG - let me know what success you have if you use the tips, and good luck.