December 17, 2013  /  Jessica Geiben Lynn

Margaret Thatcher famously said that "consensus is the absence of leadership."  While the statement is debatable, leadership teams—composed of very smart, highly accomplished professionals—often sincerely believe that full consensus is needed  before decisions can be made. This belief springs from an authentic motivation—a desire to preserve working relationships, a fear of alienating people who are needed to make change happen, and the feeling that you'll be making the right choice only if you have complete consensus. If everyone agrees, it must be right—right?  

The desire for full consensus can also come from more problematic places, though—weakness on the part of the formal leader, fear of going out on a limb and being seen as resistant, and/or general confusion about who's really in charge of what decisions. The outcome in these situations is that decisions aren't made, you get half-hearted buy-in, or, worse, people go ahead and do what they want anyway, never mind what the agreement was. In all cases, organizational momentum slows down—or grinds to a halt.  

For a healthcare association, we helped the leadership team first realize that the preference for consensus is normal, but when consensus isn't possible, there's another way to get decision-making unstuck and retrieve organizational momentum. Using our Decision Charting tool, we helped this team see which people within the team needed differential decision-making roles and on what topics - in other words, we helped them put their expertise to work. We also helped them clarify the set of decisions most important for them to tackle as a leadership team, and identify who had the ultimate decision-making authority (and what to do when that is shared), who would be responsible for executing on the decision, who should be consulted in the process of making the decision, and who simply needed to be informed about the decision. Ultimately, this process allowed the team to become more effective, to implement change more quickly, and to preserve the close and now clarified collaborations across the team. In the healthcare world, slow decision-making is not an organizational asset. Speed counts in this complex and fast-changing world. So does structural clarity.

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