Raise, seek out and resolve objections to decisions and actions, so that you can reduce the potential for undesirable consequences and discover worthwhile ways to improve.
Deliberately seeking objections is a way to tap into the collective intelligence distributed throughout an organization and benefit from insights we might otherwise miss. Examining proposals, decisions and activity through the lens of different people’s perspectives helps to identify reasons why a decision or activity could lead to consequences that would better be avoided, and if there are worthwhile ways to improve things.
Adopting the principle of consent invites a change of focus in decision making, shifting intent from trying to reach agreement - can everyone agree with this? - toward the practice of deliberately checking for objections - are there any arguments that reveal why this is not good enough, safe enough or that there are worthwhile ways to improve?
Consent does not mean everyone is actively involved in making every decision, as this would be ineffective. Instead it’s useful to make decisions that, over time, free people up as much as possible to decide and act to create value by themselves. It does however require adequate transparency and mindfulness on the part of decision makers, to inform and involve people who would be impacted (to varying degrees), or to invite those that can bring relevant experience or expertise (see the Principle of Equivalence).
When dealing with complexity, considering different perspectives, experience and expertise is a simple yet effective way for developing a coherent shared understanding, out of which more effective decisions can be made.
Developing a culture that welcomes dissenting opinions and where people consider those opinions to discover any value they can bring generates greater engagement, psychological safety and support for decisions.
Shift supremacy from people to sound arguments
When comparing the available paradigms for decision making, the essential difference lies in where ultimate authority for making a decision is placed. In autocratic systems supremacy lies with an individual or small group. In a system governed by majority vote, supremacy lies with the majority (or those who can convince the majority of their position). In a system aspiring toward consensus with unanimity, supremacy lies with whoever decides to block a proposal or existing agreement. In all three of these cases, a decision is made regardless of whether the motive of those actors is aligned with the interest of the system or not.
When a group or organization adopts the principle of consent, supremacy shifts from any specific individual or group, to reasoned arguments that reveal the potential for undesirable consequences that would better be avoided or worthwhile ways to improve. This way, people—regardless of their position, rank, function or role—are unable to block decisions based solely on opinion, personal preference or rank. Consent invites everyone to at least be reasonable, while still leaving space for individuals to express diverse perspectives, opinions and ideas.
Distinguish between opinion or preference, and objections
Consent draws on the intelligence distributed throughout an organization, not only by inviting people to raise possible objections, but also by inviting people to then examine those arguments, rooting out any that are unfounded, evolving those they discover to be only partly true, and revealing those that are valid objections. So it’s typically a good idea to test arguments qualify as objections and only act on those that do. This helps avoid wasting time on arguments based merely on opinions, personal preference or bias.
Arguments that qualify as objections — at least as far as stakeholders can tell — help a group in directing their effort toward making changes in those areas where it’s necessary or worthwhile to adapt and improve. Incremental improvement based on discovery and learning is built into consent and is an inevitable consequence of adopting the principle.
Adopting the principle of consent shifts the aim of decision making towards identifying a solution that’s good enough for now, and where there are no obvious worthwhile improvements that would justify spending more time. This approach is far more effective than trying to arrive at consensus with unanimity, where the aim is to accommodate everyone’s personal preference and ideas.
Integrate learning from objections
Objections inform people of things that can be improved. Resolving objections typically means evolving (proposed) agreements and changing activity in ways that render that argument void. Sometimes however, there might be a reason why there is more to be gained from leaving things unchanged despite the existence of a valid objection. Ultimately, resolving objections involves weighing up pros and cons of any decision, both in relation to the specific situation a decision is intended to address, but also in the context of the organization as a whole. In complexity there are typically no perfect or entirely correct decisions, only those that (for now at least) appear good enough for now and safe enough to try. Often all that is needed is a good enough next step which allows us to learn empirically and adapt and evolve the decision over time.
This facilitation of natural and incremental learning draws on the diversity of knowledge, experience and expertise distributed throughout an organization. It helps to shift from a paradigm rooted in binary thinking and polarization (either/or) to a continual process of synergy (both/and), which over time fosters stronger relationships between peers as well.
The Implicit Contract of Consent
Adopting the principle of consent in a team, or in the organization as a whole, has implications for how people approach decision making, dialogue and activity. Consider making this implicit contract of consent explicit, to support members of the organization to adopt and apply the principle of consent:
- In the absence of objections to an agreement, I intend to follow through on that agreement to the best of my ability.
- As I become aware of them, I will share any possible objections to (proposed) agreements and activity, with those directly responsible for them.
- I’ll consider objections to proposals, agreements and activity that I’m responsible for, and will work to resolve the objection if I can.
- I’ll actively consider agreements that are due review, to check for any possible objections.