How to Keep Collaboration From Becoming Consensus

Think back on some of the team projects you’ve been a part of throughout your career. I’m sure you can remember a time when the group started out strong but devolved into trying to satisfy the lowest common denominator. Most people recognize the value of collaboration; that’s not the issue. It’s when this strategy swings too far in the direction of consensus that you start to lose value. Typically, your goal in any collaborative situation is to produce the best solution to a problem or come up with the most effective idea, then be able to move confidently in the direction of solving said problem. Does that mean every single person in the room needs to agree on what the “best” idea is? We think not.

Admittedly, it can be tricky to foster the kind of environment where collaboration calls for vigorous debate (about ideas, not people) coupled with a willingness to commit even if you don’t agree. But a lack of consensus doesn’t automatically equal a lack of commitment or harmony. So, how do you help your team reach a place of collaboration and commitment but not consensus? Keeping these three things in mind will help you find the right balance: 

Encourage (and Applaud) Diversity of Thought

Diversity is a facet of collaboration—people with different backgrounds and experience getting together to debate the best possible solution to a problem. Ideally, each member of your team should feel comfortable sharing and “fighting for” the ideas wrought from their diverse backgrounds and experiences. 

Encourage this! You can do so by actively building diverse teams, but also by creating the shared understanding and expectation that everyone is free to have a different opinion and can feel comfortable bringing those ideas to the forefront. To do this, you may need to discuss the value of diverse perspectives and approaches on a regular basis. Consider bringing it up during the hiring process, at team meetings, and at employee reviews.

Culture can play an important role here too. Leveraging the power that diversity brings to your team requires you to celebrate and regularly practice active listening. It’s the foundation for true understanding and creates a safe space for everyone to speak up. You can take this even further by intentionally inviting disparate perspectives as a part of the regular course of business. One client I worked with did this with their team by asking every presentation to start with “Why should we NOT do this?” It challenged the team to think from a new perspective. 

Clear Decision-Making & Commitment

A collection of diverse minds are able to come up with unique solutions; however, a decision must be made at some point. That’s when collaboration starts to get sticky—when you hinge everything on an ultimate consensus. A good upfront understanding of the process can help. If the team is making the decision, we suggest making it clear who will select an idea and call for commitment—not consensus—because being wrong and course-correcting may be less costly than being slow to choose. Determining who is responsible for making the final call if the team can’t align also supports the process.  

Setting the expectation that everyone will get on board even if they don’t agree is a crucial part of the long term success of the idea (and this approach!). Jeff Bezos of Amazon calls this “high-velocity decision-making.” He says, “If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?’” 

It’s good to get this kind of commitment to an idea instead of bulldozing through a collaborative meeting and picking a solution to a problem without conversation. Robust conversation and debate can create a dialogue that encourages someone to get on board with an idea, even if it’s not the idea they initially supported. That’s the real key to commitment. If you’re going to skip the conversation, don’t pretend to call what you’re doing a collaboration.

Align & Take Ownership

After a path forward is established, it’s time to align and act. This means moving forward as if the idea selected was your first choice, regardless of what your perspective was during the debate. It also means ensuring that everyone takes personal accountability and ownership for the end result, not just the outcomes they or their teams produce. In this way, you are both advancing the work, and also developing a ‘sensing’ function where issues may arise that require the team to revisit and realign. (Yep, the cycle starts again.) 

Remember, collaboration and commitment are invaluable aspects of teamwork and problem-solving. Consensus, on the other hand, may slow you down or result in the wrong decision. If you want to help your team reach a place of productive collaboration, encourage diversity of thought, promote clear decision-making and commitment, and emphasize personal alignment and ownership.