Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind
I worry a lot about how to evaluate the success or failure of consensus building efforts in which I get involved. When I try to convince someone in a position of responsibility to commit to consensus building, I need to tell them how they’ll be able to gauge the results. Assume, for example, that I a am able to persuade a public official to (1) spend $50,000, and (2) require agency staff (as well as more than a dozen non-governmental participants) to commit the equivalent of one day a week for several months trying to reach agreement about when, whether and how to proceed with a controversial project. If the project is going to cost several million dollars — and generate tax revenues for the city for many decades to come — it is easy to point out that $50,000 is a small price to pay for ensuring broad-gauged public support, especially if the group is able to reach an agreement among all (or nearly all) the participants. But that’s not a sufficient measure of success, is it?
And, what if the agreement is not unanimous? Someone opposed to a project now supported by a larger group may have a harder time blocking implementation (and pursuing their own interests). From that person’s standpoint, a nearly-unanimous agreement is not a good thing. And, what if the agreed upon version of the project is going to cost the city a lot more than the original proposal? Without a consensus building effort, the project might still have gone ahead, albeit with only lukewarm support from some of the stakeholders. To get agreement (which is still worth it to the city), local government might be required to pony up additional resources. Someone whose best interests are served by blocking any and every version of the project and for whom no amount of compensation of any kind would justify their support will feel that nearly unanimous agreement is a bad outcome. .
More specifically, here are the three questions I ask myself when I try to evaluate the success or failure of a consensus building effort: Was agreement reached (and did the agreement meet the interests of all or almost all the stakeholders)? How does the agreement compare — in terms of the fairness, efficiency, stability and wisdom of the choices that were made — to what the parties would probably have been forced to accept? And, are there spillover effects of the agreement and the consensus building process that should be taken into account in my overall assessment of the results?
If all the parties support the agreement; that is, if they believe there interests are well met; I would probably say the process is a success. Of course, the agreement must be reached without spending an exorbitant amount of time or money. And, the parties had to have a pretty good idea when they came to the table of what their interests and walk-away options looked like. If the process brings some people to their senses or helps them clarify their priorities and their walk-away alternatives, that, too is a measure of success — even if no agreement is reached.
Sometimes one or more parties will oppose an agreement even though everyone else is happy with it. Since most consensus building efforts do not commitment to unanimity, I might still judge the outcome a success. It may be, the rest of the group ganged up one party — an outlier whose interests are diametrically opposed to everyone else’s. On the other hand, assuming the rest of the group has made a good faith effort to meet the interests of the one left out, I would probably say the process was a success. the exception, though, is when the one left out holds the key to moving forward (i.e. the developer who is financing the project). Then, if an agreement can not be implemented, the process is clearly not a success.
So, the extent to which the parties feel that the consensus building process helped them reach an agreement that meets their interests is a key to the success of the effort. If the agreement is not unanimous, it might still be successful as long as the group makes a good faith effort to meet the interests of the one left out. And, if the outlier was seeking primarily to play a spoiler role, everyone else may judge their agreement a huge success. If the process helped the parties recalculate their priorities and check the reasonableness of their expectations, even if no agreement is reached, I might still say the process was a success. No agreement is sometimes the right outcome, especially if there is no “solution space” in light of party’s next best option.
As Compared to What?
Even if the group reaches agreement, we still need to consider the fairness, efficiency, stability and wisdom of what they have worked out. In my book Breaking the Impasse (Basic Books, 1985) I explore each of these criteria in more detail. If an agreement is reached by papering over fundamental differences, the desired results may not be achieved, even if the strict terms of the agreement are implemented. My Dutch friends call this “a thin ice agreement.” If the participants were tired, and agreed to something contrary to their interests, they’ll reneg and implementation will fail. Sometimes the parties agree to endorse to something without checking back with their constituents (i.e. their back tables). The agreement may well fall apart in such cases. Furthermore, circumstances may change during implementation. If the parties fail to consider important contingencies (and structure their agreement accordingly), whatever they are hoping to achieve won’t happen. So, we can say, in retrospect, that an agreement wasn’t wise (even if we can’t say that at the point at which it is signed). Judging whether an agreement (and the process leading up to it) is fair, efficient, stable and wise requires the passage of time. Looking back, it might be obvious that the parties ignored or misread information readily available to them. These are all situations in which agreement, in and of itself, is not a sufficient measure of success.
The assessment of any consensus building process hinges, in part, on the goals the parties set for themselves at the outset. In the midst of a hopeless deadlock, stakeholders might set as their goals rebuilding trust and generating a few good ideas (that might give root to longer term solutions). So, a process could be successful even if an agreement is not reached. It all depends on the goals of the participants. If an agreement is reached, but in the process relationships are undermined; for example, it turns out someone didn’t negotiate in good faith and that become clear only after an agreement was reached, I might judge the process a failure. I also want a consensus building effort to make it easier for the parties to deal with each other in the future. I want to help build trust, increase empathy and enhance appreciation for the views of others. I want to help the parties internalize the ground rules essential to joint problem-solving. If all of these things don’t happen, even if agreement is reached, I might decide that the process failed.
Its hard to answer the three questions with which I began. Moreover, the answers may vary depending on who you ask. Averaging the results (across all stakeholders) just muddies the result. Aggregating across the participants hides what could be serious adverse effects on the least powerful or the least articulate stakeholder. On the other hand, netting out the results in a way that assumes that each participant must achieve a result that at least equals what they would have gotten if there had been no consensus building effort, is probably a reasonable way to gauge the outcome. I also try to incorporate an assessment of what the participants learned (about each other and how to participate in such a consensus building process). If I can say that everyone got at least what they would have achieved without the consensus building effort — and some got more — while some (or most) of the participants felt they learned how to advance their interests more effectively in the future, then I would say a consensus building effort was successful.
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