Review: Consensus-Oriented Decision Making

I took the opportunity to start this year’s reading with some more work-related material (even though the broader theme of skills in decision making and conflict resolution form important parts of my wider future-preparedness plan as well), I took a look at Tim Hartnett’s Consensus-Oriented Decision Making: The CODM Model for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement. It’s a book about a skill that’s too often completely lacking in business and other contexts: how to sustainably make good and efficient decisions as a group.

One of the first things to note is that the book is NOT about unanimity, which many people confuse the term consensus with. The CODM-model for decision making seeks to make decision making an inclusive, collaborative process that aims for as big a consensus as possible, but it does not necessarily mean the decision is made unanimously. In fact, an entire chapter at the end is dedicated to going through the pros and cons of unanimous decision making; turns out there are many downsides to requiring absolute unanimity, and even many groups whose primary mode of decision making is unanimity, benefit from a less restrictive fall-back mode of e.g. supermajority or majority (which are probably the most suitable default models for most groups). The CODM model can be successfully used across the whole spectrum of decision-making rules, even when the actual decisions are made with the person-in-charge (i.e. by the boss) model. However, when resorting to the person-in-charge model, it’s crucial that the process and views emerging from it are respected by the authority figure – otherwise further engagements with the group will be undermined.

What is a group-based decision-making model good for anyway? Well, we all probably know all too well that if a decision or a line of action is simply thrust upon us, there is often little if any positive commitment to help execute the decision if our voices haven´t been heard at all. What’s more, few significant things can be accomplished by individuals, so this benefit from an engaged group decision-making is a very important one:

The shared ownership of a group decision can foster considerable commitment to the successful implementation of group-generated proposals. A “B grade” decision executed well because of a strong sense of shared ownership may have far better results than an “A grade” decision poorly implemented because of lackluster support.

That is a very important point; the overall long-term health of a group is typically much more important than any decision the group makes; hence it’s very important for the group members to feel included and respected in the decision-making process, even if they don’t always get everything everyone wants (which nearly never happens). So what is the CODM model? It’s a seven-step process that consists of:

  1. Framing the Topic
  2. Open Discussion
  3. Identifying Underlying Concerns
  4. Collaborative Proposal Development
  5. Choosing a Direction
  6. Synthesizing a Final Proposal
  7. Closure

Each of the above steps consists of several sub-steps; the book goes in quite a bit of detail, down the providing very useful language guidance for facilitators in how to approach each of the steps and prepare and guide the group through them, as well as how to defuse situations that could lead to arguments and how to return the group to productive working mode. The work also ties in well with techniques such as Focused Conversation Method and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) developed by Marshal Rosenburg. Working in an environment where stakeholders are numerous and distributed widely, I noted that the book covers stakeholder engagement rather briefly and almost passingly mentions options for things like interviewing stakeholders – so that part of the process will probably need more emphasis in certain environments than is given to it in the book.

As I haven’t actually tried the CODM facilitation model in practice yet, I cannot comment on the efficacy of the model; it does, however, appear to be an extremely useful model and something that will certainly come in handy. It’s also a flexible model in that many of the steps can be skipped for certain types of decisions and some shortcuts (such as referring a decision to a committee) are provided for some steps that can be used where appropriate. It provides very useful frameworks as well as practical guidance that cannot help but make group decision-making more effective, if implemented properly. An unfortunate fact that I have noticed in many corporate environments is that often companies are unwilling to develop or use facilitation resources sufficiently; all too often dysfunctional group behavior is allowed to continue without even trying to bring some structure, such as CODM, into the decision making process. So the book is not only a highly useful guide from a practical point of view, but it also highlights the importance of skilled facilitators in many situations.

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