Why Disagreement Can Be the Key to Building Consensus

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January 4, 2019

Amanda Setili has seen it a lot. Two sides, two opinions and no resolution in sight. She lives for these moments. Ask Setili and she’ll tell you that while building a unifying consensus among your team is paramount to success, knowing how to get there is half of the battle – and the fun.

As President of strategy consulting firm, Setili & Associates in Atlanta, Setili is an internationally acclaimed expert on strategic agility, working with a client base that includes Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, The Home Depot, UPS and Walmart.

Her role involves providing unbiased and laser-clear advice on how brands can respond quickly and intelligently to a changing marketplace. Over the years, she has advised organizations in industries as diverse as consumer and industrial products, financial services, technology, non-profit and retail. Her work has taken her throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

Along with serving as an adjunct professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, she also consulted for McKinsey & Company.

She is also the author of two books – “The Agility Advantage, How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World” and “Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets.”

Here are her thoughts on how you and your team can agree to disagree, and still find your way:

Why is it important to build a consensus with your team?

With the fast pace of change in the world today, there is great uncertainty surrounding almost every decision we make. And, when there is uncertainty, there are going to be many different opinions about the best path forward.

Reaching consensus is important. We need all functions and players in our organization to align, moving in the same direction. Organizations can get stuck at a crossroads, unable to pick a path forward, when they place too much emphasis on getting everyone on board with a controversial decision. This is a mistake.

To move forward at the speed needed to succeed in today’s fast-changing world; we simply need to come to two agreements. A point at which a few stakeholders say, “This is the best course of action.” While their colleagues, the other stakeholders, say, “I can live with this decision.” When you have reached that level of agreement, put your action plan in motion.

Is coming to a unified understanding a lost art form?

It can become difficult when factions develop. When each person is expressing views out of loyalty to his or her allies in the argument. People will generally see the facts that support their opinions. At the same time, be blind to the facts that support the other side of the issue.

I once worked with an organization where the marketing department and sales team had become warring factions. Revenue growth, which was once quite strong, had flattened, and nothing the teams did seemed to be able to revive it. Pressure was high to turn the situation around.

Marketing blamed sales, and sales blamed marketing. Their respective thoughts were hard to dislodge. One day, the head of sales and marketing called the teams together. The teams’ instructions were to come up with a joint plan to demonstrate sales growth in just four of the 25 sales districts. By forcing them to develop a plan, and limiting the scope to a controllable subset of prospects and customers, the problem became more manageable.

The prospects in each district were split into two groups. This allowed the sales and marketing teams to test two different approaches, and see which worked best. The learnings from the pilot revealed quite a few surprises on both sides of the argument. This made it much easier to reach consensus on the best plan of attack to grow sales across the entire company.

What are the keys to building consensus?

First, you must to be willing to accept that not everyone will be thrilled with the decision you reach. Second, you need to decide, as a group, on the objectives you are shooting for. In addition, the criteria you will use to make the decision. Only after these two steps are complete should you start the process of developing alternatives. While also, gathering and considering the facts that may sway the answer in one direction or another. By taking this systematic approach of objective setting, criteria definition, alternative development and focused fact-gathering, even the most adversarial teams can reach a consensus.

What are the benchmarks required to build consensus?

When I think of benchmarks for good consensus building, I think of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who urges teams to “disagree and commit.” Constructive debate is a crucial component of good decision-making. It’s actually a bad sign if everyone is in agreement.

Another benchmark for good decision-making, who exemplifies this concept, is Alfred P. Sloan, the long-time CEO of GM, who once said, “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

If you have too much agreement, you probably haven’t considered all facets of the decision you are facing.

Why is it best to have different personalities and schools of thought in the consensus approach?

Gaining input from across your company – from different geographic regions, functions, levels and perspectives—is critical when entering uncharted territory. You want to have a diverse team, made up of some who are especially creative, some who are very analytical, some who know the nuts and bolts of how things work, and some who are good at building buy-in to the decision reached.

You even want some skeptics and naysayers on the team. Having diversity of thoughts, perspectives, propensities and experience enables you to build a more robust and practical plan and to anticipate and prepare for roadblocks.

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