Consensus is not collaboration, but it could be

Working so much with the public and not-for-profit sectors, we are often called upon to build consensus among teams, boards and steering/stakeholder committees. This is an important part of the process since no campaign in those sectors goes anywhere without “buy-in” from everyone.

But I often wish these bodies operated more like the private sector, through collaboration rather than consensus. There’s a big difference between the two.

The goal of consensus is to get everyone on (or at least agreeing to be on) the same page. It is an egalitarian system, whereby everyone is supposed to get an equal voice. In reality, however, group dynamics take over and the more stubborn or argumentative participants tend to bowl over the shy or ambivalent ones. There is much back and forth, and in the end what happens is that any element of the concept or campaign to which anyone strongly objects gets removed, while the inoffensive and obvious survives. This is what we call a recipe for vanilla.

Collaboration is (or at least is supposed to be) the agency model of making decisions. Unlike consensus, collaboration is inherently unequal. It has rules, roles, and responsibilities. And it works.

What egalitarian groups often lack is well-defined hierarchy, based on expertise and experience, as well as a clear decision-making process. Collaboration depends on it.

For example, each job has a Strategic Lead. She or he is the final word on what strategy gets presented to the client, and is responsible for defending it (and amending it if necessary). The creative team also has a lead, the Creative Director, who makes the final call on what concepts get shown — and how. And the media team has a Media Director to make the final tactical recommendations. Strategy, Creative and Media bosses being equal partners in their respective fields, they turn to company brass (to whom they all report) to arbitrate disagreements.

Does this mean agencies are dictatorships? Not really. Good managers listen to team opinions, evaluate them, and take responsibility for implementing and defending the best ones. But nobody “votes” on strategy, creative or media. Those who are ultimately responsible for it make enlightened decisions and stake their reputations (and sometimes careers) on those choices.

The system usually works because each decision-maker has earned the respect of their team by knowing their own fields inside and out. The leaders, in turn, seek the specialized input of each of their team members to strengthen the team with each person’s unique perspective and expertise. Collaboration is therefore multidisciplinary, with each specialist working from a position of strength and confidence. It’s what allows an agency team to be much more than its parts.

Consensus, on the other hand, can end up as a monodisciplinary situation. Even though individual members of the group have diverse and specialized knowledge, the egalitarian nature of the organization negates the added value they bring by assuming that others without their expertise have just as valid an opinion on it. Subjective and objective opinions can end up being weighted equally by the consensus-seeking group, so that “I hate green” and “that colour is already owned by a competing brand” are both taken into account as they inevitably pull the campaign toward the middle.

There is a better way, however, and it doesn’t have to change the consensual nature of public and N4P decision-making. It involves role-playing.

Imagine if as an egalitarian committee or board you shared experiences and expertise, then elected strategic, creative and media leads based on who is best equipped to make the decision. And if nobody is equipped, perhaps the agency partner could provide basic training to those decision-makers, who would face re-election for each new campaign based on their performance record. The “consensus” is an implicit agreement that these leaders will listen, but have the final call.

While still democratic, this model would allow the committee or board to function more decisively and efficiently, based on distributed knowledge of marketing best practices. Plus, it would help everyone better understand the process of creating effective campaigns and as a result be able to confidently champion them to their stakeholders.

What do you think?


[Image via Fast Company]

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