Sunday, November 4, 2012

White Paper Systemic Consensing - First Draft


I was asked frequenty for a kind of white paper concerning the systemic consensing principle. Here is a first draft. Feel free to ask and add your comments.


The Systemic Consensus Principle - Basics

Basic Idea

The basic idea of the systemic consensus principle is to approach as close as possible to the consensus by measuring the level of resistance of each group member for each proposal. The decision will be the proposal with the least total resistance, the so called group resistance.
Normally a scale from 0 to 10 is used:
·        0 means absolute no resistance, i.e. complete agreement with the solution or proposal
·        10 means maximum resistance, i.e. total objection.
·        The values between are set according to the subjective feeling. This is acceptable because the conflict itself is based very much on subjective perceptions and emotions.
Of course other scales can be used, e.g. 0, 1, and 2: this has the advantage, that voting can be done by raising hands.


Zero Option

To the existing proposals the so called zero option it added. The zero option is context specific. Normally it is formulated like
·        Let everything as it is
·        Do nothing
·        Decide the next time
The zero option can be considered as „limit of reasonability“. No proposal has a chance of being accepted by the group, if it is lower ranked than the zero option.

A simple example shows how it works:

Four friends want to spend an evening together. Each of them has different proposals, see below. Of course they notice that deciding by the classical majority principle leads to a deadlock situation.
·        Bob suggested the dance event, thus his level of opposition is zero. He doesn’t like theater – in particular since he speaks no Spanish – but considers jazz as a pretty good alternative. Also he wants the group to stay together unless theater is will be chosen.
·        Sue really wants to go to the theater. She wants to come to the top with her proposal by setting the values for the other quite high. However – jazz is her second favorite.  If somebody else of the groups accompanies her to the theater she wouldn’t be opposed to splitting up.
·        Tom wants to go to the opera. Since he is really good friend with the others he and doesn’t want to get on anyone's bad side. He so rates the other events with the same low level of resistance. If his event isn’t chosen, his voting scheme leaves the final decision up to the others. He wants very much the group to stay together, so he gives 10 points the zero option.
·        Jane suggested the jazz event. She neither likes opera nor theater.  If these were chosen she wouldn't mind the group to split up.
·        The zero option for the four friends is here to split up and not spent the evening together.

By calculating the resistance values we see the jazz event has the least level of resistance by all friends. The average resistance simply is the group resistance divided by the number of the participants. It is revealed that behind the deadlock situation the acceptance for the proposals was very different. The zero option has the highest value - which means that the group wants to stay together.
This result even convinced Sue that it makes sense to choose the event, to which they all have the least resistance. Anyway jazz is her second favorite and only she knows that the high values she had given do not represent her real resistance but are due to her strategy to make her proposal win.
Experience has shown that this argumentation is very convincing.
Jane is very happy that her proposal has won. But this is not the triumph of a victor who has beaten the others. The resistance values give us also insight in the participants’ minds, which you usually don’t achieve through normal discussions. In cases of strong conflicts it may be necessary not to reveal this rating information.
The example shows also a noteworthy advantage for the decision making process: it can’t be blocked, even not when the democratic majority principle fails.

Why we measure Resistance?

It is not only because by determining the group resistance we have kind of an objective criterion our decision. Together with the zero option this is a powerful tool to convince people – in private in business, in politics – even children or elderly.

By measuring the group resistance there is an objective decision criterion even if the majority decisions fail. And this criterion can be communicated very well to the participants.

Pro votes are adjusted to achieve some goals or fulfill some wishes. This leads to some unpleasant phenomena, like group egoism, exercise of power, vote catching, ruthlessness, winner and loser. Thus they lead away from sustainable and thoughtful solutions and an optimal balance of interests.
Although the information you get by counting  Contra-votes is „mathematically“ the same as for Pro-votes, the consideration of resistances makes a group more adjusted towards solving conflicts and consensus. It‘s a bit like considering a glass half-full or half-empty. Sometimes we know very precisely what we don’t want while what we want might still be somewhat nebulous. This may be illustrated by the following story. The pope asked Michelangelo: “Tell me the secret of your genius. How did you create the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?” Michelangelo’s answer was: “Very simple, I just removed everything which is not David”. We don’t know exactly what makes us successful. We don’t know exactly what makes us happy. But we know very precisely what destroys success or makes us unhappy.

Exercise power

What’s about using power in the context of the systemic consensus principle?
Power oriented people might want to make their proposals win by rating them – correctly – with 0 points and all the others with 10.
This people very often shoot in their own foot. If their preferred proposal does not make it, they have given away their chance to rank the other proposals. They have handed themselves totally over to the others since by their voting they do not provide any information for decision.
Very often those people not only abdicate to their influence but really damage themselves.

The creative process

The full power of the systemic consensus principle unfolds if it is not only used to decide on given solutions as shown before but to use it from the beginning. How this can be done is described in the so called creative process.


Step 1: Describe Problem (s)

Some group member has announced a problem for the consensing process and describes it from his personal view.  Define the problem as clear as possible. Find a meaningful headline and a short description of the problem. Don’t care if there are disagreements concerning the description, point to step 4, where individual perceptions provide a broad picture of the problem.


Step 2: Find Interests

When a group wants to solve a problem or perform a task it is a good idea if the group tries to approach the issue from a superior position with a more general question. That stimulates the creativity of the group.
Avoid question which have the type “yes – no” or “go – no go”. Use instead open wordings like “what can we do to solve the problem for all participants or persons concerned in an adequate way?”
For example: If the original problem is “Shall we spent the 50.000 Euro for a marketing campaign?” formulate it like “What shall be our strategy to launch our new product?
It’s a bit like finding the business requirement behind technical requirements. By asking “why” you come to the next higher level. This is also known as “chunking up”.
For going not too high, ask the group if the level is ok, if this is the problem they want to talk about.
Several superior questions are possible. Even if some formulations seem not accurate or if you cannot agree on a certain formulation, all perceptions can coexist together. During the process all participants will work towards the formulation, which seems most accurate to them. Different perceptions might stimulate the creativity of the group.


Step 3: Gather Information

Now define for every superior question the framework conditions. To this framework conditions belongs all information relevant for the solution of the problem. Make this information available to all participants and explain it if necessary.


Step 4: Phrase Requests for a Good Solution

Before we create solution it is a proven good thing to ask the group to formulate their requests a good solution should fulfill.
Because of the new success criteria in this process the group is very interested in hearing all the subjective opinions to integrate them in their suggestions. This is like “brainstorming”: do not criticize, prejudge or reject any opinion.
On the other hand every participant has interest to give reasons for his/her opinion or perception, since this increases the understanding of the others and influences in this way their solutions.
Note that the attempt of the group to consider the individual request of a participant will fail if these requests are too egoistic or intolerant. In this case this selfish participant risks that his interests will find no more consideration within the group. Thus it is a good idea to reflect what is reasonable for the group


Step 5: Create Solutions

Everybody can participate in finding and creating solutions. Draw the participant’ attention to the point that we look for the proposal which is least rejected by the group. Thus only those suggestions can be successful which regard the superior question and the individual request as good as possible.
Feel free to be creative in this step and try to find many solutions. Every solution should be allowed. Prevent that somebody criticizes, prejudices or rejects solution of another participant. Criticism can be expressed in the next step.
Include her also the zero option.


Step 6: Find Pros and Cons

Now it’s time to screen the solutions found in the step before. It is important to understand every proposal, do not hesitate to ask questions necessary to increase your understanding. Use brainstorming to find Pros and Cons


Step 7: Evaluate Levels of Resistance (Preliminary)

In this step the solutions will be evaluated by finding the level of resistance of all participants.
If there are several good proposals you can also ask which one of the proposals we will going to implement first.
If the problem to solve is easy or not too conflict-laden, often with this step we can finish the process.
If the problem is more complex, the participants get a first impression of the ranking of their solutions. Who wants to be successful will try to improve the position of his/her proposals.
For bigger groups (roughly more than 10 persons) it is enough to perform the simple evaluation by hands.


Step 8: Explore Remaining Resistances

If you want to improve the position of your solution in the ranking it is important to understand which aspects still lead to resistances by other participants.  Therefore in step 8 we explore the remaining resistances and objections. We don’t need an argument for this instead we need the effort to understand and process all suggestions.
Often I made the experience that particularly in this step the members of the group feel appreciated and be taken seriously regarding their wishes and needs. This atmosphere of mutual goodwill and the resulting solidarity formed the group in a lasting manner.


Step 9: Adjust Solutions

Now everybody has the possibility to adjust his proposals, combine them with other solutions, withdraw them or bring in new ones.
Again creativity is stimulated by the effort for better understanding and integrating the needs of the others to mitigate their resistance.
It is possible that in this stadium completely new aspects or ideas may emerge. For this it might be necessary to go back to step 5 “Create solutions” and go through parts of the process until no new solutions will emerge.
Everything which helps the group to find sustainable solutions is allowed – no “mental property”


Step 10: Adjust Pros And Cons

Now also the Pros and Cons have to be adjusted to the new solutions. Normally some cons disappear and some new pros appear.


Step 11: Evaluate Levels of Resistance (Final)

The final step normally is performed very quickly. Evaluate the group resistance based on the 10-scale.
In some sensible cases – election of a person – better use the “term” acceptance” rather than “resistance” when publishing the result



What prerequisites should be fulfilled?
·        All participants should be affected to the more or less the same amount.
·        There should be an interest that the group or the team is going on to exist.
·        All participants who want to take part in the decision must equitable take part in finding the solutions and evaluation.
·        All should have the same possibilities of expression in order to have impact on the decision.
·        All must have the same information concerning the problem.
·        If there are dependencies or asymmetric levels of power in the group it is strongly recommended to do the evaluation anonymously.

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