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More on Consensus

On Consensus

Consensus is a word that is often misunderstood and misused.  On one extreme, some think consensus requires unanimity.  On the other, some think it's a simple majority.  Neither are correct.

If you work to develop standards (and I know many of you do!), having consensus means that the majority agree with the final outcome AND that there was an opportunity for all views to be considered and an attempt made at resolution.  The second element is crucial!  Here's an interesting resource from MIT on building consensus.

In my work this year assisting ASTM International in developing an American National Standard for certificate programs, I've seen first-hand how challenging and time-consuming - but also how important - the second element can be.  We received majority approval on our first draft of the standard back in September, but there was a negative ballot cast along with several affirmative ballots with substantive comments.  It would have been easy to just adopt that version of the standard since the great majority approved of it.  However, that would not have been consensus - thus it also would not have met the ANSI essential requirements for developing American National Standards.  So, we kept at it.  We reconsidered, revised and reballoted the standard several more times, and each time it got better, significantly better.  And even though there were definitely times where I griped and moaned about the process, now that we have a final standard, I am so thankful for that process because the resulting standard is so much stronger for it.

I know I have been involved in many association efforts where a key concept, position or standard that could impact the industry represented was adopted based on a simple majority - and often that group wasn't even representative of the population impacted.  I urge all of you to consider how key decisions / approvals are made in your organizations.  Do they represent consensus?  If you develop standards for your industry, I urge you to take a look at the ANSI Essential Requirements: due process requirements for American National Standards and consider how your process stands up. There are many associations that are accredited developers of American National Standards through ANSI.  This is something I would also urge you to consider, if you haven't already.

It's interesting to me that so many certifying bodies develop standards that would not meet these Essential Requirements.  Why is that?  Perhaps it's time for change.


Jamie Notter

Hey Mickie. My favorite definition of consensus is the combination of a high level of shared understanding and a high level of commitment. The "chance at resolution" that you mention is really working through both the shared understanding and clarifying exactly what all parties can really commit to. The definition comes from Michael Roberto. This is my blog post about it:

You're absolutely right. It's worth it to take the time.


Mickie, I absolutely agree with you on the importance of consensus as defined by ANSI on such things as, well, ANSI standards. It is not an efficient process, and often not a pretty process, but the end result is generally a standard that will actually work for the entities involved and their end users.

However, that said, associations often engage in lots of other decisions, rather than standards development, for which I believe the inefficiencies of the consensus process greatly outweigh any potential benefits. In introducing new programs or business units, or modifying existing ones, and sometimes even in larger issues like governance or organizational structure -- the consensus process as practiced by some associations can either lead to missing the boat or watering down reactions to the point of pointlessness.

I know that you were very specifically referring to standards development, but I just wanted to chime in because I find that some people get comfortable with one decision-making process and think it is appropriate for all decisions rather than some. In some cases, the cult of consensus can be downright dangerous.


Yes, Yes, Yes, Kevin! If associations used this formal process for every decision then, well, just shoot me. But it does have its place.

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