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Consent decision making processes: A thorough comparison

This article was published in shorter and edited form on Corporate-rebels.com. This is the original unedited long form version.

Consent decision making. There are a couple of flavors to choose from. But which one is fitting for your organization or should you know and use all of them, depending on the issue at hand?


Here I try to give an extensive overview of four of the most known and well thought out consent ways of making a decision. We all know that the consent format is way better than consensus or authoritarian, but which one is best for your organization and when to use which?


I'll start with each one individually after which we'll compare. Small disclaimer: There's quite some personal opinion based on experiences between it all. Because there's no formal study done on these to see what sort of effects arise. So please be critical.


Let's get into it.


S3

Intro

Sociocracy 3.0, developed by James Priest, Bernhard Bockelbrink and later on also by Liliana David. S3 is a whole set of open source and modular principles and methods to organize your organization of course. But within it there's the consent form of making decisions. At Peoples we use this a lot.


Steps

S3 decision making is based on tensions.


Step 1

First someone utters a tension and puts that tension forward in the form of a Driver. A Driver consists of a few lines of text where the person states objectively what's going on (observation) and what the result of that objectivity is (effect), below that the person defines what is needed (need) and what the impact would be (impact). So for example:


There are no clean glasses in the kitchen (observation)

Therefore I lose time cleaning glasses when I want a drink (effect)

It is necessary to get a drink quickly (need)

So that one can hydrate and be productive (impact)


No solutions in that statement as you can see.


Step 2

A driver has to be voted on to see if it's relevant (I will discuss the voting style in a minute). Questions to clarify could be asked.


Step 3

After it has been voted through the driver is prioritized.


Step 4

When it is time to do something with the driver, the next process starts, which is making a proposal. In the proposal phase you try to get the wisdom of the crowd. Questions that need to be answered in the proposal and ideas can be dropped (this can go quite quick because it's a braindump more or less).


Step 5

After that 2 or 3 people (Tuners) are assigned to take the information and make a proposal.


Step 6

Next session the proposal is read and it's time to vote again. If the proposal is accepted, the decision has been made.


The voting process within S3 consent method has 3 handgestures and therefore 3 options. People raise their fists and at the count of 3 people can either show a thumbs up (an okay), a shaking/ doubting hand gesture (a concern) and a giving gesture with the palm up (an objection). Because it's about consent, a thumbs up should be given if it's good enough for now and safe enough to try. If not, a concern can be raised, which means the decision can still be made but with a thing to take into consideration. When an objection is being made, the objection is solved by the group. If it's a valid one, the proposal has to be tweaked in order for the objection to fade away and turn into a thumbs up or just a concern.


Who will vote depends on the people impacted by the decision. If it's a big group of people, you could vote on the proposal within circles or within roles. As S3 works with roles and circles.


Pros

  • Wisdom of the crowd is incorporated

  • Voting process is relatively quick

  • Because objections are incorporated, the support base is good

  • It's quite the complete process

  • Concerns can be raised: which adds to the proposal but doesn’t stop it to a halt.

Cons

  • Process is a bit complicated, so has a learning curve

  • Therefore, sometimes you skip through some of the steps because of practicality, but you miss some of the pros in the process

  • In very large groups it takes a whole lot longer to vote and go through all the objections and worries

  • It’s often hard to strike a balance between the tuners (people that make the proposal) and people making the decision

  • Although S3 says you can use the patterns independently, in practice you kind of need the others too in order for it to work fluently

  • Good enough for now and safe enough to try is broadly interpretable, so when with heavy critics, a lot of objections are made, sometimes too much, slowing down the process

  • You need governance style meetings in order to keep going.


Integrative Decision-Making Process (Holacracy)

Holacracy, developed by Brian Robertson and his company Holacracy One around 2007, has it's own decision making process. This one is used mainly in Governance meetings within circles to resolve proposals. S3 has copied some of these processes. So those two are closely related.


Steps

Also based on tensions within roles and circles. Holacracy states who will speak during meetings to make it ultra efficient. Someone has a proposal on that tension, usually it’s the person that has the tension. Then the steps go like this:


Step 1

Present proposal

Proposer speaks, he/she describes the tension and the proposal to resolve it.


Step 2

Clarifying questions

Anyone asks, proposer answers. Just ask questions to get more detail, info and understanding. If the proposer has no answer, he/she only says: not specified. No dialog allowed.


Step 3

Reaction round

Everyone speaks except proposer, one at a time. Give reactions, without discussion or responses.


Step 4

Amend and clarify

Proposer speaks. He/she can clarify. But this is optional.


Step 5

Objection round

Everyone including proposer speaks. Facilitator asks: Do you see any reasons why adopting this proposal would cause harm or move us backwards? Discussion is fine. Objections are tested. Proposal is adopted if no objections arise.


Step 6

Integration

Objector and proposer speak, others can help. Where they try to fix the proposal so the objection is no longer there, while the proper tension is being addressed. One objection at a time. When done, go to Objection round again.


Because people work in roles and circles, responsibilities are being taken within those. So people can make their own decisions within the roles if others aren't affected.

Pros

  • Tight structure with relatively high efficiency

  • Proposals are quickly made

  • Objections are heard and integrated

  • Responsibilities are being kept by the role-keepers, giving distributed responsibility and ownership.

  • Could work in large groups

Cons

  • Wisdom of the crowd is not really incorporated in the proposal: only objections.

  • Elaborate structure: high learning curve

  • This structure needs a lot of the rest of holacracy principles (and language) to work properly, more so than S3.

  • And to get this structure firmly in place, you need some consultants, so open up your wallet.

  • You need to have governance style meetings in order to get going.

  • Strict structure, so not a lot of wiggle room when needed. Or in other terms: people can get caught up in the structure of the process and won't deviate from it, because it's 'holy'. It's just a tool.


Deep Democracy

The term first used by American Psychotherapist Arnold Mindell. Myrna and Greg Lewis used the term to develop their own method in South Africa during the 90's. Democracy because it's about hearing everyone's voice. And Deep, because it's about the underlying processes and feelings that come about with human interaction. It has a decision making process, mainly focused on the wisdom of the crowd and on going below the surface as they say, to talk about the things left unsaid and feelings that need to be discussed.


Steps

In general it involves 4 steps. Beforehand there could be a proposal. But this method could also be applied to get a take on things from everyone before making a proposal.

Step 1

Collecting all the different kinds of information. This could be done in multiple ways. One of them is 'on your feet' where people stand in a room in a circle. A question is posited (usually about the proposal or thing that needs to be resolved), after which anybody can step forward to answer. When you like the answer this person gives, or you feel you have the same response, you are going to stand behind this person. Until everyone has given an answer or sided with someone who did.


Step 2

Empower the minority voice. In this step you actively search for things left unsaid. And you actively search for the 'no' or the deviant voice. These alternatives enhance and improve the decision or proposal that's being made.


Step 3

Spread the no. Make sure that it's not a sole nut that gives the deviant alternative. But let others back it. Then a vote can be done raising hands on a proposal that is there. When unanimous the proposal is taken. When there's a majority you go to step 4. When there's a total divide, lobby for a proposal or separate idea and vote again. When after three times, it still doesn't work: something else is going on beneath the waterline (the hidden part of the iceberg) and other tools are needed to get the conversation going on that.


Step 4

Get the wisdom of the minority. Get the minority to add to the proposal of the majority. The question could be asked: 'what do you need in order to agree with this?' After the proposal is tweaked with the added wisdom of the minority a vote can be done. If this fails after three times: again there's something beneath the waterline that needs to be addressed. Which is kind of like a step 5.


Pros

  • Very thorough

  • Difficult topics and problems with complex proposals could be addressed

  • Wisdom of the crowd (and minority) is incorporated

  • Works in small and big groups

  • It conjures up the deeper present issues people have, which resolves more than just one issue: it betters the culture and collaboration as well.

  • In essence free to use, but you need (a probably paid) facilitator

Cons

  • Process in itself could take a long time (sometimes a whole day for a single large and complex issue), but it ensures the buy-in of everyone

  • You need a well-trained facilitator for this

  • It requires the buy-in of everyone to join in this 'experience' which sometimes is a problem in itself

  • Because of the depth, it's probably too much for everyday decision-making. Only for large and complex issues

Thanks to Deep Democracy expert Sandra Bouckaert for helping me on this one.


Advice Process

Popularized by Frederik Laloux in his book we all know, Reinventing Organizations. But originally coined by Dennis Bakke for AES Corporation, a global energy supplier. This blog of Joost explains it more in depth: https://www.corporate-rebels.com/blog/advice-process


Steps

Also based on tensions, but those are not that explicit. If someone has something he/she wants to change, the process is started. I'll define it a bit differently than in the mentioned blog, through my own experiences with it.

Step 1

Someone notices a problem about anything or sees something that he/she wants to change (for the better). And initiates the further process, owning the process.


Step 2

The person comes up with a certain solution, but before implementing it asks advice to the people that get affected by the decision, have certain knowledge about the decision or are generally interested in the decision.


Step 3

The person takes it all in and has to be a grown-up about it. Which also means taking in the advice seriously, but deciding contrary to the advice that was given.


Step 4

Responsibility to execute rests on the deciders shoulders. The person can execute on his/her own, ask colleagues to help or hire someone to do it, but again, it's the deciders responsibility. So if something fails, the decider has to own up and clean up the mess.


If the decision is too big for one person to handle, he/she can start a committee who follow the advice process as well, asking advice outside the committee before acting. Often times inside the committee, democratic voting is used, but other forms of consent could be used as well.

Pros

  • Very easy process to understand

  • Free to use and implement

  • Takes in wisdom of the crowd

  • Everything could be changed by anyone at any time

  • No-one can nag about anything in the organization: because everybody has a mandate to change the thing they are annoyed about

Cons

  • Even though the advice is gathered, it's not necessarily incorporated into the actual proposal and execution. Therefore not everybody's on board when doing it

  • Everything could be changed by anyone at any time (and yes, this is a pro too).

  • For larger, more impactful decisions, the advice process alone isn't enough, as you read with the committee, a different type of voting is needed within those. So it's not all encompassing.


Comparison

When looking at the four of them you can see they're quite distinct. S3 and IDM share a lot of the same features, but deep democracy and the advice process both take on different viewpoints and unique foundational positions. Deep democracy seems to be especially apt for big complex decisions that require everyone to be involved and okay the outcome, whereas S3 and IDM, but also the advice process are focused on being efficient. Or in other words, they speed things up.


The advice process seems the easiest to implement, after that I would say S3, then IDM (where you need most of Holacracy to do it well) and for deep democracy you really need a trained facilitator to do it correctly. The advice process feels as the most rebellious, because you let go of a lot. So if you feel you need a bit more control, then S3 or IDM probably feel more safe.


What they all do is coming up with some way to involve the others. Whether it's in the decision itself or just the proposal. They all are more or less tension based and for the most part don't bother with deciding over things that aren't important right now.


When to use

I think that in a perfect world you would have a combination of these processes within your organization, and using them depending on the situation at hand. There are no distinct boundaries that tell when to use which one, but in my opinion I would use the following:

I think the advice process is great for everyday small to medium complex problems. From painting walls to hiring interns to using a new design tool. Especially when combining it with roles: within the role you can have full autonomy as long as you ask some advice on things now and then. It's great to have, because it gives all the colleagues a say in the matter and an ability to decide upon a lot of different things.

When things start being more complex or when you need to make committee kind of decisions, like deciding upon salaries or a new hire or a new strategy, then S3 or IDM would help. My personal preference goes to S3, because I feel that for IDM, to do it properly, you need to really dive deep into the Holacracy language which takes a long time to adopt. Of course you can settle for a light-version. But S3 gets to the same thing somewhat quicker.


And when you feel as a group there's something lurking beneath, that stalls certain decision making, or when a certain proposal or problem stirs up a lot of emotions then Deep Democracy seems perfect to get to the bottom of things. Also for very large and complex decisions involving a lot of people who need to give an okay, I would probably opt for Deep Democracy.


If you're just starting out with consent in your organization, then the advice process is quick to implement, but again if you want to be more on the 'safe' side and have no problem taking time to implement it, then S3 or IDM are great ones as well.


If you're doing one of the consent forms, try mixing it up with other ones if you feel some tension with certain types of decisions. And check out Deep Democracy to also resolve lingering issues between people or groups of people within your organization.


Of course there's loads more to say about these. But the article is already quite long. Most important part is to experiment with these and see what works for you, since only you know your organization and your colleagues. And don't forget, they're all not set in stone, so tweak them anyway you like. And ask for help when you need to.

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