In my capacity as a Business Management Advisor I recently attended a client meeting to discuss the introducion of a new product at ABC Manufacturing.

Attending the meeting was Bill, President of ABC, a dominant, almost overpowering individual; Mary, VP of Marketing, and always ready to take on a new market challenge; Bob, CFO, a staunchly conservative analytical type; John, VP of HR, a friend to everyone;  and Michelle, VP of Operations, a hands on individual who loves finding the best way to accomplish a task.

Bill tends to be very dominant, yet he always insisted on complete concensus from his team in new challenges. Therein lies the problem.  ABC has failed to introduce a new product in over five years because the mangement team could not all agree on a direction and were suffering in a competitive marketplace.

Webster defines consensus as “general agreement: unanimity.”

Consider a medical team preparing for a critical operation. The team consists of the Surgeon, two Staff Nurses, and the Anesthesiologist. The purpose of the meeting is to consider the condition of the patient and what is the best procedure to follow. You would not consider asking the Nurse where to make the incision or even the surgeon how to anesthetize so why take a similar positon in a business meeting? It is great to get input from all involved, but respect each others’ skill sets. Interesting side note; a local hospital now uses a “Surgical Time Out” in which the team stops the surgury until all agree that no additioanal issues require attention. In some circumstances concensus is appropriate and necessary.

Consider Individual Skill Sets

ABC Manufactuing needs to consider and respect each team member’s training and skill set. When looking at new product introduction, task Mary for new ideas regarding what customer problems can be solved through a new product within the ABC manufacturing capability. She can work with Michelle to look at costing of a potential new product and how this would flow in the manufactuing process. John can consider what HR requirements will be needed and the impact on the work force. Bob will review the overall financial plan. All this will be presented to Bill to look at what is best for ABC Manufacturing.

Look for input from each individual within their area of responsibility and skills. Expect differences of opinion, respect those differences, and be prepared to move forward.

Consider Personality Differences

Bill, being a very dominant personality, may suffer from the “shiney object syndrome” meaning he may want to chase any number of new ideas. This may be why he changed his mangement style to concensus to protect against being too reactive. Bob, on the other hand, may be highly “risk aversive” and would probably find a good reason to not introduce anything new because it cannot be proven to be profitable until after in production for a year or so. Others on the team fall inbetween Bill and Bob, and with “concensus decision making” in place the result has been no new products in five years.

Enlightened Disagreement

Patrick Lencoini in his book The FIVE Dysfunctions of a TEAM discusses the “fear of conflict” as a dysfunction. “Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas.”

The best approach for a team is to not just expect disagreement but to encourage disagreement. It seems counter intuitive but consider our example of a medical team going into surgery. What if the nurse had seen indications of a complication that would endanger the patient if the operation took its course? Without the freedom to disagree she or he might not take issue with the surgeon with potentially disastrous results. Each team member should be encouraged to voice their opinion and then respect the opinion of other team members as having a different skill set, experience, or training. Realize also that some may be less open to disagree or unwilling to speak up and encourage them to do so. Your team and your company will be stronger.

The opposite of consensus would be management by decree and this carries its own problems, but that is a topic of another discussion