Don’t confuse ‘consensus’ with ‘alignment’

In the eyes of many leaders, the ultimate “buy-in” prize for a strategic plan is reaching consensus.

The belief behind this myth is that as long as everyone feels pretty good about the plan, and has no strong objections, that’s about the best that can be hoped for, especially in a large and diverse system.

But the problem with driving toward consensus is that it requires settling for the lowest common denominator everyone can agree with, rather than striving for solutions that challenge current thinking.

In order to tick the box of consensus, leaders don’t need to have the tough conversations. They don’t have to deal with conducting a dialogue that transforms diverse opinions and views into a single genuine committed direction. I have written several times about how agreeing to disagree is unacceptable and a cop out (Ben: Please make the phrase agreeing to disagree is a cop out an active link to that past blog). Well, when the aim is a consensus there is ample tolerance for agreeing to disagree.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said it quite elegantly:

To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead“.

A consensus is way too low of a bar for the fulfillment of any strategic plan that requires substantive organizational commitment and change. It leads to compliance at best.

To generate real commitment, executives need to set the bar at a much higher level; they need to generate Alignment.

‘Alignment’ is very different than ‘Consensus’. To reach alignment leaders actually have to put people’s concerns, doubts, uncertainties, and watercooler conversations on the table so they can be heard and dealt with in the most open, honest, authentic and productive way.

People hold on to their positions and opinions when they don’t trust their teammates to genuinely listen and hear their views and contributions and when they don’t trust that their colleagues will be open to new ideas and directions. When people don’t trust the conversation they tend to be more guarded, defensive and argumentative rather than open and accepting of other’s views. Overall, they tend to listen less and talk more.

But, when the conversation is authentic and open, people are much more inclined to change their minds and trust the collective wisdom of the team. In this conversation, people build on each other rather than combat each other. As a result, the team can reach a much bolder conclusion and decision much faster. This doesn’t only lead to a higher level of clarity of direction, it also takes the team unity and sense of being “in this together” to a higher level.

True alignment is achieved when people leave the strategy discussions fully on board with whatever decision the group has reached, with no “Yes, but,” “Plan B,” no pocket vetoes, and no reservations about fully investing themselves in pursuing the agreed upon direction – as their own.

If you want to drive conversations for alignment, here are a few practical guidelines:

  1. Listen, listen, listen to each other! At all times – one person speaks and everyone else listens.
  2. Always build upon other’s ideas. Don’t tear down other’s ideas. Find the common ground. Use the “Yes, and…” versus “Yes, but…”
  3. Don’t merely highlight or point out the dilemmas. Take a stand. Enroll others and be open to being enrolled by others. Remember, there are no right answers. Leadership is about making choices, taking a stand, enrolling each other and being responsible for these choices and stands.
  4. Make sure first that everyone is aligned on the essence. If that is not the case, continue the dialogue, don’t get stuck on articulation or wording preferences. In these cases trust the collective wisdom.

Like many other powerful conversations, there is an art and science aspects to the alignment conversation.

If you take it on you may encounter messy moments, you may even get lost in the debate and have to find your way back. However, if you have the courage and determination to keep pushing forward, never receding back to familiar, easy and safe grounds, you will be able to generate results and a team spirit that is beyond your wildest expectations.

Try it out…

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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