Making Decisions and Building Consensus

Phil Holberton

Phil Holberton

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

One of the most important jobs any leader has is the need to make the right decision and build consensus, convincing his/her followers that a particular decision is in their best interests. Many organizational consultants will tell you there are varying degrees of building consensus and selecting the degree to which you build it can be the difference between success and failure.

Example #1: You are the president of an operation and it is late morning. It is beginning to snow. The decision you need to make is whether or not to close the office and factory so your employees can get home at a sensible hour. There are conflicting weather reports. One report pronounces there will be a blizzard with 50% of the expected 12” accumulation coming before 7 p.m., while the other reports the storm will be passing just south of your location and total accumulation will be 1-2”. What do you do?

You probably consult with your VP Human Resources (who lives 45 minutes away and, because of the distance, secretly wants to go home early) and the two of you discuss the danger to personnel traveling in a storm. Your Financial VP tells you that the company will loose $500,000 of production value if you close the office. You discuss and consider all the consequences and then you retreat into your office and reflect on the counsel. You emerge ten minutes later and you declare to your administrative assistant that the office will be closing early at 3 p.m.

In this example, the decision maker needs to receive practiced opinion about the options, but doesn’t need to get buy-in from all 3,000 employees.

Example #2: Again, you are the president, but this time of a slowly-dying business, and your engineering department has come up with an inventive pitch to launch a very new, yet untested product (to save the company, of course!). Internal discussions regarding this idea are diverse, with the sales and marketing organization signifying that the market isn’t ready for this innovation and, of course, the engineering group proffering that this latest and greatest innovation will be the company’s savior. You have been general manger for six months and you are the former VP Engineering. In fact, the engineering organization has been working on this initiative, in its skunk works subdivision, for years. In your earlier position, you had observed, from afar, the progress they were making over the previous several quarters and you were developing some enthusiasm for the project’s prospects. If the innovation is successful, it could be a nationally recognized, leading product in decades. If it fails, the company will be in the trash heap like many others that have gone before.

Now that you are president, you have overall responsibility for ensuring the profitability and success of the business. It’s not just about engineering any longer, but it’s about successfully launching products—profitably. What do you do?

The most difficult necessity here is to disengage yourself from the emotional investment that you have in the new product idea. As president, your responsibilities have changed and you need to position yourself to explore or weigh all the pros and cons of this new product introduction. Holding joint meetings with engineering and sales and marketing will make progress in bridging the gap. You will need to work through the issues, ferreting out the known from the unknown (facts vs. fiction), and allowing all players to express their viewpoint. But as president, you need to push the organization towards making a decision, whether it is to go forward, abandon, or delay the product introduction.

Time is money and conflict-ridden issues can divide an organization. As you actively work this problem, you need to let everybody see that you are engaged in the issue, you are working to understand all the facts, and you are committed to helping everyone embrace the right decision—what’s in the best interest of all. Your challenge is to make a decision that both the engineering and sales & marketing departments can buy into and support and, more importantly, will work very hard at ensuring its successful implementation. It’s about building consensus.

The number one job in making a “go” decision is to squeeze as much risk out of the decision as possible, thereby improving the chances of success.

Example #3: As the UN Security Council meets to consider all the relevant facts about the weapons inspection in Iraq, our president is increasingly coming under fire for sending the signal that we will act unilaterally and initiate war against Iraq. This is a difficult matter and I do not proclaim to be an expert on international affairs or war. As Americans, we need to have faith in our elected leadership that they will do what is in the best interests of our people and the general populace of the world.

Our government, however, is accountable to us as citizens and we get to vote every four years as to whether we believe our president is doing the job. But one thing is clear to me—President Bush has yet to convince this follower that unilateral action is warranted.

Building consensus is most central when individuals are important to carrying out the decision. So, at some level, it is not particularly essential that he get my support to move ahead. On the other hand, it is very important that he get the moral support of the military and their families, as those are the men and women who stand to sacrifice most if we go to war with Iraq. As we all know, this is a very complex matter and I am confident there are many intelligent people working the question—do we move unilaterally or in solidarity with the international community?

In his State of the Union message, President Bush will be laying out the case for war with Iraq. This will be his opportunity to explain what is going on and build a case to the American people; he also will be trying to make his case to the international community and, similar to the last example, build a consensus that attacking Iraq is the preferred technique for disarming them. Although the United States may technically be able to win a war against Iraq, it seems foolish to think that we should do it alone. We need our allies and the American people supporting us. It is difficult for me to imagine that if he has not been successful behind closed doors at building coalitions to date that he will be successful publicly in his State of the Union message. From a leadership perspective, I believe he should back off and let the UN inspectors do their job and allow the international communities to conclude whether war is an appropriate measure to disarm the Iraq leader.


As we think about decision-making and consensus building in our lives, it starts right at home with our families and then moves to our professional lives. We need to consistently build consensus with our partners and our professional colleagues in order to be successful.

Now ask yourself… “Am I a Leader?”

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CATEGORIES: Goal Setting, Team Management

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