What Consensus Means For Driving Innovation

Ideas trump hierarchy

Why do organizations fail? There are many reasons, mostly because they become irrelevant by failing to evolve and adapt to a changing world. The reasons this happens are many, but one thing is certain: organizations where everyone agrees with each other, where no friction exists, and where no one challenges the status-quo is certain to miss the future and eventually fail.

Innovation has many enemies, two of them are: groupthink and expertise.

Most established organizations operate by a “this is the way we’ve always done things” mindset, which is defended by internal politics. This is groupthink, where all think alike, and it leads to making decisions by consensus, where no one challenges the status-quo and just agree with each other for no other reason other than fear of retaliation. You know what this looks and feels like if you’ve worked in a large established organizations.

This is bad consensus, it demonstrates a rigid mindset that celebrates right answers; not the curiosity that comes from asking provocative questions.

To drive innovation, you have to approach consensus differently. In a culture of innovation, consensus is not about everyone agreeing with each other, it’s about everyone being heard and then rallying around the best answer.

How does good consensus look in practice?

One popular example is Amazon, where they operate by a management principle called “disagree and commit” which states that people can disagree with each other while a decision is being made, but that once a decision has been made, everybody must commit to it.

It’s all about making faster decisions, encouraging conflict and disagreements and making it safe to do so. All necessary ingredients in an innovation driven culture. When consensus is not practiced this way, it becomes an enemy of innovation.

Ideas trump hierarchy

What separates fast-moving startups from slow-moving organizations is how fast they make and act on decisions. The foundation behind deciding and acting fast is trust. But not the trust that comes with spending time with people, rather the one where differing opinions and perspectives are common and having tough conversations is encouraged and celebrated.

Established organizations don’t lack innovative people. Rather, innovative people lack power and a place to thrive inside their companies. There’s no template that anyone can use to plug and play into their organization that will make everything happen without mistakes. Humans are messy, innovation is messier. There’s a reason resilience is a trait found in entrepreneurs and innovators: it takes obsession and an unyielding belief in oneself.

This attitude rubs people the wrong way, but it’s necessary.


Key Takeaways