Making better, faster decisions that are good enough for now

How to use consent-based decision making as a team

Bonnie Slater
Humans of Xero
6 min readMar 14, 2021

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Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

For the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to work on a big technology project at Xero, where I spend much of my time supporting the leadership team. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that when you have a large number of people bringing their own perspectives and opinions into a complex situation, consensus is going to be challenging (if not impossible).

So I decided to introduce consent-based decision making to the leadership team. It’s something that a colleague introduced me to last year. It’s had such a positive impact on my work that I thought I’d share more about it, in the hope that you can use this simple technique in your team as well.

What is consent-based decision making?

Consent-based decision making is about making fast decisions that are ‘good enough’ for you to move forward, rather than getting everyone to agree on a decision that’s ‘right’ before moving forward.

In a nutshell, it’s about getting consent rather than getting consensus — a subtle but really important difference.

Consensus requires everyone to say yes. Let’s be clear, the larger the group, the more of a challenge this poses. It also potentially assumes that the decision that you are agreeing on is potentially the best option and the only one you are going to try.

Consent requires no one to say no. It doesn’t mean that everyone believes it’s the best option or the only option. The idea is that this option is a place to start and experiment. It’s not so full of risk that it’s going to derail the project, but it gives us a chance to learn and better understand the situation, or test our assumptions based on putting something into action.

How does it work?

The decision making process seems complicated, but it’s really not. I promise. The key steps are as follows:

Proposal

First, there needs to be a particular proposal being put forward. In my case, we were reviewing the wording of a number of definitions to put together a sequencing model prototype. Someone in the room needs to have ownership of the proposal and present it to the group.

Clarifying questions

Next, you can ask the group if they have any clarifying questions on the proposal. For example, is there something they don’t understand or need more clarity on? You can go around the room to see if there is anything that needs to be addressed.

Brief response

This is when the person or people who have put forward the proposal can address those questions. You may need to go back and forth between clarifying questions and providing a brief response until everyone is satisfied.

Any objections?

Anything that comes out of the clarifying questions is then integrated into the proposal, if required. This may require some discussion among the group, but remember it’s not about consensus, so only things that the project owner believes needs to be addressed, should be.

Resolve objections

Next, ask the group if they have any objections to trying the proposal. One of two things will happen: either there will be no objections and you can move on; or someone may object to the proposal. You then need to ask yourselves as a group: is the proposal good enough to start and safe enough to try?

The proposal really cannot move forward until all objections are resolved. If there is an objection that explains why the proposal is not good enough for now, the group will need to discuss and define a point at which it will be good enough. Once this point is reached, you can celebrate and move on!

What are the benefits?

Essentially, consent-based decision making treats decisions as experiments that are good enough for now and safe enough to try. This allows you to decide quickly, fail fast, continuously learn and improve by responding to that learning. Disclaimer: If the intention is to make a decision and never iterate on it or learn from it, then it’s probably not the right tool for you.

Other benefits of consent-based decision making include the ability to support change and experimentation, drive ‘outside the box’ thinking and build trust. It allows you to take a few risks, learn from mistakes or unexpected results and adjust or pivot your actions.

It can also really speed up decision making. I don’t believe this should be the key reason that you try this process, but it certainly allows a large group to agree to try something and assess the results. Getting full consensus can be painful and demoralising to many teams, as it assumes that there is one way and you must all agree on that way.

Implementing the tool in your team

When we first introduced this concept into our tech project, we were working on a sequencing prototype, so the circumstance was ideal to try consent-based decision making. It was a large group of leaders who each were trying to identify key areas within the business that needed to be analysed, in order to effectively sequence the support that different teams might require throughout the project.

Each leader came with their own biases, context, perspective and assumptions. In my opinion, it posed a massive challenge to try and get a group like this to all agree on a set of criteria, rating system and definitions that would allow us to prototype without focusing on getting it ‘right’. This was my chance, and it was at this stage that I suggested we try consent-based decision making. The team was very open to trying this shiny new way of making decisions, but they did need a few gentle reminders about the format before they got the hang of it.

Based on this experience, when you first introduce this concept, I would encourage someone to play the facilitator role and help the team make their way through the steps. This will help everyone stay accountable in the early stages, just until they become familiar with the process. Before long, not only was this group well versed in this process, but began using this concept in many of the decisions they were making. This helped them learn as quickly as possible by putting something into action, capturing data, learning and adjusting accordingly.

In fact, the larger the group and the more challenging the decisions, the better this process worked. That being said, this project had a great deal of unknowns and uncertainty about it, so the group already knew they needed to continuously improve what they were doing and how they were doing it in order to progress the project. The culture of experimentation was what allowed consent-based decision making to thrive.

How it supports an agile mindset

Since we began using consent-based decision making, it has become a mindset that’s embedded into our decision making. Now we ask ‘is it good enough to start and safe enough to try?’. This has also permeated into other teams at Xero, which is really cool.

I think one of the key reasons for its success is the fact that the tool encourages a culture of experimentation and validation (or invalidation) of assumptions. Someone pitches an idea or proposes an approach, which is clarified by asking questions. Objections are tabled and discussed, but ultimately there is no fear of failure. After all, if it’s safe enough to try, what’s the harm in trying it?

Of course, just because a decision has been made, it doesn’t mean we will never revisit it, refine it or improve it. Our teams already have a natural inclination towards experimentation and continuous improvement (which has been a pleasure to be a part of!). We recognise that we can’t possibly know all the answers, but we are always prepared to try something based on a best guess, make an assumption or hypothesis, and refine based on learnings, data and metrics.

Introducing consent-based decision making to this project has had a profound effect in establishing a mindset of experimentation and learning. I would highly recommend trying this if you think this would be a helpful process in your team.

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