Breaking Out of Consensus Deadlock

Back when I was working in a very small start-up with only two other people, we would often have a great deal of difficulty coming to decisions.  We would have seemingly endless meetings where each person would express their viewpoint, then someone would rebut that viewpoint, then the first person would express it again in slightly different words.  On and on, and sometimes about things which wound up being pretty trivial.  However, since there were only three of us, it felt like we ought be able to come up with some kind of consensus, but seldom was it that easy.

We had fallen into the trap of consensus deadlock.

I think of consensus deadlock as being any time a group of people gets stuck on making a decision because:

  1. there’s not enough data to make a clear decision obvious
  2. everyone feels that a unanimous decision is necessary
  3. no one is willing to ceed the decision to someone else
  4. there’s no clear owner for the decision

Naturally, there are a bunch of techniques to break out of the deadlock, and they all involve removing one of the things in the list.  The best thing to do, when it’s possible, is to figure out what information would tip the scales, and then go get that data (#1).  Of course, that’s not always feasible.  In that case, you might stop to consider how strongly you each feel about the issue, and choose to go with the approach someone feels most strongly about (#2).  You might also try thinking over the reversibility of the decision, and allowing someone else to give their idea a shot (#3).

Those are all good ways to break the deadlock, but perhaps the best way is to assign the decision to someone, and then hold them accountable for making a sound decision.  Of course, that doesn’t mean letting them simply go do whatever they want.  In order for this to end well, owning a decision involves a lot of responsibilities.

The decision owner’s job is really to pull everything together, and then follow the data where it leads.  First, the owner needs to ensure that all the available data has been gathered and is available for consideration by the team.  Depending upon the decision, this may be more easily said than done.  Second, the owner needs to collect feedback from everyone affected by the decision and give full consideration to each point of view.  In particular, this means that they should be able to represent each point of view as well as they represent their own.  Finally, the owner must be able to weigh the pros and cons of all those positions, measure them against the available data, and then present a clearly reasoned rationale for choosing a particular course along with its strengths and weaknesses.

The job of each other team member is to help the decision owner reach a good decision.  This may be offering up what data they have (all of it… not just what leads to a certain conclusion they support).  This might be to pose questions which are critical to understanding the problem.  This might be to help brainstorm various possible options and their pros and cons.  At all times, though, each team member needs to remain supportive of the process and the decision owner’s authority over that particular decision.


The only way this technique works is for every member of the team to act in a mature and responsible manner.  The decision owner has to be able to step back from a pet idea to consider all possibilities, and the rest of the team has to trust that the decision owner is honestly considering all points of view.  If, at any point, someone on the team feels this isn’t the case, a discussion becomes necessary about whether process is being followed faithfully—not about the particular details of the decision at hand.  That makes it much easier for everyone to start from a place of agreement, and to get back on track.

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