Alignment Beats Consensus

Coming to consensus in meetings may be hurting your company.(Listen to this episode.)

Most meetings are built around an agenda focused on a series of specific items to be discussed and one or two key issues to come to consensus on. But many managers confuse consensus with alignment and commitment. In fact, pushing for consensus can unknowingly encourage people to suppress their concerns and lead to less dialogue and more compliance.

What is the critical difference between building consensus and coming to alignment?

My guests were Josh Leibner and Gershon Mader, founders of Quantum Performance Inc. — world renowned experts in strategic planning and authors of the new book, “The Power of Strategic Commitment: Achieving Extraordinary Results Through TOTAL Alignment and Engagement“.

Josh and Gershon met over 15 years ago and immediately decided they wanted to partner together.  Their work on this material originated closer to 20 years ago, and they merged their separate work and elaborated on it to create the book.

Most organizations don’t enjoy real alignment and engagement.  When they do, they achieve extraordinary results. So, how do you get total alignment and total engagement?

Josh and Gershon have worked all around the world and have seen this exact problem arise in every country and every culture.

Just as team formation fails to occur in the same proportion of teams regardless of the culture, so too the challenges of company alignment exist in every culture.  The strategy is only as effective as there is commitment to achieve it and alignment on how to achieve it.

The typical, weak approach is to go for “consensus” — namely the “least offensive” least common denominator approach.  It’s ineffective.

Alignment is stronger.  When you’re aligned, you give up your right to say “I told you so.”  You stop snickering in hallway conversations about how the other guy blew it, and how it all would have been different if only “they” had listened to you.

You no longer see two guys in a lifeboat with one laughing and saying “there’s a leak in your end of the boat.”  When we have alignment, we all realize we’re all in the same boat.

Now more than ever, we need real commitment and real buy-in.  If you go for mere consensus, you also get mere compliance.  By contrast, alignment leads to ownership, commitment and buy-in.

So, where does the CEO start?

You absolutely must start with creating and reinforcing a culture of honesty and candor.  Until you can have candid (and possibly difficult) conversations about the team members’ fears, concerns, and doubts, you cannot have the higher level conversation about how to get aligned.

So, how do I create or reinforce my organization’s level of honesty and openness?  As with everything else, true leaders lead by example.  You should:

  1. Assess where you are (self-test)
  2. Verify where the organization is (check in with others and observe others)
  3. Confirm your own sincerity (don’t use this as a manipulation technique)
  4. Find out what needs cleaning up (take ownership of past mistakes, errors, etc., and apologize if needed)
  5. Model for others the courage to be vulnerable

(When managers try to always be right and to never admit mistakes, they are modeling “cover-up behavior” and you’re sending the message that it’s wrong to let others see your mistakes, and we should all be hiding things.  That’s evil, toxic and wrong.)

So, you’re building a culture of honesty and candor.

At the same time you need to have an inspiring and measurable strategy and objectives.  This gives people something to align around.

Remember, if people cannot say “no” then they also cannot say “yes” — you want to get folks to know and talk about the difference between consensus and real alignment, between compliance and real commitment.  And we should agree that the only way the group changes direction is by coming together as a group to make that change.

We need to avoid wishy-washy words like “try” — and talking about “them” instead of “us.”

Leaders also need to understand that having a culture of honesty is NOT the same as having a democracy.  There is not suddenly equality once we move towards candor.  Leaders still have to lead.

Leaders have to constantly demonstrate that — by asking people to participate, by being always very clearly open to different approaches.  You should differentiate between the goal, which is fairly constant, and methods to get there, where we should have great flexibility.

When a technologist of my acquaintance used to have computer problems or software glitches, he would blurt out the word “Cool!”  He loved errors because they were his opportunities to learn and fix things.  I found myself adopting his world view in my own work, and feeling good about bringing him my problems.  It set a great tone.

Gershon emphasizes that it’s not the leader’s role to “ride to the rescue” or solve every problem — rather, the leader’s role is to facilitate conversations and guide the team to innovate and solve these problems.

So, I clean up my act.  I foster honesty, openness and candor by example.  I welcome new problems.  And I am getting a robust conversation with my people about our problems.

And I’ve set stretch goals while maintaining flexibility on approaches to achieve those goals.

Next, change the way you run meetings.

Don’t set an agenda that is about discussing things.  The agenda should be to achieve outcomes.  It would look like this:

  • Plan every meeting around outcomes
  • Announce at the start of the meeting what the desired outcomes are (we will decide whether to go left or right; we will decide whether to go or not go forward on Plan X)

Then you only take as much time as you need to get to the outcome and you move on.  (If you just have topics to discuss then you’ll talk endlessly, and if you allocate an hour then people will fill the hour.)

Once you set the expectation that we will work toward an outcome, you can keep comments more on topic more easily by testing whether they move us toward the outcome or not.

The meetings will be more productive, and people will be more engaged and focused.

So, what does it look like to run a meeting based on outcomes?

Old style meetings might include an agenda item like “Discuss Q3 Marketing Plan” and the result might be a lot of talk, followed by someone believing that a decision or consensus was made.  And the following month someone who missed the last meeting would bring up a new objection, and the prior month’s points would be re-hashed.

In the new style meeting the agenda item would be “Agree on Q3 Marketing Plan” with specific questions like the direction and budget.  By the end of the meeting we would explicitly have agreement on the answers to the specific questions.  Then, in the next meeting, we might “Inform on Progress on Q3 Marketing Plan and Make Needed Changes.”

So the purpose of the topic — the desired outcome — will be made clear up front.  If we are informing people, say so.  Then the question is “are you clear on this?”  If we are seeking commitment, say that, and ask everyone around the room “are you aligned?”  And because we have a culture of honesty and candor, people can say “no, I’m not aligned.” And we can address that immediately, and achieve a much higher level of group alignment and commitment.

(The old style is to ask “does anybody have anything else to say?” which just eats up time and may lead nowhere.)

Once someone says “I’m not aligned” you should seek to understand if it’s a difference based on Essence or Approach.  If the lack of alignment is based on a disagreement on Essence — on what the strategic goal should be — it’s vital to come to some coherent result.  If the difference is based on Approach — we agree on the destination and disagree on the route to take — then we should say “Cool!” and draw out their ideas.

Ultimately the team will enroll the team member, or the team member will enroll the rest of the team, and the leader is there to drive a respectful and goal-oriented conversation that leads to a positive synthesis where everyone is on the same page together.

This relates very closely to earlier conversations we’ve had about how teams form — that you do not have a team until everyone feels comfortable and safe, where each team member knows that he can say what’s honestly on his mind without putting his status or sense of belonging at risk.

Once that’s done, senior managers need to enroll the middle and front line managers in the plan.  And that may be a whole other program.

Managers need to manage “in two dimensions” — they need an inspiring set of goals, and then need the culture to be one of honesty, openness and trust.

That means you have to notice your broken commitments and clean them up.  It means always seeking integrity and ever-better levels of mutual trust and respect.

For a step-by-step guide for making this happen, buy the book.

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