Thinking about consensus

Queuing in my local coop supermarket yesterday I started talking with a friend behind me about the problems which can come when consensus decision making is wrongly applied.  We discussed the horror stories we’ve both heard from some community groups and collectively run ventures:  those endless meetings,  all that time wasted in deliberations that never seem to reach the moment of decision.

Consensus is a highly effective way of taking decisions jointly, used in all walks of life and often preferable to voting. (Voting can create an unhappy minority).  Consensus doesn’t of course mean that everyone has to agree about everything.

Many years ago, I was involved in drawing up new legal model rules for workers cooperatives which included a definition of consensus: “By consensus is meant a situation where all members present are in agreement on an issue, or where those not in agreement agree not to maintain an objection”.  I think this definition stands the test of time.

But sometimes consensus simply is not possible, and this also needs to be recognised.  Those model rules went on to provide a way out in this situation: “In the event of consensus not being possible, the matter shall be referred to a second [directors’] meeting, to be held not more than fourteen days after the date of the first meeting when, if consensus is still not possible, the matter shall be decided by a majority of votes”.

Incidentally, our advisor on that occasion was the eminent cooperative legal expert Ian Snaith.  Ian blogs regularly on coop legal affairs – well worth a look.


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