Consensus Policy

Section 1: Purpose

As part of our shared value of sustainable leadership, Quelab intends to include as many people as possible in the decision making processes of the organization. We believe the best decisions are made when they are developed with full consent of all parties involved and that without the consent of these parties implementation of decisions becomes difficult or impossible. In order to achieve this goal of shared responsibility in support of the value of sustainable leadership, we adopted the consensus-based decision making process described here for board-level decisions.

This process actively engages participants throughout the decision making process which helps to increase the likelihood that the final decision will be one everyone will actively support. Finally, this consensus process will encourage participants to find creative solutions that balance diverse needs and values, which will result in higher quality decisions than more traditional processes that cannot easily balance competing needs and values.

It should be noted that reaching a consensus is not the same as requiring a unanimous vote. In consensus, participants are challenged to find an outcome that balances the organization's values with the needs of the program, policy, or group related to the decision. It is common for a consensus decision to involve one or more participants who can consent to the decision, that is allow it to be passed, but neither feel strong support for the decision, nor believe the decision is fundamentally unsound. This is not a mark of a poor decision, but rather an indicator of the degree to which participants are affected by the decision.

Section 2: Definitions

  • consensus — decision making process that develops solutions based on balancing values instead of defending positions; a decision made through the consensus process
  • stakeholder — someone who has a vested interest in the outcome of a decision and is often directly affected by the outcome
  • proposal — specific language describing the details of the decision to be made
  • call for consensus — official step in consensus process to ratify a proposal as a final decision, each participant is polled for their level of support (in favor, stand aside, block), proposal is ratified as long as there are no participants who block
  • straw poll — unofficial poll of the the level of support for the proposal, often done with show of thumbs
  • in favor — term used to denote support for a proposal in its current form, sometimes signified with a “thumbs up”
  • stand aside — term used to denote a willingness to “live with” proposal in its current form, while preferring a different outcome. (possible reasons to stand aside include having minor concerns or objections based on personal preference rather than adherence to criteria, or not being directly affected by the outcome), sometimes signified with a “thumbs to the side”
  • block — term used to denote opposition to the proposal in its current form, a consensus cannot be reached while there are one or more blocks, sometimes signified with a “thumbs down”
  • buy-in — amount of support in a group for a decision
  • positions — opinions specifying desired details of a decision (for example: the car must be red)
  • interests — principles that have direct bearing on the decision at hand (for example: the leading character's car should look fast)
  • values — the underlying “good” that needs to be served by final decision. (for example: selling lots of tickets to 15-30 year-old men)
  • criteria — the interests and values that must be honored for the final decision to be acceptable.
  • clarifications — questions asked by participants to help them understand what the proposal means
  • concerns — points raised by participants to describe aspects of the proposal that may be weak or in need of improvement
  • appreciative inquiry — the practice of asking honest, neutral, and open ended questions for the purpose of increasing one's understanding of another perspective.

Section 3: Who Participates in Consensus Decisions

A critical aspect of consensus decisions is defining participants– that is who contributes ideas, offers feedback, and ultimately has the right to approve or block the decision. Naturally, all Quelab Board members are always included as participants in Quelab consensus decisions. In order to promote representation of the views of all stakeholders in a decision, the Quelab board will also include participants beyond its own members when doing so is necessary to ensure the views of the entire organization are considered.

Examples of possible guest participants include, but are not limited to, Quelab members and staff who are directly impacted by the decision at hand, community stakeholders, volunteers, representatives from partner or potential partner organizations when the decision directly impacts organization or partnership in question. The inclusion of guest participants in a consensus decision will follow an open and planned process. The decision to include guest participants will be made well before the consensus process begins, and will be clearly documented. Guest participants will be given an invitation to participate that includes sufficient notice to prepare for the work.

Finally, in order to provide for the best possible experience and outcome during meetings, it is essential that participants in consensus decisions familiarize themselves with this consensus policy.

Section 4: Decisions which require formal consensus

Decisions that require formal consensus include but are not limited to the following:

  • Selection of Officers
  • Removal of Board members
  • Approval of annual budgets
  • Decisions involving compensation
  • Changes to the Articles of Incorporation
  • Changes to the Bylaws
  • Decisions regarding Conflicts of Interest (excluding interested parties)

Decisions not listed above may be elevated to formal consensus at the request of any board member.

Section 5: Formal Consensus Process

The following steps describe the formal consensus process. Those decisions that require formal consensus will follow each of the steps.

Ground rules —Quelab will use the following ground rules, developed by Roger Schwarz as part of The Skilled Facilitator approach for consensus decisions:

  • Test assumptions and inferences.
  • Share all relevant information
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
  • Explain your reasoning and intent.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Combine advocacy and inquiry.
  • Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements.
  • Discuss undiscussable issues.

Hold initial discussion to determine scope of decision

Before attempting to reach a decision, it is important to establish the goal (for example to decide what car to buy) and boundaries of the decision (for example the car is needed by next Friday). Participants should begin the consensus process by holding an open discussion around the nature of the decision and the desired outcome to prepare for the work ahead.

Establish criteria

Criteria are the requirements to which the final decision must adhere. To use a common consensus metaphor, the criteria create the box within which all acceptable solutions will fit.

Draft Proposal

(may be in full group, or sent to sub-group)

After the group sets criteria the full group or a sub-set of the group work to develop a solution that satisfies the criteria laid out by the whole group. The level of detail required in the proposal will depend on the complexity of the decision at hand.

Review Proposal

After the proposal has been drafted it comes back to the full group for review, discussion and further action in the following order.

Clarify the proposal

Group members ask questions one at a time about the meaning of the proposal. Each clarification should be finished before the next is asked. As necessary, the proposal language is refined to improve clarity.

Address concerns

Group members raise any concerns one at a time and discuss potential improvements to the proposal. This process continues until all concerns have been addressed (either resolved by modifying proposal, or noted but allowed to stand). Concerns should be addressed in terms of criteria not met by the proposal or group values that may be violated though the proposal as it currently stands.

Call for consensus

(acknowledge possibility of a block - refer to section 7)

Group members are asked, one at a time, to indicate if they are “in favor”, “stand aside”, or “block” the proposal; if there are any blocks, see Section 7 for how to resolve them, otherwise go to next step.

Record final decision

(including stand asides - who and why)

The exact language of the adopted proposal is documented along with whether it has been approved, and which participants were “in favor”, “stood aside”, and “blocked” (in the case of a proposal that was not approved). For any “stand asides” or“blocked” “votes” note the reasons for concern in the notes.

Section 6: Informal Decision Making

The formal consensus process described in Section 5 is reserved for the most critical decisions made by the Board, namely those that carry the most negative impact when a poor decision is made. However, there are numerous other decisions that must be made (everything from when to meet, to the language that will go into a draft proposal to be presented to the full Board), both at the level of the full board and of committees. The process used to make these decisions should still focus on finding creative solutions by balancing all of the values in play, and it should support the need to elevate the decision to the formal consensus process when that is requested by a Board member, while being nimble enough for daily use.

This informal decision process is modeled after the formal consensus process, but allows the boundaries between the steps to blur together, and concludes when the participants feel they have a complete decision and there are no objections to moving forward. Note, both processes use the same set of ground rules.

The steps for this process are:

Initial discussion

As in formal consensus, the initial discussion should frame the decision. In less formal settings, this initial discussion may include proposed criteria or elements of the solution. The smaller the decision (such as agreeing on the next time a committee will meet), the shorter this step will take.

Develop solution

As the discussion progresses, the proposed solution should start to take shape. For larger decisions (such as draft language of a proposal that will go back to the Board as part of a formal consensus process), the participants may elect to develop a short list of criteria as part of developing the solution. As the solution is being developed, the participants should be looking for points that have not been addressed, are not clear to the entire group, or that need further refinement.

Check for completion

Periodically, the participants should check to see if the solution represents a complete decision. If the answer to the following questions is no, then the solution represents a complete decision and should be recorded in the appropriate set of minutes

  • anyone feels there is anything missing from the solution
  • anyone has any questions about the solution
  • anyone has any additional concerns about the solution
  • anyone is uncomfortable with the solution

Section 7: Blocking and Resolving Blocks

Before working to resolve a block, it is important to realize that a block should not be interpreted as a failure by the group, but rather an indication that more work is needed to reach the decision at hand. This frame of mind is crucial to successfully working through the objections being raised and finding the correct balance of the elements in the proposal.

The first step toward resolving a block comes before the block occurs, namely ensuring that the participants understand when and how to block a decision. Blocking a decision should be used to protect the goals and values of the organization, not for expressing personal preferences or values. Specifically, it is important that a participant block a decision if they feel:

  • key elements of the decision are not being addressed
  • when one of the agreed upon criteria is not being met
  • when the decision is likely to create real danger or harm to the organization, its members, or any other people or organizations
  • when one of the organization's stated or implied values would be violated by the decision

Ideally, the concerns listed above that warrant a block would be raised during the discussion and refinement of a proposal, but this is not always the case. Reasons for this can include everything from a participant's absence during a portion of the discussion to the participant not realizing they have a concern until they are asked to agree to the decision. Regardless of the reason, it is important to approach the block with respect and patience. The consenting members should use appreciative inquiry techniques to seek to understand the underlying values or previously unexpressed concerns that are leading to the block. Once the participants understand the source of the block, they should return to Step 4.2 and begin addressing the newly raised concerns, before continuing with the formal consensus process. Note, if more than one participant has blocked there may be more than one set of new concerns to address, which should be addressed one at a time.

Finally, it is important to realize that a block should never be used merely to stall a decision. To that end, the right to block is tied to the responsibility to work with the remainder of the participants to resolve the block. If possible, blocks should be resolved in the meeting in which they are raised. Go back to the “address concerns” portion of the process and move forward from there. If blocking participants are unable to address the block in the moment (reasons can include a lack of time to continue meeting, a need to reflect on why they feel the need to block, a need to “cool” off before continuing the discussion, and others), the group will commit to deciding how to proceed within 24 hours. Because each block will be different, there is no standard set of rules for what that process will look like. As long as the agreed upon process assumes good intentions on the part of the group and the blocker, is agreeable to all participants, and takes into consideration the time sensitivity of the issue, the consequences of failure, and the complexity of the concern, it will be considered a valid attempt to resolve the block. If the block is not resolved after following the agreed upon process, the consenting participants may override the block by a unanimous decision (that is one without stand asides or blocks) to move forward with the proposal as written. Please note, overriding a block in this way should be reserved for those situations where there is truly no other way forward. Participants should strive to resolve the block by addressing the underlying values and concerns, even when those values or concerns are difficult for blocking participants to express.