The Fatal Attraction of Consensus Management

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Everybody appears to think that management by consensus is the way to build a successful company. I get this advice from every possible direction. And who could disagree – you forge a consensus on your direction, strategy and every key issue, and then you have everyone pulling together with unified enthusiasm in the same direction. Who could argue with that?

I’m out. It doesn’t work and never will. People don’t all agree with each other, and when they all do, that is the best possible sign that you are all going in the wrong direction.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s crucial to put everything on the table for absolutely everyone to see. And I am all for vigorous, passionate, all out debates. Everybody gets their say in a respectful but very energetic atmosphere. But then a decision needs to get made, and you can’t have everyone holding a veto.

First, people don’t like change and are often threatened by it (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not). If you are going to introduce real change, you will never get consensus. Second, if you do push for a consensus, the necessary compromise to get everyone to sign on will be profound, and likely fatal to the original initiative. Consensus can be good, it can never be great. In fact, the best, transformational decisions are always the most controversial.

Looking back, here are some things would not exist today if consensus was a prerequisite for moving forward:

  • Our Alberta office;
  • Our Human Resources Department;
  • Our International Operations;
  • Our Engineering/R&D Department;
  • Our ClientFirst Focus;

Far better to take risks, to make mistakes - to have your reach exceed your grasp - than to suffer the eternal mediocrity of ‘consensus management’. This is a concept that needs to be slain.

Just one person’s view. Think we can get a consensus on that?