In transformational change, consensus is an illusion

6th May 2020

Implementing successful change is an inherently human endeavour. Transformational change programmes will have a whole range of different impacts on a variety of different people, and these stakeholders are key influencers on the initiative’s success or failure.  It is probably true that wherever there are people there will be at least some conflict after all people quite naturally have different perspectives, goals, values and aspirations — and this is a key challenge that change initiatives must navigate.

Some of these goals, values and aspirations will be overt and easy to spot, whereas others are hidden deep beneath the surface and might never be expressed directly. A stakeholder might not even consciously know that certain values are affecting their decision making.  If you’ve ever faced a conundrum where you say “Well, my head is telling me this is the logical thing to do but it doesn’t feel right” – perhaps you’ve faced a similar dilemma.  The challenge for us as practitioners is to find ways to balance these differing perspectives.

This probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s take an example.  Let’s imagine a bank is going to close the majority of its branches and is going to increase investment in its online offering.  Some possible stakeholder perspectives are shown below:

Stakeholder Overt perspective (what they say) Underlying concerns (what they think)
Sponsor We should focus on our online offering because our customers are asking for it and aren’t visiting branches.  We’ll increase customer satisfaction and save money. Our cost base is unsustainable. I’ve been tasked with saving money and my job depends on this. I firmly believe online is the right way to go, as I’ve implemented this in a previous organisation.
Call centre manager We should focus on our online offering because it’ll reduce the number of unnecessary calls and ‘failure demand’ flowing into the call centre, whilst also increasing customer satisfaction. We can’t keep up with the number of calls. Our budgets are being relentlessly cut and morale is low.  If we don’t turn a corner, I genuinely worry our staff will leave.
Branch manager Online is great, but some of our most vulnerable customers need personal support.  Don’t we have an obligation to them too? I’m going to be made redundant.  I’ve worked here for 30 years, I’ve worked 60 hour weeks supporting projects and my day job and this is how they treat me?
Busy, working age customers I just want an online banking system that works.  I don’t care about “customer intimacy”; just get it right first time and pay me better interest on my savings! Is my money safe given the current crisis?  Are they going to raise my mortgage rate? Is my data safe with these people?

 

We could go on, of course, but this gives a hint of the complexity of the stakeholder landscape.

It feels like we have been conditioned to think that consensus is the only desirable outcome to conflict resolution – that we should always ‘get round a table’ and ‘reach agreement’.  Of course, consensus is a desirable outcome, but it isn’t the only possible outcome and in the harsh reality of the real world it isn’t always possible.  In our banking example, there would be very few initiatives that our five stakeholder groups would universally agree on; in reality, most change programmes will have far more than five stakeholders.  Why do we think consensus should be normal or even possible?

The danger of faux consensus: tacit acceptance or consensus by committee

In our relentless pursuit of consensus, what we sometimes get instead is tacit acceptance.  Perhaps you’ve been in a meeting where people have started to express dissent and disagreement, but they’ve been worn down.  At the end, the facilitator says “Right, so does everyone agree?”, and they reluctantly nod.  Their ‘agreement’ is formally recorded, but this is largely meaningless as they have not really agreed.  It is consensus theatre; the conflicting perspectives will just resurface later, when we have less time or fewer resources to deal with them.  Or even worse we’ll end up delivering something that doesn’t work, only for them to (understandably) say “I did raise these concerns before…”.

Even worse than this is consensus by committee.  We’ve probably all experienced this: a great idea comes in and it’s watered down and watered down.  Rather than being something that gets some people excited and serves a specific niche, it ends up being bland, boring and vanilla.  It tries to be all things to all people, and in reality ends up being a bloated distraction that nobody cares about.

Enter the ‘accommodation’

While consensus is likely to be the most desirable option, it is useful for us to ‘zoom out’ and consider other acceptable possibilities.  Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) discusses the concept of an ‘accommodation’, which is described as involving some compromise or yielding of position to reach a situation that everyone can at least live with (see Checkland & Poulter, 2006).  This is a powerful concept as it frees us from the mental prison of feeling that we have to reach consensus.  It shows the importance of spending time scouring the stakeholder landscape and truly understanding different stakeholders’ needs and perspectives, and it helps us navigate away from tacit agreement and decision by committee.

So while consensus is undoubtedly a good thing, perhaps we should look more broadly, particularly when pursuing transformational change.

 

By Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert

 

References:

Checkland, P. & Poulter, J. (2006). Learning for action : a short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use for practitioner, teachers and students, Chichester, Wiley.