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Consensus and Compromise in Project Management
By Susan Dodia

Do you understand the difference between consensus and compromise? The words sound alike but the distinction is important.

The dictionary definition of consensus is “general agreement or concord; harmony”, while the dictionary defines compromise as “a settlement of differences by mutual concessions”.

We are all familiar with compromise in decisions made by our project teams. We all give up some of what we want to make room for some of what the others want. On a good day, everyone is only slightly unhappy.

Consensus, on the other hand, is a group decision supported by all members based on:

  • A thorough understanding of all relevant information
  • Participation by all members
  • An understanding of different perspectives and needs
  • Creative efforts to accommodate different needs
  • A willingness to raise, understand and resolve disagreements

1Judy Mares-Dixon defines consensus as “a group’s very best effort to achieve its brightest outcome. Consensus is the highest level agreement we can all live with. Compromise is about giving things up. Consensus is about getting the best of everyone’s ideas. Consensus is about putting together all the different ideas to come up with something better than what we would have identified on our own.”

So, how do you move your team from compromise to consensus? Here are some options:

  • Review interests and focus on what can be done, not what can’t be done
  • Take a break, have a laugh, get people moving around
  • If one party is threatening some type of ultimatum, discuss what it would look like. What are the consequences? See if you can agree, as a team, that those consequences should be avoided.
  • Access level of dissatisfaction in a group: ask people to rank the proposed solution on scale of 1-3 or 1-4. This is used towards the end to get an idea of whether an idea is worth pursuing and how much time it will take to reach consensus. Ask those that rank the solutions lowest for their potential solutions.
  • If you find yourself with one dissenter, or “outlier” as discussions progress, ask the outlier how they want to handle the fact that they are the dissenting voice. A challenge with consensus is that we give the outlier a lot of power, so this is a good strategy when the group begins to turn against the outlier.
  • One final strategy is to give the decision to a third party. Can’t decide on a name for your project? Give it to Marketing. Can’t agree on a fair timeline? Ask a team lead from another project to look at your information and make the call. This can either serve as a tiebreaker, or get your team back to the table to work it out themselves.

1Judy Mares-Dixon is a mediator and designer of dispute resolution systems.

Susan Dodia is an accomplished project/program management professional with proven leadership managing global initiatives. She is well versed in building cross-functional project teams and in coordinating all aspects of global process solutions from design to implementation to training and rollout. Susan has a proven track record as a critical change agent and skilled team leader, adept at establishing project management methodologies and at fulfilling key business objectives with energy and enthusiasm. Susan can be contacted through her website, The Project Coach.

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