If you’ve ever read about Holacracy at all, you’ve probably seen how it is very explicitly “not based on consensus”.
The system was built entirely on the concept of not needing — or wanting — consensus in order to make decisions. Like everything else in life, having a hard line on something means it won’t always be as simple and straightforward as you might hope.
This is especially true when it comes to formalizing decision-making processes, which can be a challenge in any organization and is even harder to figure out in a self-managed organization.
While a “non-consensus” route certainly has its benefits, it also has many drawbacks you should be aware of.
In today’s article, I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of Holacracy’s integrative decision-making process compared to a generic consensus-based approach.
Holacracy’s decision-making process is called “Integrative Decision-Making”, or IDM. It is explicitly not a consensus-based process and instead involves integrating different ideas together until a feasible solution is reached.
In short, it works by one person bringing up a problem and suggesting a fix, then giving everyone else a chance to ask questions, provide feedback, and object if the proposed fix would actually cause new problems.
If there is such an objection, all parties can work together to find a solution that solves the original problem without causing new problems.
At first glance, this sounds like a more complex way of describing “consensus” – which Holacracy is prone to doing in most scenarios – but they are actually quite different. So, let’s start by looking at the pros and cons of an integrative decision-making process.
Pros of Integrative Decision-Making
- Addresses an individual’s needs based on a problem they experienced themselves.
- Focuses on solving a problem in the best way rather than implementing a specific solution.
- Guarantees something gets done with a clearly defined process.
- Puts the authority on those who are most affected by the problem.
- Provides a safety net for unexpected problems in the form of “objections”.
- Sets guidelines for what warrants an objection so that someone can’t shut things down for personal reasons or unreasonable “what if” scenarios.
Cons of Integrative Decision-Making
- The process can be confusing and complicated.
- Almost always requires a skilled, neutral, third-party facilitator for it to be effective.
- Without a skilled facilitator, those with the most experience with the process and rules can “win” the discussion.
- It’s possible for everyone involved to dislike the solution that is ultimately reached.
- The process highlights one or two individuals at a time, so it can feel like it ignores everyone else.
- At the end of the day, someone has the authority to make a decision, which can make others feel like their feedback is being disregarded if that person makes a decision that ignores their suggestions.
- Promotes and rewards selfish behaviors (i.e., “I am here to solve my problem. If that causes you problems, you can solve your own problem.”).
Final Thoughts on Integrative Decision-Making
With someone to facilitate who can make the process comfortable and understandable for everyone, and who focuses on the intent of the process over the rules themselves, IDM is one of the greatest decision-making processes I have ever seen or experienced.
That being said, it is entirely dependant on how good of a facilitator you have. If you don’t have someone to facilitate, the IDM process will be the exact opposite: confusing, stressful, alienating, and a waste of time.
Consensus can take many forms, from requiring everyone to agree on a decision before any action can be taken, to voting and going with whatever decision gets the majority vote.
An organization can decide what “consensus” looks like to them, letting organizations use consensus in very different ways.
Do I have to ask an entire department or just a team?
Do I need one person to back my decision, ten people, or literally everyone?
In any case, the focus should be the same: make sure people have some say in decisions that will affect them.
It sounds great, but let’s look at the pros and cons.
Pros of Consensus-Based Decision-Making
- Truly voices the desires of the people.
- A democratic solution where everyone gets a say.
- Puts the needs of the many above the desires of an individual.
- Promotes better communication, empathy, understanding, and advice gathering, as better relationships will garner more reliable votes.
Cons of Consensus-Based Decision-Making
- Can often be an “all or nothing” situation — if the people agree, it passes, but if they don’t, nothing changes.
- If it’s a “majority votes wins” situation, then it means everyone else loses and gets nothing.
- It can be tough to decide how many people should get a say in each decision. One person? A team? A department? The whole company?
- Can sometimes feel like a popularity contest.
- Can be hard to ensure everyone who is voting is fully educated on both sides of the argument.
- It takes time to gather up everyone needed to vote and go through the voting process, so decisions are slower and take longer.
Final Thoughts Consensus-Based Decision-Making
Everyone having a say in decisions that impact them is phenomenal and nearly always a good thing. It makes people feel valued and lets them know their voices matter and have an impact. It helps ensure decisions are made with at least some input from everyone and can help you gauge how popular certain decisions and approaches are.
However, you do want to implement this process carefully and adjust it whenever flaws arise, such as if people feel pressured to approve something they don’t like out of fear of retaliation or because they don’t want someone to know they voted against their idea.
So, after all this, which is the better way to handle decision-making in your organization?
As with all things, it depends on how your organization already operates, what challenges you wish to overcome, and how you ideally would like to work.
An organization that values speed of innovation and everyone being able to solve their own problems would likely see more comfort and success with the IDM process.
Likewise, an organization that values togetherness and fleshing out ideas before executing them would surely do better with some form of consensus-based decision making.
A safe and easy approach is to decide which approach is better based on the scope of impact the decision would have.
If it’s going to affect many people and/or have a tremendous impact on the people it would affect, maybe require a vote where 90% [abritarily chosen number for the sake of example] of people need to be on board.
Need a quick decision that ultimately only affects one team? Use the IDM process so that everyone on the team can voice their concerns while ensuring something will get accomplished either way.
What’s the best way to figure out which one works best for you and your organization?
Try out several different options! Test them all out, gather feedback, and implement whatever works best for your employees.
Whatever approach you land on, your employees are sure to appreciate the increased autonomy, authority, and clarity that comes with a clearly defined decision-making process.