Let’s Talk About the C Word

Consensus. It shouldn’t be a dirty word, but in some circles it seems to have become one. I was on an industry working group call the other week where someone presented a series of governance models and “consensus” was presented as the worst model for decision-making – something to be avoided at all costs. The speaker was promoting a more “consent”/voting-based approach where the majority rules. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the consensus-based approach to decision-making dragged through the mud. I have to say, I take a different view.

Decision-making in groups is hard, especially when those groups are made up of people who do not have formal working relationships such as “boss/employee.” Industry working groups (such as groups at World Wide Web Consortium) are often peopled by software professionals, peers, from industry competitors. Nobody can tell anyone else what to do. I’ve been the chair of a few such groups and I can tell you unequivocally that the chair cannot tell people in a working group what to do. If the chair of such a group were acting as if they did have authority I would see that as a sign of dysfunction. In absence of this kind of formal authority, industry working groups must function using some kind of collective decision-making process. In my experience, consensus-driven decision-making achieves the best outcomes in these kinds of situations.

So what is consensus? First of all, consensus does not mean “everyone must agree.” It means making decisions based on general agreement. In practice, it usually means that some people do not agree but “can live with” the decision in question. It’s up to the chair, or whoever is leading the discussion on any particular point, to draw out these decisions from the discussions and to do so in a way that encourages compromise and mutual respect for others’ points of view. In my experience, working groups that adopt this approach can be brought to consensus decisions on divisive topics where people hold strong initial views. Consensus decision-making like this functions best when working group members feel empowered to make a compromise.

So what are the failure modes of consensus? Consensus decision process assumes people are acting in good faith. If you have bad-faith actors who are only trying to gum up the system and hold back progress from being made, then consensus falls apart. That is one reason you need a strong code of conduct that not only holds people to a high standard of professional conduct but also does not tolerate bullying or other kinds of troll-like behaviors. Consensus also works best when people are encouraged to develop working relationships based on mutual respect, which is another reason a strong (and enforced) code of conduct is important. In some cases, consensus decision-making needs a fallback of strict voting, but this should be seen as an exception. Consensus decisions can end up being stronger than majority rule because they are arrived at through a process of compromise and understanding.

The W3C, which is one of the industry bodies I’ve been most active in, operates on a consensus-based approach and, in my view, this is one of its advantages. The W3C has a more formal definition of consensus and how it applies to decision processes in their working groups. I also think pretty highly of the W3C’s code of conduct which includes a lot of language specific to working group conduct.

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2 Comments on “Let’s Talk About the C Word

  1. @daniel in the ASF there is a governance process of 'lazy consensus'. I can't remember a single instance of it standing in the way of delivering a whole lot of software, and we know how argumentative developers are about code.

  2. @daniel I definitely agree and I think this applies to software teams as well. If everybody doesn’t at least agree on how they will build things they can’t possibly work together.

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