Myth: In a self-managing organisation, everyone has to agree on everything
When moving away from top-down, autocratic decisions, many people assume the antidote is consensus, consensus, consensus.
Everyone needs to agree on everything. We need to decide everything together. Everyone is equal.
Consensus is not the only way.
Take W.L. Gore, an organisation that’s been self-managing for six decades. They use the ‘Waterline’ principle for decision-making:
“Everyone at Gore consults with other knowledgeable Associates [the Gore term for employees] before taking actions that might be ‘below the waterline,’ causing serious damage to the enterprise.”
Any decisions above the waterline can be made by anyone without needing permission. This simple but powerful principle has helped Gore to be one of the most innovative companies on the planet.
If they made every decision using consensus, Gore would be extremely inefficient.
The trick is to decide how to decide.
In most traditional organisations we make decisions all the time without consciously thinking about how we are making them.
Tip #1: Get decision literate. Learn about decision-making methods. Beyond autocratic and consensus, there’s the advice process, consent, integrative and many more.
Tip #2: Do a decision autopsy. Take a decision you made as a group and review it — what could you have done better in terms of how you made this decision?
Tip #3: Map some decisions. Choose 1–3 decisions you need to make in the future and decide the best way to decide. What method will we use? Who needs to be involved? How will we communicate the outcome?
Remember: the opposite of top-down decisions isn’t consensus. It’s clarity and transparency of decision-making.
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