Friday, September 14, 2007

Voting Versus Consensus

Recently, I've commented on the extensive use of voting among various groups and committees at the College. I find great value in this blog, because it allows me to clarify things as I continue to ask questions and attempt to understand the current culture and prompt thinking about the future. I have shared my observations that this is a "voting culture" and contrasted that with community colleges where I have worked in the past that were more of a "consensus culture". I have shared those observations to get people to reflect on the extent to which this is so; if it is so, why is it so?; and what it is the impact on the culture? I did not intend to imply that all voting is bad or that votes shouldn't be taken on issues. Rather, I expect only that we understand why things are the way they are and we find the right mix of voting (if only to periodically vote by acclamation when you know you have consensus) for where and how we want to be in the future.

Making decisions in groups can be challenging - exploring ideas, sharing perspectives, and then somehow arriving at a decision or recommendation to bring closure to the discussion. For me, voting has its place and makes sense for some groups. However, when it's the standard operating procedure for most all groups, the overall culture of the place is noticeably different. I recently shared with one group, that if they move their recommendations forward on a 5-4 vote, they have four individuals working against those recommendations the minute the last meeting is over and team members walk into the hall. A split vote like that will move an initiative or idea forward with some team members still having potentially significant concerns. The recommendations or decision of a group have a much greater chance of success and support if the group reaches consensus on what moves forward. Consensus, by most definitions in its simplest form, means "everybody can live with it." It means people are - in the words of a well-respected colleague here - "willing to give it a try." Consensus also often requires that pros and cons have been explored, the reasons for the recommendation or decision are well-communicated, and everyone involved is willing to own the responsibility for being part of the consensus.

How does voting take form in the culture differently from consensus? My sense is that voting works best in a culture where you need to get that vote taken to get it in the permanent record so that if things ever go adrift from that original vote, the vote protects things as they are. In contrast, consensus is an artifact of a culture that values risk, supports giving things a try, has strong lines of communication that allow for continuous evaluation and commitment for continuous improvement. The reassurance that "we can always come back and revisit a decision if things are not working" is the key for most people to be willing to give it a try. The more those elements are in place, the more likely consensus is to become commonplace.

As I mentioned, I'm simply trying to explore these interesting artifacts of the culture here and recognize that mine is but one perspective. The questions and ideas I propose here are meant to continue the conversation, as we consider how we collectively create the future together here at MVCC. I'd be interested in your thoughts, so please share them with me at presblog@mvcc.edu.