Aim for consensus, or aim for clarity?

It’s been an interesting week for me. At work there are some things to do that require me to pick an approach for how to do it. I’ve been aware of needing to question my default approaches, and perhaps to be braver sometimes.

And at the national level: Brexit Brexit Brexit.

I went to a Constituency Labour Party meeting on Thursday and it was instructive. A member had proposed a motion to give a clear backing to our MP (Labour, Remain) to endorse a People’s Vote / Second Referendum.

If you’re expecting me to describe a chaotic shouting match of binary positions and dogmatism you’ll be disappointed. The discussion was courteous and nuanced, speakers took a range of positions and I learnt a lot from everyone’s articulate statements.

This post reflects the topics we covered: .

I had not been to many of these meetings so I niaively got stuck in and suggested an amendment to the motion from a referendum being “the best option” to it being “an option”. The discussions happened, and it was only at the end that I realised my mistake.

I had urged for an amendment which I thought could get maximum backing. Maximum consensus. But what we were really discussing was the risks of advocating a position that a referendum is the best next step now. The original motion provided a better scaffold for a meaningful discussion. I hadn’t seen that.

Sometimes it’s better to find the points of disagreement: about evidence, about tactics, about likelihood of particular trajectories.

There has been a friendly and constructive chat on the Facebook group and I am heartened by the quality of discussion.

When is it best to aim for consensus, when is it best to aim for clarity?

How do you know what progress would be until you air the views in the room? Understand the variables first, then describe them, then build meeting structures appropriate to the situation, then operate in these structures and reach conclusions. Rinse and repeat.

Meanwhile at work I have had a mental block on how to approach some issues. We need to have an informed discussion about our communications infrastructure for students (platforms, channels, controls). There is another area where we need to map out a new way of managing curriculum design and delivery based on data structures rather than documents.

What role should I play in this?

These are all approaches I have used in the past:

  • Describe the variables that constrain the future state including the feasibility, desirability, sustainability etc. Create a framework for making decisions inside.
  • Describe a future state in a compelling enough way that it would be hard to disagree with. Push disagreement to the margins, in the interest of a forced consensus. Best used when there’s a time pressure.
  • Describe a future state with enough clarity that people can disagree with me and refine/counter it. Thats a thesis, antithesis, synthesis approach. Start with a straw man.
  • Avoid the big picture discussion and tackle the future piecemeal (some people advocate this position because of how hard the other options are)
  • What have I missed?

The structure for discussion needs careful consideration. The method of decision making needs choosing consciously. Richard Jones “never ask users what they want” drew on business analysis techniques to suggest “Brexit was build on a poor requirements analysis”. Absolutely. Method is important.

My take home from the Labour discussion was that my instinct is often towards consensus but consensus isn’t always the most desirable outcome. I need to fight my instincts sometimes to allow for the uncomfortable discussions.


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