Thursday, January 28, 2010

Seeking Consensus

I’m fortunate to be able to work with lots of teachers and principals who are working together to improve their schools. Often I’m asked to help them design a process that will provide for thoughtful discussion of the issues and help the group reach agreement on how to proceed. Here’s some advice I give groups that are just getting started.

Spend time agreeing on norms for both your operation and decision-making. I’ve always liked the Norms of Collaboration developed by Garmston and Wellman. Information can be found at

Be clear about the process you will use to reach agreement. Consensus is often preferred but can be quite elusive, particularly when there are strong feelings about an issue. A few years ago I was introduced to theFist to Five, a way to measure the level of agreement on an issue. I like the process because it avoids voting and creating winners and losers. When using the Fist to Five, ask every participant to raise his or her hand and indicate their support, from a closed fist (no support) to all five fingers (a great idea). It’s an easy way to determine where a group stands on an issue and the need to continue discussion. Many groups I’ve worked with continue the process until everyone can hold up at least three fingers.

Always be clear and the purpose and goals for every meeting. Provide an agenda that is clear about topics, action that may be requested, and the time for each item.

Consider using a parking lot to gather information from members about the meeting. A “parking lot” is one way to anonymously provide feedback to other participants and to facilitators. One model I’ve used is a grid of four blocks---one indicating what went well, one indicating what needs improvement, one for questions, and one for ideas to improve the meeting.

Structure time for the group to pause and reflect on the meeting. Identify a way for every member to comment on the meeting and the processes used during the meeting.

Keep notes of the meeting and allow time at the end of the meeting for the group to be clear about next steps and any responsibilities that may have been assigned.

I’m always looking for good ideas about how to assure that meeting time is productive and that members feel the processes have helped the group move forward. I’d love to hear from you about ways you make your meetings productive.

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