The Climb Towards Consensus

The Climb Towards Consensus


by Massimo Magni, Dept. of Management and Technology, Bocconi University
Translated by Jenna Walker

In a recent interview, Nina Tandon, CEO of EpiBone, described the new frontiers of bone reconstruction: "We take two things from the patient. First, we take a 3D X-ray, and then we take a tissue sample from the patient so that cells can be extracted. This allows us to use the cells to build new bone based on data from the 3D X-ray. After 3 weeks, we have a bone that is ready to be transplanted into the patient's body." This example highlights how complex problems require the integration of different skills to obtain innovative solutions. When EpiBone faces complex challenges, such as bone reconstruction, teams are created with experts with very different backgrounds: scientists, engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs who are asked to share their knowledge to make effective decisions for the benefit of the team.

Contexts such as EpiBone's increasingly require the presence of a leadership style focused on delegation and inclusion. This allows for decision-making processes based on consensus among team members. A decision based on consensus is not the best idea for all team members, but it is a solution which all members decide to be committed to in order to implement it. The drive towards this type of decision-making model certainly denotes a series of advantages, such as members developing a sense of belonging, more innovative solutions, and members of the group activating a continuous learning process. Unfortunately, these advantages do not occur very often because team members are exposed to highly complex situations requiring consensus, but are not yet prepared to manage contexts in which high levels of interdependence between group members needs to be managed.

Specifically, teams that would like to be effective in making decisions based on consensus in highly complex contexts must focus in particular on two aspects. First, team members must be aware that consensus-based decision-making processes tend to require more time to generate innovative solutions and maximize the potential from sharing different perspectives and knowledge. Statements of this kind are often made: "We always decide based on consensus, I [the boss] express my opinion, then my collaborators express their opinions. We are so good that we can quickly reach a decision that is based on consensus." In most cases like the one described, the solution identified by "team consensus" is very similar to the boss's initial opinion, featuring a false consensus. The second aspect that teams must oversee is the ability to effectively manage conflict. Teams unable to manage conflict in highly interactive situations tend to polarize along two extremes: On the one hand, they avoid any kind of conflict (thus inhibiting confrontation). On the other, they can increase the conflict to such a level that confrontation is no longer focused on the object, but becomes an interpersonal conflict. This not only leads to decision-making ineffectiveness, but very often leads to fractures within the group.

The drive resulting from environmental complexity therefore pushes leaders and teams towards decision-making models that are more effective in generating innovation. Managers and organizations should, however, be able to prepare individuals to effectively deal with environmental complexity and the challenges related to it.

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