Recently my wife and I were in Barcelona, visiting her family and 87 of their closest friends. (Not quite, but there were a lot of people.) We were outside, it was a beautiful day, and it was time to decide where to have dinner. The only thing everyone agreed on was that we wanted to eat outside; the rest we would figure out on the way as we walked to find the perfect outdoor dinner spot.
Ninety minutes later, and having walked past no fewer than twenty potential outdoor options, we were seated inside at a restaurant that nobody wanted to be at.
How exactly did that happen? I sometimes make fun of my wife and her family by saying that it happened because the Spanish are congenitally incapable of making decisions. But the truth is that it happened because the group was striving for consensus – perfect agreement among each of its various members, and somebody had an objection (usually trivial) about each of the restaurants we passed. So we kept going, and kept going, and eventually it was somehow decided to settle on a restaurant that nobody wanted. Why? Because we finally had consensus. Now everyone was in agreement that nobody wanted to be there – and that, inexplicably, was preferable to choosing something that was perfect for some of us but imperfect for others.
And it happens elsewhere too. I’ve seen it in meetings, and I’m sure you have as well – everyone is generally on board with whatever’s being discussed. There’s a motion to approve and move forward. Then, suddenly, somebody raises a small objection – not about the idea itself, but about a piece of the idea, that maybe a particular part of it could be tweaked or improved or changed somehow. Then somebody else agrees with that, and before you know it you’re postponing the approval to have another round of discussions. Or worse – you’re choosing not to approve because you don’t want to approve something that everyone isn’t in perfect agreement with.
Consensus is a great goal. But it isn’t always practical, or even possible. The more people involved in a given decision, and the more complicated that decision is, the more likely somebody is going to have a problem with some part of it. Somebody may hate it altogether and be completely, adamantly opposed. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to spend a lot more time, money, and resources crafting a solution to which nobody has even the slightest objection.
Democracy demands that some people will not get their way. If we had attempted to structure a government in which no laws could be passed without unanimous support, our country would never have gotten off the ground. And if you insist on consensus in every decision you make professionally, you’ll either wait forever or choose instead to never really do anything new. Neither of those are intelligent approaches.
I’m not saying you should go out of your way to ignore or alienate people who disagree with you. I’m simply saying that you shouldn’t allow an occasionally imperfection or minor objection to derail your entire project. Again, consensus is great when it’s possible. But when it isn’t (and if very often isn’t), then it’s not great at all. It’s the enemy of progress.