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How ICA Works: 4c

ICA operates through consensus

ICA operates through consensus nurtured by facilitative leadership


ICA’s biggest program around the world, the “Technology of Participation (ToP)” ®, offers practical methods for consensus building. Yet, despite this background, ICA’s history also includes many painful experiences of dysfunction when the consensus process went off the tracks when coping with internal discord and conflict. Because consensus building is an art, not a science, those difficult times have provided opportunities for garnering valuable lessons. Emphasizing the importance of consensus, and embodying it through daily practice, are defining characteristics of ICA. Three important insights about consensus building have emerged from our recent history that move us well beyond the “101” basics taught in most ToP courses.


First, consensus has more to do with the process in which issues are considered than with the content of a final decision. An effective consensus process involves stakeholders in a timely fashion so they can make deliberative contributions about proposals as they evolve rather than giving feedback after they’re essentially developed. It also expands chances for originating ideas. While leadership from the center is comfortable with introducing new ideas, facilitative leadership knows that creativity often comes from the organization’s periphery as well, especially when connected with others. For example, Accelerate 77 grew out of an unanticipated proposal about marking ICA’s 50th anniversary through a citywide share-fair that came from a part-time volunteer.


Second, it is crucial to have objective means for articulating clear decisions. For most groups this is not an issue; bylaws spell out governance procedures and traditional pyramid structures suffer no doubts about power. However, for organizations that strive to be more horizontal, it can become confusing. Even worse, if no objective mechanism is in place, it can be paralyzing, for the curse of working by consensus is flippantly handing an inadvertent veto to dissident voices. Consensus allows all voices to be heard and strives to incorporate views, but is not unanimity. Some prefer the word “alignment” rather than “consensus” due to misunderstanding about this.


In some ICA circles, there is baggage to be jettisoned. One historical adage says consensus is never reached by taking a vote. Instead, I’d suggest that “premature” votes are a contradiction if they block adequate input from stakeholders. ICA-International (ICAI), for example, has no way to symbolize a consensus other than by a vote of the General Assembly. Similarly, a major role and responsibility of designated executive leadership within national ICA organizations includes declaring, and symbolizing, decisions. At ICA this requires facilitating deliberative processes that allow for widespread input and investment, but it also presumes a readiness to announce the consensus once it has been realized. The true art of facilitative leadership includes weighing-up intangibles and intuiting when to play the symbolic role by declaring a decision. For groups like ICAI who have no executive, it requires great sensitivity in discerning the right time to call for a vote.


Third, some decisions involve very large and complicated matters. In such circumstances, as illustrated by the restructuring of ICAI in 2010, it is crucially important to disentangle complex issues into smaller incremental parts so that they can then be sequentially ordered, and discussed, in a thoughtful and careful manner. Many start with the most controversial issues first because they are thought to be so important. Effective facilitators avoid pressures to deal with them prematurely. Careful sequencing of disentangled issues is much more effective.


Resources for continuing the conversation:

  • Clues to Achieving Consensus: A Leader’s Guide to Navigating Collaborative Problem Solving by Mirja P. Hanson, Roman and Littlefield (2005).
  • “Sequencing Discussions,” a talking paper from October 2010 by Terry Bergdall in preparation for the ICAI General Assembly in Talegaon, India. (see annex).