Podcast transcript 0028: Consensus and agreement, with Andre Helmstetter

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Brian: Welcome to Improve Something Today. I’m Brian Kerr. Each episode, I bring you an idea from the world of lean and continuous improvement. And today I have one of the few things in the world that’s even better than an idea. I have a person, my dear friend and colleague, Andre Helmstetter. 

Andre and I have had so many good experiences working on continuous improvement projects together. I think in the discussion. You’ll see that we’re we are former – and current – colleagues and I just love spending time with Andre and working on complex things with him and learning from him as we go along. So with no further ado, I bring you Andre Helmstetter. 

Well, I’m here with my friend, Andre. Andre, and I are colleagues over at a named local consulting firm. We’ve been colleagues before in other contexts. And we have been very fortunate, or at least I’ve been very fortunate, to work with Andre on some continuous improvement projects. Hopefully he’s felt the same way about working with me, but I’ve sure learned a lot from working with him and I really respect what he has to say about lean and continuous improvement.

He’s one of the top three people that I’ve learned the most from out actually doing this work in the world. So I’m really happy that he’s willing to spend a couple of minutes with us and chat. 

How the hell are you doing Andre?

Andre:  Wow, I’m feeling great. Now, after that introduction, I’m pretty, I’m pretty much done with the day. I can go to bed now. 

Brian: Well, you know, I keep these podcasts short, but not that short. Thank you so much for coming on Andre. 

Andre: Yeah, it’s good to be here. 

Brian: Okay. So Andre, I wanted to chat with you about a topic that I know has come up in some of the work we’ve done together. And it’s something that I think just keeps arising in the work that we’re doing on our various client projects and so forth, which is about the difference or the distinction between a consensus and agreement. And I think maybe we all spend a lot of time trying to chase down or negotiate agreement among groups of people. When in fact, what might be more useful is to get to a sort of working consensus among groups of people. 

What I’d like to ask you is, you know, what does this idea of consensus mean to you, I guess an opposition to agreement? And where did you first kind of become aware of that? Or where did that first become useful to you in your in your work? 

Andre: Right. So my interpretation is, is that agreement is, you know, one or more people agreeing on the same or very, very similar outcomes or, or choices, or they are, they are agreeing.

So when they move forward on something, they have agreement, they know they want to go the same direction. They want to do the same things. If we were on a project say, and you were trying to figure out how to measure. Outcomes or things like that you would want to find agreement so that at the end of the day, or at the end of the meeting, everybody is leaving and saying, we are going to do these things.

And we firmly believe that these are the right things to do. And we all agree that these are the right things to do versus consensus, which is where a set of ideas or outcomes or whatever is, is shared. And then you work through those ideas. And as a group, you come to consensus on what you’re going to use or what your plan is or how you’re going to do things.

And consensus doesn’t necessarily mean that we all agree that all of this is right. But we have come to consensus and we are able to have a working relationship around this and go forward without reservation, because everything that would have really stopped us has been removed. And, you know, everybody probably got at least some something out of what they brought to the table.

And so, and so with consensus, you have some freedom to move forward without everybody having, you know, a hundred percent agreement. And I think it is important because it can remove some of the emotion and some of the “I want to be right”ness and help people to, to really embrace and do whatever the next steps are, because they have consensus, versus fighting, you know, the continued battle over agreement.

And for me, where I first really started learning about this was I, you know, I took a course many years ago around doing a consensus workshop. And it actually really changed the way I look at how people proceed with projects. And it was really cool for me to see that it was less important for everybody to agree on exactly every step and every action, and more important to move the project forward with everybody on board and having consensus around what our measures are going to be, what our outcomes are going to be, how we’re going to take action, how we’re going to plan, just getting clarity around the difference between those two things has been really powerful for myself, and it’s been a powerful tool to use with my clients.

Brian: When I think about consensus, I think of something I picked up in that same consensus workshop course that you mentioned — and we need to talk about that a little bit more in a minute — but I think it was something I heard in that workshop, which is sort of a facilitator’s question of trying to get people to consensus, which is that the standard people have to meet is: can you live with this?

Andre: Yeah. 

Brian: Right. Whatever we’re trying to do. Can you live with this? And not necessarily, this is my perfect first choice, or maybe, you know, maybe I disagree with it. Maybe I have questions about it, but can I live with it? Am I willing to move forwards? And that’s really stuck with me in terms of a useful level to try to get people to versus the sort of perfect agreement where, my characterization here is that, we can spend a lot of time running around trying to make sure everybody feels perfectly listened to, and that their needs have been perfectly taken into account. And everyone is in perfect agreement. And you know, there goes like 90% of what middle management and up tend to do in organizations when they’re not being effective. And consensus is a thing you can do instead. 

I feel like we should say a word about the consensus workshop. So the Institute of Cultural Affairs, right? Global nonprofit, they have a sort of religious, a sort of like mid century religious origin and then broadened their focus quite a bit since then, but they have a sort of a workshop that they will train you, how to do what’s called a consensus workshop, which is a specific facilitated method for getting people to that kind of a working agreement. That real consensus around a topic to sort of make some collective decisions. And it’s something that’s been really powerful for me in terms of doing continuous improvement work, because I think even in the best-defined continuous improvement methods or description of how to do a particular type of continuous improvement activity, I feel like there is always that question mark in the middle, of well, how do you get people to that agreement? How do you get people to a place where they can get started? And the consensus workshop has been really helpful as a defined format and then also some of the ideas behind it. 

Andre: Yeah. To the point, I think you made a little bit ago about it being good enough. One of the great things about the workshop and then I’ll, I’ll move on. But one of the great things about the workshop is that it’s a very thoughtful. You know, really supportive environment they introduce fun things into the workshop, but at the end of the day it’s: we’re going to come out of this room with everybody being able to say, I can live with this. 

And that’s really powerful and it’s really freeing because as, as you mentioned, you can spend, you know, a lot of time trying to come to agreement and, you know, just, I’ll just give the example of, of trying to agree on, you know, if you’re doing a continuous improvement project and you’re trying to agree on what you’re going to measure. And just getting and, you know, just figuring those out. What’s the next thing that we’re going to do? Things like that, and being able to quickly, the practice of being able to come to consensus quickly allows you to move forward. And if you’re working in an environment where making mistakes is something that you know is going to happen. And so you’re prepared for them already. 

Then you don’t have to ever have to have everybody have exactly, you know, you don’t have to have the exact right everything anyways, because you’re going to be learning and you’re going to be making modifications. And so the more quickly you can get to taking action with consensus, the better off you’re going to be, the more, you know, opportunity for success. Your project is going to have versus being mired in, you know, the perfection of agreement. 

Brian: I think on that basis, a big part of the job of the facilitator or the coach or whatever the hell we’re calling it in continuous improvement work is to give people permission. To get to consensus and act in that way.

I remember a couple of years ago, the, the manager who said the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard in my life in terms of resistance to a continuous improvement project, where you know, some of the staff had created a countermeasure for a problem that he asked them to solve and presented the countermeasure.

And he said, and I quote, “I can’t support this countermeasure because I’m not sure it’s going to work.” And that was great because that’s, that’s fine. At that point when we didn’t know if it was going to work, we had to go do it. We had to go do some PDSA and, you know, being willing to commit to an activity without being in complete agreement with it is what a lot of the stuff is about. And the way I was able to push past that came directly out of the ICA consensus workshop kind of mindset. Even though the activity we were doing was, was totally different. 

Andre: Yeah. And just think about that from, from the point of view of consensus across the different levels of authority and responsibility on a team.

If you require agreement and you have someone at really at any level of the team, whether it’s a manager or, or you know do-er of tasks, or whatever, you can have a complete breakdown if somebody absolutely does not agree. But if you can get to, I can live with this, right. If that manager that you just, you just mentioned, if you can get them to okay, I can live with this, right. If we can get to consensus. We’re going to do this. And like you said, you know, you give them permission to go forward because you’ve you freed them from having to, to know that everything’s going to work. 

Brian: Yeah. From that fear of failure, which is, I think a pretty correct thing for people to fear. Or to be fearful of in a lot of contexts. 

Andre: I love failure. 

Brian: Yeah, exactly. I think helping people make that shift is a big part of what we can do and you get there with a sort of commitment to the outcome you’re trying to reach. And that commitment is different from a sort of uniform or lockstep agreement on all of the little changes and activities that are going to have to happen to get from wherever we are to wherever we’re trying to get to. 

For whatever reason, I think we’re just, as human beings, we’re kind of bad at remembering to do that. So having systems and structures that we get from the sort of lean world that can help us keep those fixed in our minds and build them into our habits and processes that we’re doing over time can be really helpful because otherwise it is easy to want to take a half step back from that sort of uncertainty that comes from consensus. And try to hide in our agreements. 

Which you know, maybe the counterexample would be like a service level of agreement between a group and a vendor or between groups and you know, that sort of like really crystal clear negotiated agreement. I mean, that’s one thing, like if that’s what you’re doing, that’s fine. But I think that’s a standard we reach for far more often than we need to, because we’re scared of that uncertainty. And we are scared of pissing the wrong person off or whatever it is. And so consensus takes, it takes work, and I guess it takes help.

And that’s the job of, you know, whoever’s running your consensus workshop or whoever’s facilitating your improvement event or, or whatever it is, right? 

Andre: In the facilitation towards consensus, I think it’s, it’s important to remember that whole, you know, you know, we just, we talked about, I can live with this, but we also have to talk about, “I can’t live with this.”

And, and it’s the, I can’t live with this, that doesn’t make it onto the board, which is great because it’s a, it’s a great way to, to one. If, if the, I can’t live with this as part of the conversation, then you can suss out whether or not you actually can’t live with it, or you can live with it. And, and the things that you can’t live with become clear to everyone and you have a forum in which to share why I can’t live with this, you know, and it allows you to descope. 

So maybe that manager in that particular case had there been, you know, consensus there might’ve been consensus around what was the scope of the mitigation. The I can’t live with, it helps you to define the scope of what’s in play.

And, and so the “I can live with this” doesn’t include things like, if this fails our company fails. If, if this fails, we all get fired. If this fails, you know what I mean? You can quickly move through those, move through those things and take them off the table. 

Brian: There can be a lot of wisdom buried in the things people, you know, can or can’t live with. But I think it’s, it’s worth pushing on that a little bit, but also being, being ready to listen if there really is something in there, that’s a showstopper or would affect the scope of what you’re trying to do. 

At least you’ve been able to separate that out from the, the set of sort of complaints without recommendation that you’ll get if you’re trying to get to a perfect, unanimous agreement. 

Andre: Right. And even whether you agree or not, if you can come to consensus, you know, and this is good enough, you will still have had the opportunity to have the conversation. So you understand, you know, in the consensus workshops that I’ve done and in the practice ones that I’ve done, when I was taking the class and stuff, you know, there was always something that I was like, yeah, What, why are we hanging up on this thing?

But then I would have the opportunity to hear why we were hanging up on this thing, you know? And, and I could be like, in my head, like, well, it doesn’t make any sense to me, but I understand why it makes sense to you so I can live without that. I like I can live with this. You know what I mean? Okay. Okay. Fine. Let’s move forward, which is great. 

Brian: So that’s consensus and agreement. Two different things and a little bit of the story of the, the consensus workshop and how that’s affected the work that we’ve both done. 

Thank you, Andre, for coming on. 

Andre: Yeah, thanks for having me on and I hope we can talk some more about some other stuff.