Monday, October 13, 2008

Consensus Building Cripples Library Innovation

I am not a fan of consensus building, an approach that is common in many, if not most, library organizations. While such an approach can be effective for small groups it has a number of shortcomings in larger groups, or if used to manage an organization.

One of the problems I have with consensus building is that an individual or a small minority can effectively block agreement to a proposal or idea. It unfairly tips the decision-making scales towards a staff member who may simply like the existing conditions, which may continue to exist long after the majority would like the conditions changed. Consensus building has the potential to reward the least accommodating group or staff members while punishing those trying to innovate. 

By giving all group or staff members the right to block any idea or proposal, an organization can essentially be held hostage to an inflexible minority or an individual. The impact this has on a library's ability to create innovative library services can be significant since creative or alternative ideas can be blocked or slowed by a small minority.

Consensus building also focuses on the need to discuss the topic ad nauseam and the need to seek the input of anyone would could possibly be affected.  This turns decision making into a very time-consuming process. This poses a liability to organizations trying to become more innovative since decisions often need to be made quickly. Since innovative process often result in half -baked solutions, it is simply not feasible to incorporate the opinions of everyone who could be affected in a reasonable period of time.
Library organizations probably migrate to consensus building since they generally want to work towards agreement, not disagreement. Yet, innovative organizations more often create atmospheres in which there is a great deal of disagreement and debate. Staff in innovative organizations learn how to disagree and build up a tolerance for disagreement. In such organizations, everyone is encouraged to act based on their individual motivations, and are rewarded simply for acting, rather than for success or failure. If libraries wish to create a culture innovation, we must 'allow' staff with the desire and energy to act on their own vision. This means that libraries must also empower staff to act by changing the system of rewards and support non-consensus decision-making processes.

Throughout history the most innovative ideas have been in opposition of the consensus opinion. According to Robert S. Root-Bernstein, the decision to go forward with an innovative idea should not be made because everyone agreed that it would work, but instead on different set of criteria: 
  • that it was controversial, striking at the heart of the field. (Libraries tend to want to avoid controversy) 
  • that it hasn’t been tried before and was therefore likely to yield new knowledge regardless of the outcome. (Libraries tend to wait until 'someone else' does it first and publishes it in the literature. And if it fails nobody will ever forget it did.)
  • that it was designed in such a way that it would easily be seen whether it worked or not (Libraries tend to over-think solutions and make things more complex then they need to be)
  • that the research was relatively inexpensive compared with the possible pay-off if success were to occur. (See above)
  • that the idea had a champion (or leader) who was willing and eager to risk his or her time and effort to implement the program. (Libraries support this notion, but there also needed to be a task force or committee with full representation and, oh, there still needs to be a consensus) 
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post Eric - a few comments:

- I agree re the general lack of value in a consensus building approach but only in the context of the traditional organizational structure. For example, if you take a non-hierarchical, let's make decisions now, non-traditional approach to building consensus, it can be very empowering.

- Having said that, you do also need leaders in the group (who I would argue can be anyone in the group, acting at the right time) who know when to say "OK - good discussion: let's take Door #3 and go to the next item." This works well for us at UPEI and the group does tend to move ahead at a pretty rapid pace.

- The observation that libraries tend to want to avoid controversy is also bang on. But again I would suggest that this does not have to be the case, as long as people like you highlight that encouraging controversy need not be a bad thing. Thanks for the post...