Why a consensus-seeking culture doesn’t always work

The larger an organisation gets, the more likely it is to inadvertently sabotage its people’s ability to make decisions and to get things done. By Steve Glaveski.

It’s no secret that people are the lifeblood of any organisation, but getting the right people on the bus is a challenge.

First, we need to build a strong brand and company that talented people want to work for.

Second, we must attract, evaluate and recruit candidates who not only have the right skills, but are also aligned with our organisation’s values and culture, and are satisfied with the compensation we can offer.

Third, we must empower them to deliver and create a fulfilling work environment so that they actually stick around.

And this is usually where things come undone.

The larger an organisation gets, the more likely it is to inadvertently sabotage its people’s ability to make decisions and to get things done, rendering the whole process somewhat redundant. 

Here are a number of common symptoms of this, their underlying causes and actionable solutions. 

Symptom: Our people can’t make decisions

Cause: Consensus-seeking culture

Instead of empowering people to make decisions and move forward, we seek consensus instead, for almost

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos eloquently highlighted the folly of such cultures in his famous 1997 letter to shareholders. In it, he made the distinction between what he calls Type 1 and Type 2 decisions.

Type 1 decisions are big, hairy, irreversible, high stakes and require careful consideration. 

Type 2 decisions are inconsequential, reversible, and should be made quickly.

Most decisions are Type 2 decisions, but Bezos warns that there seems to be a tendency to use the heavy-weight Type 1 decision-making process on most decisions. 

“The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.”

Sound familiar?

Not only is the end result of this slowness and diminished innovation, but an increase in workplace stress which is closely linked to our sense of control, or lack thereof. 

The solution: 

• Clearly delineate between Type 1 and Type 2 decisions, and empower people to make more of the latter. 

• Push back on Type 2 consensus seeking when you can.

• Consider lowering delegations of authority for decisions, where reasonable to do so.

Symptom: Our
people can’t think

Cause: Hyper responsiveness

The average employee is interrupted 50 to 60 times per day, and about 80 percent of these interruptions are unimportant. As a result, people are spending little time in what psychologists call ‘the flow state’ (you might know it as ‘the zone’), an optimal cognitive state where we’re up to five times more productive, according to McKinsey.

Today’s typical workplace is characterised by the sound and sight of desktop and smartphone notifications, keeping people in a state of hyper-responsiveness that puts Pavlov’s dog to shame. 

What we call multitasking is in actuality, task switching, and after a notification has forced us to switch between tasks, it can take us about 23 minutes to get back into flow. 

And when you consider that the average employee touches their smartphone 2,617 times a day, checks emails 74 times a day and receives 46 smartphone notifications a day, it’s likely that they spend little to no time in the flow state at all. 

Even 1/10th of a second task switches – like glancing at a notification but not pursuing it – can add up to a 40 percent productivity loss over the course of a day. 

The solution:

• Communicate the impact on productivity of switching and interruptions.

• Train people to block time in their calendar to deep focus, to turn off notifications during these periods of time.

• Make it known that responses to most questions or requests aren’t required immediately.

• Stop interrupting people sporadically throughout the day.


Symptom: People don’t have enough time

Cause: Hyper availability 

The Roman philosopher and statesman, Seneca, put it best: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

We say yes to all sorts of demands on our time – such as meeting requests – but time, once we’ve spent it, cannot be earned back. And this time is usually being stolen from our priorities.

Dominic Price, work futurist at Atlassian, told the Australian Financial Review that meetings not only kill his productivity, but also his job satisfaction. 

“My time was this precious resource that I was frittering away on stuff that wasn’t important or impactful. But no one else was going to change that unless I chose to change it.”

He says that most meetings are boomerangs or sticks: either they come back when you throw them (you get invited again) or they don’t come back.

It turns out that two-thirds of his meetings were sticks and one-third came back. As a consequence, he won back 15 hours a week to invest in more rewarding pursuits.

On the other side of this coin, we have a tendency to schedule blocks of time in our colleague’s calendars with absolutely zero regard for what they’re working on right now and how this interruption to their day might interfere with their goals.

The solution: 

• Don’t default to meetings or picking up the phone when an email or instant message will suffice.

• If you must meet:

□ Invite only the necessary people 

□ Schedule shorter meetings (15 to 30 minutes instead of 60 minutes by default).

• Communicate that it’s okay to say no to meeting requests if you have other commitments.

• Discourage against stealing time in people’s calendars without their prior consent, and check with a colleague before blocking time in their calendar.

• Practice asynchronous communication (most things don’t require real-time receipt and acknowledgment).


Symptom: People can’t create value 

Cause: Process paralysis

As organisations get larger, processes and policies are introduced to ensure that its people deliver on its business model, while decreasing the instance and severity of mistakes.

But doing so embroils our talent in a complex web of process and policy that stifles their ability to get things done and depletes their morale.

Paradoxically too, while the proverbial assembly line might help us to efficiently deliver product, it also renders us efficient at delivering the wrong product in the event of change.

The long-term effect of debilitating process is disgruntled employees and resignations, leaving us with the less capable talent, as employees leave in search of more fulfilling and greener pastures elsewhere.

This is precisely why Netflix’s former Chief Talent Officer, Patty McCord, built the streaming giant’s culture around empowering its people by keeping processes at a viable minimum. 

Doing so ensured it could continue to not only attract, but engage and retain, top tier talent – something that is fundamental to survival and success in a highly competitive, and fast-changing media landscape. 

The solution:

• Create a minimum viable bureaucracy, or MVB. An MVB has just enough processes to support operations without sacrificing the speed and employee morale required to innovate and stay competitive. At its core, an MVB is all about optimising the creation of value, while eliminating waste. 

• Increase value

□ Stretch the product S-curve.

□ Share learnings.

□ Leverage customer referrals.

□ Double-down on high performing products and marketing.

□ Focus on high-value activities.

• Eliminate waste

□ Decrease the number of steps required to make decisions and take action to a minimum, without leaving the organisation vulnerable to unacceptable risks. 

□ Automate rudimentary processes.

□ Outsource what can’t be automated.

□ Lower delegations of authority.

□ Treat Type 2 decisions as Type 2 decisions.

□ Decrease the frequency of actions (eg. routine meetings and reporting).

□ Eliminate tasks that no longer add sufficient value to the organisation.


By cultivating a culture where our people can make decisions and take action, not only do we speed up our pace of value creation and increase our ability to innovate, but we provide our people with a rewarding and fulfilling experience, one that is more likely to see us attract, engage and retain high performing talent for the long haul.  

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