Why do we find consultation and decision-making so hard?

Changing the world is an urgent task - sometimes you just have to get on with it or you'll miss the moment, writes Matthew Sherrington

Reaching total consensus within a team doesn't always mean a better result, writes Matthew Sherrington
Reaching total consensus within a team doesn't always mean a better result, writes Matthew Sherrington

"We’ve been talking about this for two years and nothing’s happened," I heard plaintively in a recent round-table meeting with a group of a charity’s staff. I bet you’ve all heard or thought the same thing at some point yourself.

I once inherited, as a new fundraising director, a shelf of papers on the intractable question of how to reform the organisation’s child sponsorship model. Nothing had been done, except to stop recruiting new child sponsors while they talked about what to do. Three years, a shelf of papers but no decision later, income was sliding badly. I didn’t read them; instead, we quickly made some decisions and got on with sorting it out.

It seems charities have a hard time getting it right between consultation and decision-making, probably because there is no 'right'. And probably because the sector isn’t very good at either, for fear or concern for the other. It’s tricky, because they both matter and have to go hand in hand, nowhere more so than in the voluntary sector, where passion, commitment and goodwill matter more than money, and where a voluntary ethos is all about participation, empowerment, collaboration and shared voice.

As I once heard from a wise management consultant, the challenge in a charity is that most people working there are rebels. They’ve opted out of the rat race, put commitment to values and principles before material gain and are consequently opinionated and prepared to take a stand. No wonder there’s a lot of talk. And as rebels, if they don’t like the decision, they possibly won’t do it anyway.

So consultation matters – involving people in the process to determine the outcome so they feel part of it and committed to it. And it’s not just lip-service to the process. Getting different points of view and ideas usually gets to a better outcome.

But what people want out of consultation is clarity, decisions and direction. That’s not permission to be autocratic. People want to know. They want to see things happen. Consultation has to be closed down. Decisions have to be made. Everyone needs to understand that not being agreed with does not mean not being listened to (as long as they’ve been listened to and the reasons for a decision clearly communicated).

In the end, we’re not here to keep people in charities happy, though of course that’s nice and helps. We’re here to get things done to meet the urgent task of changing the world. There’s a greater good. How we work together is important. It is the essence of our sector’s values and culture. But so is taking action.

I’m involved in a local community campaign. It has wide support, and the small core group is a reasonably diverse bunch of personalities and perspective. We recently had a falling out (as is the nature of voluntary community campaign groups made up of rebels – see above) when I rushed to complete a newsletter leaflet for a printer’s deadline, consulting some but not everyone on the copy. I was castigated for not taking the time to let messy democracy do its magic, since proper consultation makes the group stronger. And you know what? I wholeheartedly agree with that. To a point.

And that point is when, with time a precious resource, you have to get on with it or miss the moment. Making the group stronger is not the end game. You can talk yourselves out of doing anything, just by talking yourselves out of time. Added to that, talking to the point of consensus (particularly over copy) does not necessarily improve the product, but often delivers a committee-written dog’s breakfast. Anyone wielding a red pen over copy in a charity, take note.

So a key challenge for organisations committed to engagement and consultation, is to be honest and clear about how decisions will be made. Be clear what needs consultation, and what does not (because even if people have strong opinions, not everything does. Get over it).  If you make decisions without consultation, you’re screwed, because people will be disengaged and unlikely to follow. If you consult without decisions and action, you’re screwed, because people will be disillusioned and nothing will happen.  Leaders are different from managers. Leaders can be leaders only if people choose to follow them. The consultation process wins hearts and minds and gives leaders permission to lead and decide, even if they have the authority anyway. People want to be consulted. But they want to be led too. Because, in the end, they want to see stuff happen.

At which point I offer you this exhortation from The King. Compulsory listening. No arguments.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant on organisational strategy, fundraising and communications, at Inspiring Action Consultancy. @m_sherrington

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