Many of us have been in situations where we appear to have the right consultation processes in place, staff seem to be engaged, original propositions change and the final decisions do reflect what staff have said, yet there is a lingering feeling among some that the process was "not consultative enough", that it took too long or that it was too short – or, indeed, that many felt they were not heard. I have yet to hear of a situation in which there was a consensus that the consultation process was perfect.
I am often reminded of a story I heard from one of my teachers in school about a man, his son and their donkey who were going to a village fair (the story is from India). Some people remarked: "Silly fellows! Why can’t one of them ride the donkey?" The man thought it was a good idea and asked his son to get on to the donkey. A little later, some people said: "What a disrespectful lad. The father is walking and the son is merrily riding the donkey." The son dismounted and the man got onto the donkey. Further along, someone commented: "How cruel of the man to be riding the donkey while his poor son is walking." So the man asked his son to join him and ride the donkey, only for someone to remark: "Poor donkey, carrying the burden of two people on his back." So both of them dismounted and decided to carry the donkey instead, much to the amusement of people around them. And as they were navigating a log that served as a bridge over a stream, they lost their balance and all three of them fell into the stream.
This simple story is something I have found quite useful to hold in my head. The main moral of the story is equally simple: you cannot please everyone all the time. And that, I find, is key to developing a consultation process. So what has worked in the cases where the process of consultation has been considered to be reasonably robust or effective or successful? Here are a few principles.
The purpose of a consultation could be to "sell, tell, consult or join" (source: Organizational Communication for Survival by Virginia P Richmond, James C McCroskey and Larry Powell, 2013) as a decision-making process. Dalmau Consulting refers to "Tell-Sell-Test-Consult-Co-create", which could work as a spectrum in decision-making, with the direction towards "co-create" being more engaging and empowering. This clarity would help in communicating to all those involved.
Mapping out stakeholders
Decisions taken on strategy, organisational change processes, structure and policies can all have wide-ranging impact and/or influence on a variety of stakeholders, depending upon the size and complexity of the organisation – and it might not be limited to the senior leaders or managers. It is often important to consider the role of the board and when exactly it needs to be brought in, given that charity boards have trustees who are volunteers with limited availability of time. Equally, one needs to consider stakeholders who are outside the mainframe of the organisation, such as beneficiaries, partners, allies, network members, other members of a federated structure, clients and suppliers, as appropriate.
Detailing a process map
Depending upon the scale or ambition of the change process, the various work streams or different groups of people or different project teams could be involved. And although there might be considerable ambiguity around the sequencing of these, it would be helpful to have an outline of a process map, which then needs to be constantly kept under review so that it can be adapted to any changes needed. A key part of the process map would be to allocate timing for each phase and consider if it clashes with peak activity periods in a year, the holiday season and so on.
The entire purpose of a consultation process is to ensure that staff are engaged, their views heard and a genuine commitment to demonstrate inclusion is made. The benefit of a consultation process is the plurality of the views and the diverse perspectives that are brought in, especially by those who are most likely to be affected by any changes that might not necessarily be evident to all, especially senior managers. That said, at the outset it is important that there is clarity on the feedback process – how the views will be considered and communicated, including comments that are not taken on board, so that expectations can be well managed. And very importantly, the process of decision-making needs to be explicit. Ultimately, it needs to be clear that decision-making is about making the right judgement call, which is a key part of leadership.
All consultation processes need to have a formal closure. Where staff are more engaged, committed and passionate, it is most likely that there will be high levels of participation in these consultation processes. Equally, however, there could be the challenge of numerous and diverse views that the decision-makers find it difficult to accommodate. It is really important, therefore, that there is enough attention to the process of consultation, communication and arriving at the final outcome to ensure that the process has been as inclusive as possible and that the decisions are taken in the best interests of the organisation, its mission and its strategy, rather than based on the views of a few highly vocal and articulate individuals.
Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK