When consensus does not really mean agreement

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Just as universities need to tell people to stop quibbling and work towards a common objective, companies need to realise that clustering around a corporate conventional wisdom that has not been subject to analysis and debate is also not a recipe for success.

In both universities and the corporate sector, meetings are characterised by a search for consensus – a position with which everyone can agree.

The curious thing is that in universities and the corporate sector, the consequences of this search lead to diametrically opposite results. In universities, the common outcome is that no decision is ever made, or only the negative decision that comes from sticking with what is already being done. In the corporate sector, the search for consensus almost always leads to a decision, but often one that is bad, ill-considered, or which no one really wants.

Let me explain how this happens. In the university meeting, the desire for consensus allows anyone who disagrees to block progress. This is true however unreasonable or preposterous the views that are expressed and however few the people who hold them. Moreover, there is a substantial minority of academics who have opinions on every subject under the sun, however little they know about the subject, and who will express these views with a cogency that is not impaired by their ignorance. (It is a surprising and little known fact that company directors mostly do read papers for meetings they attend and academics mostly do not.)

In the most debased versions of these university proceedings, people will express views that they do not themselves hold, but which they can conceive that other people might hold. It is genuinely quite common in Oxford University for people to begin their observations by saying ‘It might be argued that…’ or ‘People who are opposed to this proposition might think…..’

These interventions are astonishingly powerful. Since the people who supposedly have these opinions are not present, and may well not exist, it is impossible to persuade them that they are in error or that they should accommodate the majority view. Nonetheless, it is felt that it would be wrong, and divisive, to ride roughshod over their hypothetical opinions, particularly when the holders are not there to express them. The result is that even if everyone at the meeting is unanimous in support of a course of action, it is by no means certain that such a course will be adopted. The university consensus gives everyone a veto, and may even confer this veto on an opposition that is quite imaginary.

But if the spectre in the university meeting room is the person who is not there but whose opinion is, the spectre in the boardroom is the person who is present, but whose opinion is not. In the corporation everyone is anxious to be part of the consensus. The result is that people are inclined to express what they believe to be the conventional view even if what they themselves think is quite different. If they disagree at all, their disagreement is so finely nuanced that it will often pass unnoticed.

In the most debased versions of these corporate proceedings, there is a competition to be the first and most enthusiastic exponent of what is thought to be the generally prevailing opinion. Sometimes this leads to sycophantic applause for the wisdom of the chief executive. On other occasions, everyone is expressing what they believe, not necessarily correctly, to be the views of the majority of those present. In either case, there is little genuine debate and what may be substantive and important disagreements are not expressed.

The skilled chairman of a corporate will reinforce the consensus by papering over any crack that might seem to have emerged. The skilled chairman of a university meeting, detecting absence of consensus, will propose that the matter be considered further. Since the argument that this is a waste of time is inadmissible, this is the one proposal to which no one can object. In the university, the pursuit of consensus may lead to the failure to adopt a course of action that most people approve. In the corporation, the same pursuit of consensus may lead to the adoption of a course of action that hardly anyone supports.

The difference arises because the structure of the corporation establishes patronage and hierarchy while the structure of the university does not. So in the corporation, there is a high price to dissent: in the university, there is none. As a result, there is too little dissent in one and too much in the other.

On balance, the corporate bias to action is preferable to the academic bias towards inaction – not least because the academic bias towards inaction consumes so much time. But sometimes it is a close call: the impotent dean or vice-chancellor wringing his hands in despair may be a less damaging figure than the doctrinaire, despotic chief executive who swings his axe around the company.

The best answer lies somewhere in between. A dissentient view deserves to carry weight only if there is a cost to being a persistent dissentient. Universities are too full of figures who have acquired influence simply because they are opinionated and unreasonable, and more sensible people have better things to do than to go on listening to them.

People who express their disagreement too often, too stridently, or for too long ought to be marginalised. Yet that is damaging if pursued too far. Corporations are too full of people who have worked their way near to the top by performances that would make the Vicar of Bray seem like a fixated ideologue.

Just as universities need to tell people to stop quibbling and work towards a common objective, companies need to realise that clustering around a corporate conventional wisdom that has not been subject to analysis and debate is also not a recipe for success. Universities and business have much to learn from each other – if only either were humble enough to recognise it.

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