Is Management by Consensus Killing Innovation?

by Roy Luebke

Is Management by Consensus Killing Innovation?In a Vogue magazine article in 1958, Sir Alec Issigonis and University of Wisconsin philosophy professor Lester Hunt are credited with the expression, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee”. One management issue that could be killing innovation efforts is an obsession by many managers that a decision can’t be reached unless a team of people comes to agreement.

Teamwork and collaboration are increasingly important in uncovering root causes of business issues, informing insights into finding opportunity areas, and creating a range of potential solutions or new offerings. It seems, however, that there is a pre-occupation by managers of wanting everyone to get along, to come to agreement and alignment, etc. This is the direct opposite of what is needed to generate creative new thoughts and concepts. People on teams don’t need to be nasty to one another, but there needs to be a healthy amount of disagreement and alternative thoughts to expand the solution area and extend the possibilities of “what could be”.

Alfred Sloan of the “old GM” insisted that if his key managers came to agreement too quickly, or came to agreement at all, that they defer making a decision until a higher level of conflicting views were offered to the discussion.

There are two issues that seem to contribute heavily to the current state of “can’t we all get along” management. First, people are engaged in win-lose competition with one another on a team. If a suggestion or idea is posed, other team members will jump on the person making the suggestion in order to discredit the person rather than looking at the idea itself. Secondly, people don’t want to “rock the boat” and look for ways to comply with a higher level manager rather than seek novel approaches. Managers are not trained to look at conflict as a positive state, but without conflicting ideas all that is offered to customers are stale and uninspired offerings.

In order to develop an innovative organization, there must be a feeling of freedom to explore possibilities without worrying about retribution from above or below. While human competition will not go away anytime soon, this tendency should be harnessed in more productive ways in order to create better customer-oriented offerings.

People behave in ways that reward their behavior. By encouraging and rewarding teams to argue, to challenge, and to experiment, an organization will develop a wider portfolio of options to review for investment. Increased organic growth requires a move away from the status quo, and moving away from the status quo requires conflict and competition rather than consensus.


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Roy LuebkeRoy Luebke is an innovation expert focused on discovering new, customer-driven opportunity areas to help define the future of a company. He is inspired by knowledge and learning, and applying structured tools and methods at the crossroads of strategy and innovation to achieve business growth.

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  1. So true, Roy! I’ve seen other articles this week re: what future leaders need–gee, CCL, how hard is it to say we need more agility and partnering (duh). You are getting at the foundational elements that must be broken down, unlearned and replaced–e.g., “conflict is bad.” THAT’s where leadership and MBA programs need to focus–or find themselves following the dinosaur at an even faster pace.

    In my experience, the operational and cultural key to releasing this energy in the organization is to build different interactions and (ugh) meetings into the innovation and management structure/network so that there is actually dedicated time for thinking differently, challenging, asking what-if, and piling on each other’s ideas, building passion and advocacy. People resist this “extra” time, but if I get them to allow a pilot for the first few weeks of an initiative (usually as a bet), they find that the time spent in traditional, non-value added activities of reporting, progress updates, tabling issues and assigning accountability though they never hold feet to the fire, etc. goes down dramatically, creating a rewarding balance.

    The team WANTS to spend its time in the new meetings and interactions and to your point–people begin favoring (new) behavior because it is rewarded (the positive power of intermittent positive experience will outweigh the pull of constant negative reinforcement–daily meetings that are unproductive).

    You’ve pointed out that the traditional meeting (which is too often retained in “innovation” initiatives) is a change killer. The best ideas will always seem far-flung, half-baked, and easy to shoot down with an arrow aimed at the sponsor or a practical concern when there is no time to process it, no expectation it should be explored, no strength or courage in facilitating and stretching the team, etc.

  2. Excellent! You said what I’ve been thinking for a long time now. Thanks for verbalizing it so well.

  3. Management by consensus will kill ANYTHING, so why not innovation?
    My point is – innovation is just a type of project.Please do not make it appear as anything special. That is what scares people.If only it had been handled differently since beginning, there would have been so many takers.
    Alok
    alok@innovatorsandleaders.com
    +91 9821677859

  4. Nice article. The problem extends across organizational decisions all the way back to the hiring process. Hence the currently vogue reason give to otherwise well qualified interviewees that they weren’t selected because the team believed they just “wouldn’t fit in.”

  5. Alok:

    I agree with you that innovation is a process that may contain many projects. The issue we face today is that over the past 20-30 years, business leadership has been focused on cost reduction and operational efficiency rather than creating new things. The act of innovation has been given a back seat in many cases. It isn’t that innovation is a “special” thing, it is that the focus of management is changing and needs to keep changing, especially as firms look at growing their businesses in China,India,Brazil, etc.

    What is special, I feel, is that companies will need to transform their organizations and management to grow their profits over the next 20-30 years.

  6. Roy
    I do not disagree at all with the the importance of innovation. I have a problem, though, with the brand management of the term called ‘ innovation’. At least in India, it conjures up an image of a mystical process calling for experts, something non-essential and too fraught with risks.
    I am probably digressing, so I’ll leave it here.
    Alok

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