Jacob Kaplan-Moss

How to gather consensus before a big decision

Several months ago, I needed to make a substantial change to the way my team worked. The details aren’t super-important for this post; the crux is that we needed to shift from a fairly broad focus to narrowing down on our one or two most important projects. This was going to mean saying “no” a lot more – a change that might go badly.

Ultimately I was going to need to ask a group of people, including our organization’s senior leadership, for an “OK” to make this change. I wanted to make sure that when I made the request, I’d get the “yes” I was looking for. So, I spent the weeks leading up to making the proposal building consensus, and getting agreement.

There’s a specific technique I use in situations like this - a technique I’ve sometimes heard called “pre-wiring”. Done right, by the time you actually make the proposal everyone will be in agreement, and your potentially-controversial idea will be greeted with a yawn and a “sure, go for it.”

The process is simple:

  1. Identify everyone who might have a say in the decision. Much of the time, these things happen at staff meetings, so this is often as simple as knowing who’ll be in the room when you make the proposal.

  2. Talk to each of them individually, one-on-one. Explain your proposal, ask for feedback, and ask for their agreement. This last step is critical: it can feel pretty awkward, but you need to literally ask “do I have your support?” or something similar. Otherwise, you risk being surprised when it turns out you just assumed assent but didn’t in fact have it!

  3. If you don’t get the approval you’re looking for, or if you get feedback that substantially changes your proposal: re-work the proposal, then repeat step 2 again until you get there.

  4. Once everyone has individually agreed, then and only then, bring your decision to the staff meeting (or whatever) for final approval.

Yes, this can take a lot of time! In my case, the key decision-makers were Hangar’s senior leadership, several of my peers, and the senior leadership of our portfolio companies – almost a dozen people, total. Looking back at my calendar, I see about 20 pre-wire meetings leading up to the final proposal. I likely spent 30-40 hours working on this before it shipped.

That’s a lot of hours, but it’s worth it. This change will improve our results, make our team more cohesive, and save huge amounts of time in the long-term.

I think sometimes managers object to these sorts of long, time-consuming, consensus-building activities, but they shouldn’t. This is what good management looks like. Change is hard, and hard things take effort.

Another common objection is that this seems manipulative. It can seem like you’re meeting with people ahead of time to preempt a “natural” decision that might not go your way. The key though is that this isn’t a process to use to cajole or browbeat people into agreement. You should be going into those 1:1 meetings with an open mind. It’s pretty normal to hear feedback that changes your proposal, sometimes substantially. Indeed, one of the reasons to meet individually is to help people feel more comfortable sharing criticisms that they might not air in a group setting. So, the final agreement is easy because you’ve already incorporated everyone’s feedback.

Now, it’s not always the case that you’ll get 100% buy-in. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, there just won’t be a way to make everyone happy. Pre-wiring is even more worth doing in those circumstances: you’ll know where the objections will come from, and you’ll know ahead of time if you have enough support or not.

So, the next time you have an important proposal to make, don’t wait until the big meeting to ask for support. Gather feedback and build consensus beforehand, and make that big meeting into a non-event.