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What Do We Need to Agree Upon in Order to Work Together? The Principle of Minimum Consensus

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”— Isaac NewtonI agree 100%How many times can we honestly say that we really agree 100 percent with someone else on an issue? Often this is because finding points of disagreement with other people is one of the ways that we establish legitimacy and expertise in addition to our sense of self.Put simply, whilst we might almost totally agree with someone on an issue, we can also be motivated to find and highlight the nuances of where and how our understanding (unrecognised genius) and clear thinking provides us with a more accurate, pragmatic or relevant analysis.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
— Isaac Newton

I agree 100%

How many times can we honestly say that we really agree 100 percent with someone else on an issue? Often this is because finding points of disagreement with other people is one of the ways that we establish legitimacy and expertise in addition to our sense of self.

Put simply, whilst we might almost totally agree with someone on an issue, we can also be motivated to find and highlight the nuances of where and how our understanding (unrecognised genius) and clear thinking provides us with a more accurate, pragmatic or relevant analysis.

The private intent of this behaviour is pretty clear — it allows us to feel good about ourselves and superior to others as an aspect of our contribution. However, the net public outcome of such activities can arrest the chance of progress. By highlighting and focusing upon minor, inconsequential points of detail, it can undermine the possibility of consensus and action on really important stuff.

Turning to the murky little backwater of the world that is sustainability, the practice of arguing the nuance of everything is rather aggravating and perverse. For instance, you get collections of people who all fundamentally agree that business as currently configured is unsustainable, that capitalism’s systems of value need to change and that humanity needs to respond rapidly, innovatively and creatively in order to build an equitable, resilient and sustainable world. Despite this, they will also argue endlessly over why the points they make in the service of these aims are somehow superior, more appropriate, more intelligent or based upon more years in service of a better world than their correspondent’s.

This is of course ridiculous and won’t get any of us anywhere.

As I have noted in another post, the levels of consensus required by people of definable groups can vary. An article in Psychological Science in November 2013, Liberals aren’t like the rest, or so they think,” noted that progressives (perhaps most likely to be sustainability advocates) tend towards considering themselves distinct or different from others with similar views (they overstate this difference). While conservatives (perhaps more likely to be distrustful of sustainability), tend towards considering themselves in greater alignment with those holding similar views.

What levels of consensus do we need to work together?

A potential approach by which to reduce the time we spend disagreeing over things that are far less important than the things we agree upon is to consider the degree of consensus that is required in a given situation. To ask, ‘What do we really need to agree upon in order to work together?

The levels of desired consensus for collective action can be explored by asking other questions about working together:

  • Do we want to work together?
  • What is the additive purpose?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What do we need to agree on?
  • (And conversely) What can we disagree upon?

Given that answers to the questions above result in the potential of joint work, the following questions further refine the levels of consensus which might be needed:

  • Do we have shared understanding of our focus and intent?
  • Are there assumptions being made that are not agreed upon?
  • Which elements are good enough?
  • Which parts are not good enough and must be revised?
  • What must I share because the joint enterprise will collapse without it?
  • What should I keep quiet about because to voice it would be letting perfect be the enemy of good?
  • What is a break point beyond which I am unable to constructively contribute?
  • When is the time to stop talking and do something because we agree enough already?

Minimum and maximum consensus

The unspoken default position in many sustainability discussions is, “Can’t you see how clever I am?” Not a good starting point for shared action.

If we really want to make a positive contribution to a sustainable future, we need to get beyond such blatant ego-polishing and figure out just what levels of consensus are required.

There are many definitions of consensus in the world, ranging from a need to disagree on almost nothing in order to do anything together, to the practical approaches deployed by institutions such as the International Organization for Standardization (IOS), which defines consensus as:

General agreement, characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests.

Put simply (and learned from hard personal experience) the levels of resource and persistence a party can contribute to an ISO process (and many others) has a significant impact upon the chances of that party being considered as ‘important’ and the more likely the final agreement reached is to reflect that party’s views.

The levels of required consensus concept is not a new one. For instance, it was explored in the questions and answers proposed by the great moral philosophers John Locke and John Stuart Mill while considering the limits of liberty in relation to the rights and responsibilities of both the individual and the state.

A directly applicable description of the principle to the challenge of sustainable change was articulated by the author, academic and politician Michael Ignatieff. He defined minimalism as an outlook capable of accommodating the fact that “people from different cultures may continue to disagree about what is good, but nevertheless agree about what is insufferably, unarguably wrong.” (Quoted in the Yale Journal of International Law paper “The Minimum Core of Economic and Social Rights: A Concept in Search of Content”).

The role of consensus in change is a complex one. Across human history change has frequently taken place at the behest or whim of those individuals with the opportunity and ability (power) to make decisions regardless of the views of, and consequences for, others. Change via dictatorship or tyranny is not known for prioritising consensus.

For those of us lucky enough to live in democratic countries some form of consensus, or at the least the ability to exercise or indicate our views, is at the heart of our concepts of freedom.

Similarly, the majority of us interested in contributing to a sustainable and equitable world innately believe that consensus is a fundamental component of achieving that change — you cannot have an equitable world where only certain voices are heard.

Seeking minimum consensus

“Truth suffers from too much analysis.”
— Frank Herbert

If we are capable of endlessly arguing about essentially irrelevant details on topics we fundamentally agree upon, wouldn’t it be logical to stop seeking total agreement?

If constantly aspiring for total consensus on every aspect of existence is fruitless, we need to move from asking:

Why doesn’t anyone recognise that my analysis of the world is better than yours” to “How much consensus do we actually need to create something together?

Shouldn’t we therefore tend towards desiring a minimum level of consensus?

Minimum consensus in practice

These challenges are discussed, explored and overcome in sustainability as elsewhere. The existence and success of truly participatory multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) are a testament to that (this Oxfam blog by May Miller Dawkins has an interesting discussion on such initiatives from the perspective of stakeholders).

Each successful multi-stakeholder process started with the development of the appropriate level of consensus. Such a level doesn’t preclude disagreement in total, it’s just that everyone agrees to abide by the level of consensus required for achieving a shared goal. This means they might disagree on many things but that the disagreement is not bigger than the wider purpose of their joint endeavour.

An example (there are many other good examples out there) of minimum consensus in practice can be found in MSIs such as the programmes facilitated by IDH, the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative.

Focused around sustainability and supply issues in key global commodity chains, the initiatives bring together organisations involved in (as participants and stakeholders) the production, supply and sales of that commodity. For instance the IDH Cocoa initiative involves a number of companies that actively compete for market share and NGOs that may be critical of business. However they agree that without significant changes to the sustainability and resilience of the supply chain, all of their interests will suffer. The levels of consensus sought by such an initiative are significant but essentially low — participants agree upon a relatively few points of fundamental and unarguable fact.

Can’t we all just get along?

Of course, griping about the levels of pointless argument in online and real-life contexts is hardly a new or earth-shattering thing to do. Many initiatives and websites don’t really exist to be drivers of collective, collaborative knowledge but as portals for self-promotion and intellectual self-aggrandisement (and few of us are truly innocent of at least a little of each).

Nevertheless, the motive behind this post is a positive one. If we are to achieve a sustainable and equitable world, we need to work together — there is no discussion to be had on that point.

Finding the fundamental points of shared human experience and aspiration is key. It is clear that at the level of globally shared values, humans show a striking degree of agreement on what they aspire to for themselves and their children. A glance at the World Values Survey provides ample testament to that.

Developing and applying the principle of minimum consensus might be one way to do this that we could all agree on — if only a little!

My huge thanks to Alain Ruche for both making me aware of this concept and inspiring me to write it.

This post first appeared on the Terrafiniti blog on March 18, 2015.