“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the simple reasons for McKinsey’s success is the focus on building consensus. Before most important client meetings, McKinsey leadership shares the main messages and findings with the client and stakeholders to develop buy-in, refine the messages, reveal detractors, and understand potential dynamics. It is one of McKinsey’s secret persuasion and alignment tactics that dramatically improve project success rates.
The key to building a consensus for a strategy or plan is understanding and addressing the concerns leaders, and stakeholders have about the strategy. Otherwise, leaders and stakeholders can become discretely or openly adversarial to a strategy, reducing the chances of success.
Why is building consensus important?
Too often, great plans end up on a shelf or someone’s hard drive, because there wasn’t a consensus among leaders, stakeholders, and those that would have to execute a plan. We’ve all been part of a decision, plan, or project that sours because there never was the necessary buy-in or support. They become death marches, destined to fail. If you become a master at building consensus, you can move mountains.
How do you build consensus?
Ideas can be like big snowballs rolling down a hill, gaining momentum and speed. Building consensus can serve as the gravity to your snowball, giving your ideas the momentum and speed to turn into executed strategies. Below are some best practices in building consensus.
Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
If you want to build consensus for an idea, collaborate early and often. Identify the key stakeholders and decision-makers early in the process and start having conversations about the idea. The conversation typically starts off, “Hey, I’ve got an idea, and I want to get your thoughts on it, do you have a few minutes?” Collaborate, often one-on-one, to listen and understand peoples’ perspectives, ideas, and concerns, to refine the idea, to understand whom else you may need to collaborate with, and to build consensus early.
As you collaborate with others, make the idea a collage formed from the ideas of others. Make sure you attribute the ideas of others to them. Give people the credit they deserve. If you don’t, you might create adversaries of the idea, pretty quickly.
Pre-syndicate for alignment
Pre-syndication is meeting with participants, typically one-on-one, before a critical meeting, to share the key messages, strategies, and plans. Most top strategy consulting firms pre-syndicate presentations to gain alignment for a project’s recommendations. Pre-syndication allows participants to understand the recommendations better, voice their concerns and ideas, and adjust messaging and recommendations before the big meeting.
Give and take
A strategy or plan is worthless if not executed. Often, building consensus takes on the form of negotiation or lobbying to ensure there is enough alignment and support. You’ll often find yourself with a few power dissenters, who can tank the strategy. In these situations, get down to the root of the dissension. You will typically have to give a bit to ensure you get their support. What that “give” is, is the hard part to figure out. Typically, I find simply asking is the best strategy, “What will it take to get your support on this?”
Let ideas go
There are two ways you’ll need to let go. First, sometimes you’ll never get enough support for ideas. Just let them go. You’ll harm your brand trying to build consensus for something that will never happen. Let go of ideas for other departments or teams. Share them with the right people, be passionate about them, but then let them go so that the right people can champion them.