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Consensus or Alignment: Which Do You Need and Why Does It Matter?

Reconsider what you need to agree about: the power of alignment to move your team toward your goal.

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

After having been on every “team” from the high school student council to the prestigious national NCLEX panel, I’ve learned there’s always a nay-sayer. I asked myself, what’s the difference between consensus and alignment, and why does it matter?

After reading several articles (including this one with poorly-organized content) here are my take-home points. I’ve added some of my own ideas, too.

The difference between consensus and alignment (Infographic by author)

Consensus means we settle for less

When we try to achieve consensus, we are actually settling for the least common denominator. We’re focusing on making everyone happy.

Margaret Thatcher probably said it best:

“To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.”

Not the most encouraging description, huh? So if that’s consensus, what is alignment?

Alignment allows movement and flexibility

Alignment means we’re moving toward that great North Star of our vision. Alignment lets us focus on the where and why.

Not the how.

It means that “… we agree on the destination and disagree on the route to take.” To me, this is the fundamental difference between consensus and alignment.

Alignment means we can be wrong on which route is easiest, fastest, or most cost-effective. We can then be flexible rather than having a “my way or the highway” stance. This, in turn, creates a graceful way to course correct, as needed.

In short, alignment is about the goal, not the strategy and certainly not the tactics.

Consensus sacrifices commitment for compliance

This line jumped out at me:

“Now more than ever, we need real commitment and real buy-in. If you go for mere consensus, you also get mere compliance. By contrast, alignment leads to ownership, commitment and buy-in.”

To me, commitment trumps compliance in nearly every situation.

Alignment requires self-awareness and candor

Self-awareness is perhaps the one factor that most enables a leader to create team alignment. There are all sorts of books and tools to help create self-awareness. But you might want to start with this quick, easy free one: The 4 Levels of Awareness as developed by Dr. David Daniels.

  1. Awareness
  2. Acceptance
  3. Action
  4. Adherence

It’s not easy. But it’s critical if we hope to achieve alignment with our teams.

Alignment is about mapping, communication, and trusting

A difference between consensus and alignment is that the former is often more of a one-time deal; it’s more of a “read and sign” or a “do as I say” approach. On the other hand, alignment is an ongoing process with a map firmly in hand.

As the old saying goes, the road to progress is always under construction. That means not only using better routes, but also, about good communication and trust.

Alignment is more likely to occur when the team has the fundamentals of good function. Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable is an excellent resource for recognizing and enhancing team function.

Creating that road map towards the destination takes insight and skill. The Power of Strategic Commitment by Leibner and colleagues provides some tools and techniques to use when we encounter opportunities for improvement in gaining such alignment.

In my experience, communication among team members — even those who are honest, helpful, and genuinely interested in making forward movement — have behaviors that can add to or subtract from trust. (Even silence communicates something — including mistrust.) Leibner’s book gives some good guidance on how to handle those behaviors.

Furthermore, trust is enhanced by candor. A good read through of Radical Candor can help us to role-model that quality.

Alignment starts with a few practical tips

How do we gain alignment (Infographic by author)

How do we gain alignment? I’ll try to paraphrase a few tips I got from Mader’s article:

  • Listen, and enable others to listen while only one person talks.
  • Admit when you’re wrong; role-model candor and accountability.
  • Build on someone’s idea, rather than tearing it down.
  • Take a stand, make choices, but invite back-and-forth “enrollment.”
  • Focus on alignment for the destination, not the route.

Alignment is enhanced by seeing roads to destinations

Remember, the difference between consensus and alignment is basically agreement on destination rather than route. However, the destination — the goal — is usually a long way off. For either leaders or team, it feels like driving a car in the pitch black of night under a thick fog.

Recently, I’ve tried to lift a little of that daily fog.

We’ve started each scrum meeting by showing teammates the “routes” they are moving through to get to the destination. Meaning, we start by quickly reviewing the goal and showing the projects that support the goal. Then, it logically follows that each task supports the project. (We use Asana which makes it easy to see these relationships.)

In essence, this approach hitches up the “where” (the vision or goal), the “who,” the “why” and the “how.”

The project and the tasks can be modified, or even deleted! If we find that the “route” isn’t working, we can then either modify how we’re doing it, or perhaps just ditch it completely. It opens to the door to taking a different route.

Studies show that repetition helps us believe in a claim. To gain alignment, then, team leaders can repeat the goal in context, which could help teammates believe that the goal is achievable through the projects and tasks.

Leaders focus on alignment

After wrestling with this question of the difference between consensus and alignment from the standpoint of a business person, I began to wonder if leaders who are not in business aim for one or the other.

Here’s what I realized.

A coach doesn’t wait for every player to agree on how to get the ball down the court. He focuses on making the basket.

The coxswain of a rowing team doesn’t get consensus on what the pace should be. He focuses on staying afloat and winning the race.

Moses didn’t try to gain consensus from the Israelites on going through the desert instead of trekking through enemy territory. Nor did he ask if they preferred to wait until dawn to start the journey. He focused on the goal — getting out of bondage.

As leaders, we need to facilitate scoring the points, staying afloat, freeing ourselves from corporate failure, and moving forward.

What your first step towards gaining alignment with your team?

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

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