Federal agencies are learning consensus can lead to efficiency


Here's a bit of good news coming out of Washington: The federal government may not be good at spending our money wisely, but at least some of its agencies are learning to spend time effectively.

"We started training in consensus building about a year and a half ago. Lots of other agencies use it, too," says Naomi Marr, director of regional operations for the Administration for Children and Families. "It's one of the best modern-management practices I've found."

Consensus building, or as some call it, "coming into alignment," is the process of getting everyone who will participate in a project to agree on the project's goal and then how and when it will be achieved. It requires a time commitment up front that many government and private-sector employees are not accustomed to making. And therein lies the rub.

Some staff members recently trained in the method have been heard grumbling after using it that it takes far too long. Their complaints are not uncommon for those first exposed to the process.

"It's very different from the old ways of decision making," says Ms. Marr, who has experienced both forms of management in her decade of public service. She says previous to using consensus building, one person or organization would propose a project and say, "Here's how we're going to do it." Then everyone else involved would spend hours, days, months jTC defending their particular piece of turf, position or point of view. Either no decision would be made, or it would be mandated and those who didn't buy into the idea would not implement it properly -- or at all.

"If you ask me how much time consensus building saves, I'd say it saves endless time," says Ms. Marr. "If nothing gets done or if the desired results aren't achieved, you've spent a lot of time for nothing."

Jolie Pilsbury, a Newton, Mass.-based consultant who trains executives in the ways of coming into alignment, says, "I've seen organizations where there's limited participation in decision making. They would get decisions fast and they looked clear and neat. But there would be enormous difficulty getting them implemented. The staff or the people in the community charged with implementation would say, 'What do these decisions mean? I don't agree with them.' There would be lots of discussion and problem solving after the decision was made. It could actually take longer to get results."

Ms. Pilsbury's "alignment" method takes time up front to get participants to commit to a plan they can support. "They don't have to totally agree with it, they just have to know that they can live with it," she says.

To get to that point requires not only time, but skills that many American workers are not used to using. "Most of us are trained to be like a lawyer, to make our case and argue it, to get others to agree that we're right. And in many organizations, people do not use their creativity. They're used to following rules, doing tasks," says Ms. Pilsbury.

To get consensus, Ms. Pilsbury says the participants must meet. Anyone can make a proposal for getting the group to the stated goal. Several proposals may be offered. Participants are not allowed to say, "I don't agree." Instead, they must build on or suggest amendments to the proposals until they form one that all can commit to and ultimately implement.

Ms. Marr says, "We work from and build on our points of interest rather than from our points of divergence. This is the opposite of what we usually do." She notes an example: "I have gone weeks and weeks negotiating with labor unions on a single point. We have this position, they have that position." But by using consensus-building skills, she concluded a recent negotiation in a day. "By coming together and putting our points of interest on the table, we discovered we have the same interest, but we were wording it differently. We were both interested in developing employees' professional skills, so we decided on the joint training of employees. It was amazing. We could have been hassling for months over this."


Have you developed a time-saving technique you think could help others? We'd like to hear about it. We will share reader tips and offer some solutions to your professional, home or leisure time-management problems. Please leave your name, city of residence and daytime phone number when you call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6220 after you hear the greeting.

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