Why You Don’t Need My Input: Collaboration v. Consensus

Collaboration is in vogue today. It’s a favorite theme for how to be a great leader and in how to solve most business problems. I’ve always tried to be collaborative and inclusive – even in situations when it probably wasn’t necessary.

A few years ago I shared my well-researched options along with the pros & cons of each to the leadership team. I had to work at it, but I received some useful feedback. We eventually landed on a decision. I felt good – everyone was involved and had been heard!

As I left the meeting a more senior leader offered a coaching tip I still remember today. He said, “You know, not every topic needs a discussion or input. We trust you know what you are doing. So, it’s ok to share your plan and if anyone has input or disagrees – they can speak up.” This moment, early in my career, helped me understand that collaboration – much less consensus – isn’t always required. And, not only that, it may not be necessary at all.

Collaboration – much less consensus – isn’t always required. And, not only that, it may not be necessary at all.

Before you decide to go your own way or start collaborating – know what your situation requires. Be strategic on how to reach the outcome you need.

Consider these three paths for how to reach a resolution:

Just do it. (Input optional)

This works best when there is limited impact or the path forward is pretty clear. And, most will be ok with how it gets done – as long as it gets done. Maybe a similar issue was addressed recently or the business direction makes the decision pretty obvious or straightforward.

In this situation, share your plans and, only if necessary, let others know they are welcome to give input within a set timeframe. Either way, you keep moving forward. This approach keeps the input accountability on others and doesn’t slow you down.

Not as much personal engagement is required. More general communication is typically enough.

Of course, be sure that the situation actually meets the ‘not an A priority’ criteria. If you aren’t sure – get some advice.


Collaboration is essential when the issue is complex and best solved by engaging multiple people or teams. Ideas are needed and a fresh perspective will bring new answers. Collaboration is also essential when buy-in, participation, and engagement create the commitment needed for change.

A client recently changed their business strategy and it affected almost everything – their customers, their business results and how work was done. While the senior leaders had defined a strategy, there was a debate on how it should be implemented. We advised them that given the broad impact of their change engaging others would directly influence a successful implementation. They created working groups not to decide the change, but to make sure the change was implemented in a way that would actually work. This approach helped them anticipate problems and more people became committed to the change simultaneously.

Collaboration isn’t solely organic – it takes plans and structure. Successful collaboration requires a facilitated process with:

  • clear intent and outcomes
  • guardrails that define the boundaries and the time requirements
  • tools and other enablers if ongoing
  • clear “governance” for how decisions will be made so that collaboration doesn’t get stuck
  • focus so that collaboration is used to address issues that need resolution – not a topic that has already been decided

According to Morten Hansen’s recent study from the University of California at Berkeley, “to be disciplined about collaboration is to say “no” to the wrong opportunities, select those few that produce compelling value, and then go all in to make those a success.”


A consensus is a unanimous agreement. As Seth Godin puts it, “Nothing is what happens when everyone has to agree.” Consensus often delivers the least common denominator or the option that everyone hated the least.

“Nothing is what happens when everyone has to agree.” … Seth Godin

Very few situations actually require a true consensus.

A consensus is best pursued on an issue that comparably impacts everyone in the group. It must also be declared upfront that consensus is required and time will be taken to meet that objective.

A consensus is part of our civic responsibility, as many juries are required to reach a unanimous verdict. I worked in a management consulting firm that expected consensus on big promotions. A lack of consensus meant that the promotion didn’t happen and everyone understood that was how the process worked.

Yet, a required consensus is rare and takes a clear process for how it will be reached. On our strategy or design projects that require complete leadership team alignment, we determine where there is already agreement so that energy is spent on issues with diverse views. But, even when a true leadership consensus is aspirational – a final decision maker or tiebreaker is in the room.

What is your situation? Be strategic. Know what is required before you begin. Know whether you can just do it with an FYI, if collaboration with others is needed, or even a true consensus is needed. Each option requires a different game plan with unique communications, discussions and time requirements.

Get this right and you can be what we all aspire to be — the collaborator that engages others on the right things, uses time wisely and gets a lot of stuff done.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults. @pattibjohnson @people_results