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Putting Consensus to Work in Powerfully Practical Ways

"How a Small Ann Arbor Company Used Consensus Decision-Making to Build a $50,000,000 Business"

Putting Consensus to Work in Powerfully Practical Ways

Maria Popova writes, “The history of the world is the history of telling others who and what we are—from tribal markings to national flags to family crests to pronoun-specifying email signatures.” How we choose to tell our stories—and what artifacts we choose to highlight—alters the way we hear our past, experience our present, and create our future. At Zingerman’s we have no flag, nor any sort of family crest, but we do have a whole host of deeply rooted beliefs, full-flavored foods, facts, philosophies, systems, and small seemingly insignificant symbols that ultimately come together to create what’s often called “the Zingerman’s story.”

Although it rarely comes up when other people give their version of who we are in articles or at dining room tables, consensus is a pretty significant part of what has made Zingerman’s what it is today. One day, it will get its due. I’m waiting, I realize now that I write this, for the headline that goes something like: “How A Small Ann Arbor Company Used Consensus Decision-Making to Build A $50,000,000 Business.” It’s an interesting, and I think, inspiring, story. Learning how, where, and when to use consensus appropriately and effectively is something that we’ve spent a fair bit of behind-the-scenes time on. Still, the story is almost never told.

Governance has been earning big headlines nationally of late, but in smaller businesses, the idea of formally organizing decision-making is rarely raised. Mostly, it’s ignored or taken for granted—we default to doing what we’ve always done. And yet, as the artist Jean-Francois Millet once said, “It is the treating of the commonplace with the feeling of the sublime that gives to art its true power.” If business is art, then it is an artistic expression to take time to put mindful creative effort into the design of processes that others acknowledge mostly as an afterthought. Consensus is an important element in the music we make here at Zingerman’s. What we have in our heads matters. Because as Peter Block writes, “Our consciousness is where the revolution begins.”

Most businesses begin with an informal “governance” that’s essentially a simple version of monarchy. The boss is akin to the king or queen. Most of us would opt to be benevolent monarchs, but the power still resides with the “royal family.” As we evolve and become more inclusive, many of us move into what’s called “consultative decision-making—the boss still holds the power but at least listens to what others have to say. For those who might want a more “democratic” path, most Americans will, understandably, propose voting. But my belief is that voting in our businesses is neither the only option we have to be more inclusive, nor is it necessarily the best. (To be clear, I am NOT saying I have a better way to run a country, and I absolutely cast my ballot this past week.) Voting seems “natural” to most of us, but mostly because here in the U.S. it’s how we grew up.

Consensus, by contrast, seems, at worst, kooky, and, at best, a quaint quirky way that Quakers and coops like to work. I used to say that consensus was counter intuitive. But now I don’t believe it is. It’s just not the way we were conditioned as kids. Unless you went to a very progressive grammar school or grew up in a coop or a Quaker community, consensus is probably an alien approach. But having spent the last 25 years working with it, I will say with confidence that anyone who’s interested can certainly learn it.  I don’t make any claims to be an expert.  I’m just a long time user and a big believer.

Maybe we can take a lesson, or at least a quiet reminder, about this from a rarely-considered message on our computers. If you look down at the lower left hand corner (at least on my well-worn Mac) keyboard you’ll see representations of the two most common forms of business leadership. “Command” is just to the left of the space bar. A couple keys over you’ll notice “Control.” In the middle though, there’s another key—“Option.” Many American organizations are still stuck with some version (often softer now than back in the ’60s) of Command and Control. But maybe that other, “Option” reminds us there are alternative ways to work. With that in mind, let me say a bit here about consensus and how we use it at Zingerman’s.

I’m pretty sure that it was Stas’ Kazmierski who first taught me about consensus. Sadly, Stas’ passed away three and half years ago, but his teachings about vision and Bottom-Line Change® (our organizational change process) are other essential elements of Zingerman’s. Stas’ is a story unto himself, but in the moment, I’ll say just that he was very much a quiet group-process guru, someone who altered our organizational life in hugely meaningful ways. With Stas’ influence, we began actively using the consensus model late in the year 1994, around the time we began to implement the then-newly-written Zingerman’s 2009 Vision. (Significantly, 1994 was when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the nation’s first integrated election, and also the year that peace accords in Northern Ireland were put in place. Maybe we can now say it was a turning point in the modern history of collaboration and coming together.) The six-page long 2009 vision write up (it’s in the back of Part 1) described a Community of Businesses, all located here in the Ann Arbor area. Each would be a Zingerman’s business but would still have its own unique specialty. All would work collaboratively, as a single, synergistic, interconnected organization with semi-autonomous businesses within it. The vision called for having managing partners in each business.

Back then the managing partners always held a minority share in the business (that’s changed today but, I’ll save that for another story). Which posed a concern raised: “Why would anyone want to come into a business to be the managing partner if you and Paul can just outvote them any time they don’t agree with you?” It was a fair question. We proposed to get past this power imbalance by committing, in advance, to using consensus. Since Paul and I had always worked as equals, we decided to simply carry that forward. “You may only own 20 percent of the business,” we offered, “but we’re going to use the consensus process at the partner-level, so you have the same say in decisions we do.” It was, I believe, a better way to go for all involved. As 19th century anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus wrote, “Between equals, the task is more difficult but also more exalted.” Yes, legally we still held more authority. But in practice, we wouldn’t—other than in an all-out extreme (which still hasn’t happened)—use it. (For clarity, consensus at the partner level inside a business is implicit. The partners don’t call me or Paul to ask permission to raise a price or roll out a new product. But as Maggie Bayless, [Founder of] of ZingTrain says, “If I felt like in my gut that either Paul or Ari wasn’t going to like what I was doing, then I knew I’d better pick up the phone and talk to them about it before I did it.)

That move, alone, was a lot. But then we put forward a second, maybe even more radical, proposal. We would govern the entire Zingerman’s Community—not by fiat of the founders, but by consensus of all the managing partners, plus me and Paul. We called it the Partners Group. Back in 1994 I think there were five people in the group. Today there are something like 22. It remains, 26 years later, the place where big organization-wide decisions are made to this day. Six years ago, we added the Staff Partners as formal members of the group as well. We do not, it’s important to say, make every business decision at the Partners Group. To the contrary, 95 percent of what we decide is done in the businesses. The price of bibimbob at Miss Kim—to name one of a million examples—would be made locally, at the business level.

One of the keys to this conversation—which I talked about more in “Bottom-Line Change”—is mindfully (and probably better still, systemically) matching the right decision style to the situation. On rare occasions (mostly emergencies) there’s a place for command decisions. But the vast majority of our daily decisions are made consultatively. One cultural benefit that we’ve gotten from using consensus for so long is that a lot of the consultative decisions we make actually play out in practice as if they are consensus—people are learning how to work together and learn from each other to get to an agreement; people want to voice their views; leaders are generally willing and ready to adapt their original ideas to incorporate input from the group. It’s a whole lot nicer—and more effective—way to work than the usual method of quick command and (the illusion of) control. But BIG decisions like opening a new ZCoB business, approving a new partner, changing organization-wide benefits, how to respond to randomly occurring pandemics, etc. would be made at the Partners Group. Because we use consensus, each new managing partner joins the group having as big a formal say in how the organization runs as Paul or I have.

When we started this, we also proposed that when partners made these sorts of decisions at the Partners Group level, we would commit to always acting in the best interest of the whole organization, even if that decision was NOT the best decision for the partner’s own business. While you could and should share your thoughts, beliefs, concerns, and questions during a meeting from any number of different angles—including sharing what you believe the impact of a decision might be on what you do there every day—in the end, our commitment was to always make those decisions with the Community of Businesses’ best interests in mind. (That’s correct—you don’t decide based on your own self-interest!)

What does that really mean in practice? At Zingerman’s we say that we’ve reached consensus when:

Each individual in the group is at least 80 percent satisfied with the wording of a decision or statement, and will actively support it 100 percent and live by the decision.

Some group members may be enthusiastic about a particular proposal, while others are indifferent but still willing to move forward. But all of us make a conscious and overt choice to commit to making whatever we decide in this way into an effective reality. I agree with anarchist anthropologist David Graeber who said, “Consensus is not a set of rules. It’s a set of principles.” Because everyone has the same formal say, it radically alters—I believe for the better—the power equation in the group. One of the first group of staff partners and now the GM at the Coffee Company, Matthew Bodary shares:

During a time in this country where currents of division and polarization seem especially strong, choosing to use consensus in a group is the ultimate commitment to working through difference. With consensus, you don’t move forward unless you move together. That can mean you don’t go where you want to go as fast as you want to. It will often mean you don’t get everything you want. But when it works, you have full confidence the group is moving as a whole, with all of its members committed to the path they each agreed to.

Misconceptions of consensus decision-making are all too common. Margaret Thatcher once declared that, “Consensus is the absence of leadership.” I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Working with consensus actually demands more effective leadership. It requires resilience. It calls for the kind of caring commitment to the growth of the community and of others; to consciously try to keep ego from taking over the organizational ecosystem. Committing to consensus has challenged me to grow (ever imperfectly) as a leader in ways that would never have come up had Paul and I simply stayed on as a couple of benevolent, caring, and compassionate “kings.”

To be clear, we don’t all have to love the content of the decision in order to have consensus around it. There are always conflicting needs, desires, and outcomes at play that can make it hard to decide. There have definitely been times when a proposal is presented at Partner’s Group that I’m not wholly wild about but I support it anyways because I feel like it’s more important to support the developing leadership work of those who proposed it (remember—the leader’s job is to develop leaders), and/or it’s more important to make a decision and get moving than it is for me to keep the conversation going or to have my way. Although I may not like the content of the proposal all that much, if it doesn’t seem to cause a significant strategic gaffe or an ethical shortfall then I try to get behind it.

One thing that’s critical to using consensus decision-making is effective facilitation work. We’re fortunate to have a really skilled group of in-house facilitators (they all have other primary jobs—this is just their side gig) who do really strong work to keep us on task and using good processes. Elph Morgan, our IT director, has studied consensus for years and I feel fortunate to have his expertise to benefit from! While command and control require only a boss who’s willing to give orders, consensus requires a whole lot more rigor. It also flips the dramatic script that groups go through. In an electoral system, as we’re all painfully aware right now, the drama is on the voting. “Command decision making” generally means the drama will come after a decision is announced (like “whoa, why the heck are we doing that?!!). With a consensus process, the conversations—which may still be challenging—are happening before, and during a decision-making meeting. In a well facilitated meeting, by the time we call for a decision, there’s little drama. We know who stands where. And afterwards? It’s usually calm, since there’s rarely a need for an emotional “meeting after the meeting.”

Does consensus always work well? No system is human-proof. Consensus can’t totally keep us from being passive aggressive. It won’t stop us from “committing” to something but later acting like “it’s not our job.” (See page 78 of Part 4 for one short story of how that once happened.)

Is it scary? For me it is. Or at least, was. Agreeing to stop using those “command” and “control” buttons isn’t easy after a lifetime of looking to them as our first and best options.

Does consensus take too long? Sometimes, you could say it does. Though, to Maria Popova’s well-taken point above, if you shift the entry point of the story, you could better say that command decisions are far too often made too quickly. Believe me, I can be really impatient when others don’t see what I see. Forcing things to happen relieves my own pressure but almost always increases the difficulty of—or even prevents—actual implementation. As Emma Goldman said, “ You cannot force or impose a revolution.”

Do I like it when people say “no” to something I’ve suggested? No! In the moment, it may feel frustrating. But in the long run, I will argue adamantly, when it’s well done, consensus decision-making helps all of us grow. What if we can’t come to consensus? Here’s what we have in our protocols:

The PG is committed to keep “coming to the table” to reach consensus. We are also committed to entertain and listen to other points of view and to allow additional time for those with alternate proposals to bring them to a future, agreed-upon meeting. It is the responsibility of those with an alternate proposal to present their view in a timely fashion. If the new proposal is unwelcome in the group, and consensus is not reached, then we return to the original proposal and ask that the folks with the dissenting opinion buy in.

The hard truth is that if any of us feel so strongly in opposition to a proposal, while everyone else is in favor of it, we retain the option of opting out of the organization. There have been times where, to be totally honest, I grew gravely concerned I might make a decision to leave the organization. There was a chance, I could see, that the rest of the Partners Group was going to align in a direction that, while not strategically “wrong” from a business sense, went against some of my strongly-held personal beliefs. Clearly, I didn’t leave. We found ways in all those instances for most of us to get most of what we wanted without completely undercutting the others. Having free choice is a fundamental part of the consensus process. Under pressure, with good facilitation, shared values, and a commitment to coming to some creative win-win outcome, we can almost always come up with inventive, previously unthought-of ideas.

What’s the upside? We get better outcomes. We learn to act as peers, not as parents or children. We model the equity we say we want in society. While awkward, and at times even annoying, the conversations lead us to be better listeners. We reward collaboration and innovation. We drive ourselves towards humility. With consensus, the system is congruent with reality—we’re all in this together. And as Peter Block says, “Each person is responsible for outcomes and the current situation. . . . The outcomes and quality of cooperation . . . are everyone’s responsibility.”

Whether consensus is right for some element of your organization, I can’t say. What I can say is that it’s been hugely helpful for us. It is, I know, not the way most businesses do it. We can keep using the same old ways we all learned as kids, but I don’t believe, in many cases, they work all that well. As Wendell Berry writes, “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.” I believe that consensus decision-making is one way to make that happen. Used well, it brings others into the conversation, helps to balance the power, diminishes destructive behavior, encourages creativity, pushes us to listen better, and to sit quietly longer and learn from others about other ways to work. Ways that on our own, we quite simply will never come up with. Without it, the Zingerman’s story would surely be a lot different.

PS: If you want to read more about the consensus process, Elph recommends this as a good starting point. Great Meetings! Great Results! by Pam Plumb and Dee Kelsey

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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