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An Argument Against Consensus

“I just can’t get my partners to change.”

“Everything’s ready for the roll-out of our marketing plan, but Roger the Traditionalist is dead-set against it.”

“We spent a fortune on a new logo and letterhead, but I can’t get anybody to use it.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because yours is consensus-building management style. You want everyone to agree with the majority of your decisions. I can understand how good that would feel, but I have found it slows business development progress. Many lawyers and accountants suffer from a tradition-bound view of marketing as unprofessional. Some of those same people have either senior status or personal rainmaking power; and they carry big sticks in their firms. And there are those who just don’t want change under any circumstances.

I have learned that trying to change people’s minds about certain things is wasted time and effort – time that could be better spent working with people who want to venture out and try new things in spite of the risks and, yes, the possibility of failure. Working with the willing can be very productive and is always rewarding. My challenge is to help firm leaders understand this concept and implement it.

Seems to me that leadership decisions fall into two major categories: operational and strategic. Strategic issues center around where the firm is going and how it will get there, who will lead the efforts, who gets admitted to partnership, how partners are compensated, and the like. Certainly you will want hear a chorus of agreement on such major questions.

Many leadership decisions, though, fall into the operational category, and here’s where consensus gets tricky. Decisions over logos, letterheads, ad campaigns, and other marketing initiatives are operational, and should fall within the purview of marketing professionals and a small core of decision-makers within the firm. The smartest firms seek input from the general body politic at the research and development stage of any project, incorporating that input into any final outcome.

You would think such decisions would be easily made, as they have little effect on the real day to day practice of a profession. Not! We have all experienced the visceral responses these seemingly innocuous efforts can ignite. Someone once said that politics generally become most petty over the most petty issues. I’ll bet you’ve seen the same in your firm. After 15 years of working with lawyers and accountants, it still surprises me.

So what’s the solution? I think it involves a certain plodding-yet-optimistic approach to change. Rather than trying to get full acceptance of and agreement to new undertakings all at once, it makes more sense to do the following:

For example, let’s say you are introducing a new logo. Here’s what you might do:

  1. Create a core group that reflects all the diversities: philosophy, age, gender, and race. Ask them to undertake the details of the project.
  2. Give everyone in the firm the opportunity to share their thoughts before anything is designed regarding what they ‘d like to see. Use as much of that input as you possibly can in the design process.
  3. When your new logo is complete, introduce it to your partners, emphasizing that it is based on their input.
  4. Allow all dissenters to speak their mind, and acknowledge their view, but don’t get into a test of wits. It’s a waste of time, because you won’t change their minds and they aren’t going to like the outcome no matter what. It’s just human nature.
  5. Tell everyone that this new logo represents your firm and you strongly recommend they use it and all collaterals associated with it.
  6. Now, leave the issue alone. Just start using the logo yourself, and make sure your allies do the same. Don’t talk about it anymore, and don’t try to strong-arm people into using it. Most of them will come around in due course, particularly after they hear colleagues say how much their clients like the new logo. Some of your co-workers never will change their minds, and that needs to be just fine. This is one time when you need to move on in spite of your marketing director’s exhortations about confusing the marketplace with dual or even multiple messages. She’s right, of course, but in the scheme of things the more important effort is to just keep going.

As long as professional services firms operate on essentially a one-person-one-vote model, these kinds of disagreements will always arise. Let them do so, and then move on with your program in spite of the disagreements. Let go of the need to have everyone agree on everything about operational issues; it isn’t going to happen. Your firm can keep moving forward in spite of glacial changers, and you will keep more of your hair in the process.

And to those of you who are the glacial changers, I would like to share with you my favorite Chinese proverb: Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009