Consensus building isn’t about everyone getting their way

Allison Vail – One Comment

Can’t we all just agree? More often than not, the answer is no. The business world isn’t a Smurf village where everyone dresses the same and shares cooperatively based on what she or he has to offer. Work environments are fraught with diversity, varying skills, experiences, job titles, personal preferences, and communication barriers. It’s sometimes a wonder how anything gets agreed upon and done. Consensus is an even greater issue even amongst highly professional groups where every voice potentially has equal weight.

The importance of having a consensus based process cannot be overstated. In fact, how to get consensus, especially around topics like corporate identity, naming and branding, is a question we are asked often by clients, by audiences at conferences and by others in the industry. It’s a sticking point for people because it’s so crucial and so difficult to achieve.

Consensus is a bit of a myth. It isn’t the same as everyone getting their own way, creatively or otherwise. Consensus during a branding process or while developing a corporate identity is about gathering all the points of view from different stakeholders, getting a sense of the overall direction and then distilling the research into something meaningful that the project owners can sign off on. Sometimes this means setting aside some opinions in favour of a bold and authentic brand strategy and identity that the majority can believe in and support. Very often, our presence as objective partners is just the catalyst that is needed to get past conflicting points of view.

As facilitators, knowing when to back down, and when to push for something greater requires insight into the individuals’ motivation, and keeping the group focused on objectivity in the service of attaining the goals established at the outset. Collaboration and consensus building can lead to numerous compromises if allowed to run rampant. When taken individually none of these compromises seem like a big deal, but collectively they can amount to a significant deviation from the intended solution during the branding process.

Objectivity is one thing, yet we do require organizational credibility that comes from being in the thick of a business to get everyone to a place where they feel comfortable enough to agree on naming or a corporate identity.

To achieve this, we listen—and listen broadly. Listening takes many forms and involves a lot of people, platforms and perspectives. We meet with a business’s key partners or founders, but we also question a cross section of staff. Sometimes this is in person, on the phone or via email surveys. This enables people to communicate verbally or in writing.

We take this information, digest it and analyze it to show that we have listened, learned and have the knowledge to lead with credibility through the rest of the branding and strategy process. Taking the time to learn shows that we understand the specific business and organization.

Another area we explore is a brand audit where we find out what clients and vendors have to say about your firm. They have valuable, alternate insights into what a company or organization is all about and often can provide surprisingly unbiased feedback. We ask a lot of questions, but we also make sure that our questions are well crafted to elicit useful information. Out of this we begin to see themes and patterns which lead to logical conclusions based on the information gathered from the group. In this way, we can show where the group already agrees and start to reveal the gaps.

Sharing what we’ve heard early on (during a brand audit, for example) often starts to pave the road to consensus because everyone can see the data and what the group supports already. It helps get everyone on the same page early on and prevents surprises later.

All of the above falls into the two primary phases of our strategic branding process. In our initial phase, we research, compile information and share our findings. This phase challenges and validates the reasons we were hired, and allows us to make more strategic, informed recommendations for everything that comes next. Only then do we move into the next phase where we start to determine strategic brand messaging, tone, style and brand asset needs.

Design and strategy work shouldn’t be a mystery for the clients paying for it. It’s sort of like your medical records—it’s research and information about you. Your branding process belongs to you. However, our analysis of that information and what should be done with it is what makes the brand information valuable. Nonetheless, we don’t go for the big reveal when the work is done and the budget long gone. Instead, we share our findings with you in phases so you know what we’re doing and where we are going.

Show early, show often. We take an incremental, collaborative approach that lets us get a reading early on and rapidly change direction if the feedback says we’re going the wrong way. This applies to naming, brand strategy, and especially creative work. In fact, it’s vital that written strategic direction is generally agreed upon with the group before any creative work commences. Why? It’s too easy for individuals to bring back subjective opinion when it comes to visual work. So, we use tools like visual models, moodboards, style tiles and prototyping to explore and navigate with groups through the process.

As we continue to move forward towards execution, our favourite question is “Why?” Why are we pursuing a certain brand tone or approach? Why are we recommending a particular colour palette? We make sure the answer is backed up by the research and experience that supports it. This makes certain corporate identity pieces decisions a logical, easy choice.

Nonetheless, consensus can be elusive if a small number of people dig their heels in around their own points of view or preferences. While our goal is always to present choices everyone can support,  occasionally, someone may hold out because they are not partial to the options in front of them. Moving forward requires the leadership team to outline the opportunity and financial cost of not making a decision. Consensus is a weighted majority in this case, and there is nothing inherently wrong with the leadership or the ownership team pushing forward when the process is stuck and costing time and money.

Even if an individual doesn’t get their way, having had their say is an important part of the consensus building process. If a well researched plan with a logical, solid foundation is followed, goals are met and greatness follows. It’s not glamourous, but it works.

By breaking down the  branding process into these smaller pieces we generate buy-in from the start and sustain it incrementally throughout the decision making process. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same can be said for getting consensus.