The Dangers of Collaboration and Consensus

Reclaim the true meanings of these terms to avoid power dynamics and politics.

September 3, 2015

Admit it. There are times when collaboration is a dirty word. When you are tired of soliciting input. When achieving consensus feels more like defeat.

With its centuries-old tradition of shared governance, academia places tremendous value on consensus and collaboration. Conceptually, these are shared ideals that strengthen communities and improve outcomes. In practice, they often fall short. Deliberation substitutes for action; dialogue for results.

As marketing professionals, we are inherently future-focused. We analyze trends, adopt new channels, and identify opportunities to position organizations for success in an evolving marketplace. At our best, we are agents of change.

But despite the fact that academia generally espouses progressive values, most universities are quite conservative when it comes to the business of higher education. Consequently, consensus is risk-averse and defaults to the status quo.

The inherent – and arguably constructive – tension between marketers and academics is due in part to the conflict between the known and the unknown. Using collaboration effectively, this tension can produce good results.

However, given the relative newness of marketing as a strategic function in college administrations, the power dynamics of university politics frequently prevent true collaboration. I often observe the definitions of collaboration and consensus being distorted to protect entrenched interests. Consensus is achieved when all stakeholders are satisfied, regardless of poor quality and limited ROI. Collaboration is considered effective when everyone’s opinions are accommodated, even at the expense of the end result. When marketers advocate strongly for an alternative point of view, we are labeled as uncollaborative.

In such an environment, how do we reclaim the true meaning of these terms and establish genuine partnerships with our colleagues? Here are a few ideas for consideration:

1. Set the ground rules. As noted, one challenge with collaboration and consensus is the lack of a common definition. To counteract this, schedule time with key stakeholder groups to facilitate a dialogue about the meaning of collaboration in the context of your work together. Be specific. What steps in the process are intended to foster collaboration? How are disagreements resolved? Who has final authority over what? With a shared understanding of the collaborative process, it is easier to avoid the pitfalls of personality politics and hidden agendas.

2. Establish clear timelines. One byproduct of consensus culture is a lack of urgency. When greater value is placed on process than outcome, projects become mired in endless rounds of review. To avoid consensus paralysis, start each project by working with stakeholders to develop the production schedule together. Identify who is responsible for meeting each milestone, and agree in advance on exactly when and how feedback will be provided. When the process itself is the result of collaboration, stakeholders are more likely to stick to the schedule.

3. Share the research. Gathering data isn’t sufficient; you need to use it. And if, in the end, the data doesn’t support stakeholders’ perspectives, they will challenge the methodology and stall progress. Instead, invite them into the research process from the beginning. When engaged along the way, stakeholders are predisposed to accept the results.

4. Create a culture of comfort with discomfort. Marketing is a discipline defined by change, and with change comes anxiety. Unfortunately, anxiety often manifests itself in intransigence. Mitigate this by creating a safe space where stakeholders feel comfortable expressing their fears and engaging in an honest dialogue. Over time, such a climate of trust will allow more freedom to experiment.

None of these ideas is groundbreaking, but with consistent practice they can improve the collaborative process, ease the journey to consensus, and put the marketing professionals back in the driver’s seat, ultimately leading to better results.

Jeremy Thompson serves as assistant vice president for marketing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.


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