Building consensus in engineering

28 March 2021

An inefficient meeting taught me a lesson about leadership and building consensus. There was a change I wanted multiple other teams to adopt. The mechanism to get multi-team changes approved was a regular meeting with other team leads for approval. If all went well you would get a vote to accept your change, and the hard work would be behind you.

Often this process did not go well. New changes were met with some resistance, clarification, valid concerns, and alternatives. While the discussion is good, many voices in the room combined with a time constraint and multiple topics meant it was unlikely my change would have enough time to get a consensus.

A strategy I discovered accidentally was called Nemawashi, one of the pillars of the Toyota Production System. Two components to this helped me build consensus, involving others before the decision and writing it down.

Firstly, knowing questions would come up in the meeting I made a point to find 1-1 time with each person who would be present. The idea was to find and address their questions before the meeting. This would save precious meeting minutes and reduce the pressure of debate in front of a larger group. An additional benefit to this was that if they had valid ideas or concerns, I would have time to think through or incorporate those ideas before joining the meeting,

Secondly, writing it down. Before getting time with anyone, I wrote down my change as a draft proposal. Meeting with each person I was able to share the working draft to get their input. The immediate advantage with this approach was to get edits directly to the draft, reducing my work required to make it the final copy. A less obvious advantage to this was increasing engagement by getting others to be directly involved in the work.

Combining both of these had a dramatic impact on the meeting. The challenging part of building consensus during the meeting had already happened before the meeting. Questions were answered and each person was already familiar with the proposal, having seen it before. Instead of a challenging debate, it was just a confirmation my pre-work was complete.

The Nemawashi concept is to involve others in decisions before presenting them formally. While I had read about this earlier, it didn’t click that this could refer to the many little meetings before the big meeting. Instead of seeing the big meeting as the place where consensus was built, I started seeing all the small interactions to build consensus outside that meeting.