January 28, 2023

Does the product team need consensus?

Olga Shavrina
The word "consensus" sounds like a positive thing, doesn't it? However, chasing consensus can hurt a product team in many ways. Even though it may sound like a comfortable setting, reaching a consensus can be exhausting, slow down the decision-making process, and lead to a lack of accountability and low engagement among team members.

Have you ever wondered why teams like hackathons so much? Because during the hackathon, you give zero shit about everyone else's opinion and can finally do what you've wanted to do for years. And the funny thing is, many hackathon ideas go live after the event (at least in our company), which means that teams can perfectly function and even flourish without a consensus.

The reason why product teams seek consensus so often, lies in a fear of making an error, and seeking confidence in logic – a thing that is hard to disagree on.

It feels safe to get forward when you have everyone's approval and your plan "sounds logical" to the team. But I would argue that this approach has pitfalls.

Why consensus is a bad thing?

It slows down or even paralyzes decision making
When team members can't agree, consensus becomes a roadblock. You either try to convince everyone or give up the idea. This can even lead to a situation when people stop bringing new ideas.
It leads to a lack of responsibility
If nobody is responsible for an outcome, the team's engagement goes down, and hence so does the overall performance.
It limits new ideas coming to life
You will inevitably find people on your team who think that a new idea won't work. But is it a reason not to try it?
It might hurt diversity
You just won't hire people who think differently or lose people who are tired of convincing everybody or constantly being discouraged from innovations.
It is unscalable
When the team grows, it becomes impossible to have everybody agree on anything. At some point, you inevitably need to change the paradigm if you want to go forward quickly.
It is an excuse to avoid leadership
It's very hard to grow in a team where consensus is expected behavior. To grow as a product leader you have to push forward ideas you believe are right, take risks, make mistakes, and learn instead of just doing what everybody thinks is right.
It's not necessary to agree on everything in order to move forward.
- Jeff Bezos

What's an alternative to consensus?

An alternative to consensus is ownership. If you (and your team) are responsible for dealing with a certain set of problems and own a part of a product, you should have the authority and mental right to make decisions in this field without everyone else agreeing with you.

A clear sense of ownership among team members leads to more efficient decision-making and better accountability for the outcome of those decisions.

It empowers the team greatly when they can make bold decisions, drive brave initiatives, and take responsibility for the outcome.

Is consensus all that bad?

Not always. And for the record, I don't call Anarchy :)

The best approach to decision-making in a product team depends on the stage of a company and the specific goals of the team.

When you are three guys in a garage creating a startup, you probably need a consensus so you all can run quickly in the same direction to ship your first MVP fast.

During the finding a product market fit stage it could be the opposite. Disrupt and try everything you can, iterate, test, make mistakes and learn. Seeking consensus at this stage can limit your evolution and you just won't get to the product that people love.
Consensus is not always the best way to make a decision. It's important to have a diversity of opinions and to be willing to challenge the status quo.
- Jyoti Bansal

When you are an established profitable business, perhaps you would like to have more consensus about changes in your core business, running disruptive R&D initiatives in parallel.

When you got a product market fit but still call yourself a "startup" (you are profitable and have good traction, but still way under 1000 people, have a lot to package and polish in the product, improve funnels and solve some child problems), you need to balance ownership and consensus.

I believe that at this stage you need to clearly separate high-level problems prioritisation from problems solution and treat them differently. Get to a consensus on what problems are the most important for the company and give people ownership, and responsibility to address these problems. Keep them accountable and support them with leadership.
In conclusion, consensus can be very dangerous for product teams as it can slow down decision-making and limit the emergence of new ideas. However, this does not mean that everyone on the team should act independently without any guidance. On the contrary, alignment on goals, key problems, and opportunities is crucial. Having a high-level alignment and giving team members ownership and responsibility can lead to a happier team, more efficient decision-making, and greater accountability for the outcome.
Subscribe to my newsletter
More essays for you
Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being