Management Lessons From the Anarchists

The Occupy Wall Street protests (which we first explored last month) have endured for much longer than many observers considered likely, and a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek took a look at some of the tactics that have come to define the movement.

Among the most important, Businessweek noted, has been the rise of what are called general assemblies.  “A ‘GA’ is a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made—not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but by consensus,” the magazine reported. “Unresolved questions are referred to working groups within the assembly, but eventually everyone has to agree, even in assemblies that swell into the thousands.”

Peter Drucker wrote a lot about consensus, both its costs and benefits. And in times of immediate danger, he believed, seeking out painstaking agreement is an unaffordable luxury. “In a situation of common peril,” Drucker wrote in Management Challenges for the 21st Century, “survival of all depends on clear command. If the ship goes down, the captain does not call a meeting, the captain gives an order.”

[EXPAND More]But Drucker also pointed out that consensus has been important to the health of many organizations. “Surely no more perfect example of the autocratic personality exists than the head of a big Japanese organization, whether government agency or business,” Drucker wrote in Toward the Next Economics. “Yet decision making is by consensus and participation, and starts at the bottom rather than at the top.”

At the same time, this “expression of a general will” in a traditional Japanese organization should not be mistaken for complete unanimity on the final decision. “The Japanese do not make decisions by consensus, rather they deliberate by consensus,” Drucker explained. “Then a decision can be reached which the organization understands, even though large groups within it do not necessarily agree or would have preferred a different decision. 

Indeed, as we’ve discussed, Drucker felt that to reach any good decision, it requires healthy debate. “Effective decision-makers . . . create dissension and disagreement rather than consensus,” Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive.

That seems to be the case for Occupy Wall Street, where the quest for consensus “can be an arduous process,” in the words of Businessweek. That’s a quality Drucker would have admired.

Where have you seen the quest for consensus work—or not work—in your organization? [/EXPAND]