Most organizations are not democracies. Some are flatter or more hierarchical than others, but almost all reserve certain decisions to a small group — managers or leaders. In a multi-stakeholder collaboration, though, is this also true? Many people seem to think the typical norms for decision making go out the window; that all decisions become consensus-based or require unanimity or near unanimity. Not so.

“Governance” is a fancy word for decision-making. The governance methods and processes a multi-stakeholder collaboration chooses to adopt, either formally or informally, codify how it will make decisions. You can choose for your collaboration to make decisions by consensus or unanimously, but you don’t have to. The principle difference between decision-making in a multi-stakeholder collaboration and a typical organization lies in the need to create these rules and periodically revisit them.

When most of us join an organization, the decision-making rules and norms already exist. Even if we never see an employee manual, we pick them up “in the air” from our colleagues. Hierarchies either naturally form, are communicated through social cues, or we learn them through formal induction, e.g., during employee orientation.

Multi-stakeholder collaborations, in contrast, need to undergo their own version of a Constitutional Convention. When the United States of America formed, each of the then-colonies considered themselves independent, sovereign peers. At the Convention they chose to give up some of their independence and sovereignty to a central government on a limited set of topics and agreed to abide by a set of rules concerning those topics as written the Constitution. They also agreed to reserve to themselves all decision-making not explicitly ceded to the central government. The same is true for multi-stakeholder collaborations: the organizations that form them consider themselves sovereign peers and reserve their freedom to operate and make decisions in every other aspect of their existence.

Now, not every collaboration needs an elaborate document. But they all need some set of established and acknowledged set of decision-making norms, which most often will result in the creation of decision-making cadre (e.g., governing boards, collaboration leaders, working groups and chairs, etc). In addition, as the collaboration grows or the people involved turn over, new people coming in will need to receive induction into the agreed upon decision-making rules and processes. Unlike the United States, which inducted its last member over a half-century ago, multi-stakeholder collaborations may need to induct new members every month.

Collaboration does not necessarily mean consensus. Effective collaborations, in fact, have very efficient decision-making processes and strong leadership.