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A Theory of Consensus


Harry Nathan Gottlieb

Life and Death Decision Making

On October 16, 1962, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy showed President John F. Kennedy photographic evidence taken from U2 spy planes that the Soviet Union was building a nuclear missile base on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. That night, Kennedy convened a team of advisors to develop options for responding to the crisis. Their shared goal was to avert nuclear war and, ideally, get those missiles out of Cuba. Initially, the team proposed six approaches: diplomatic pressure on the Soviets, a secret bargain with Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro, a full-scale invasion, a surgical airstrike, a blockade that would quarantine the island, or do nothing at all.

Kennedy’s team methodically reviewed the pros and cons of each option, gaming out the potential Soviet response to each one. They eliminated what they decided were the weakest options first until they were down to three: an invasion, air strike, or quarantine.

Kennedy then assigned teams to explore each of those three options in depth. Those teams, however, were not competing. No team was out to win, to prove that THEIR team’s approach was best. No, everyone had a shared goal: get the missiles off Cuba and avert a nuclear war. And their best chance for success meant giving Kennedy, the decision-maker, the best plans of action possible, with all the pros and cons of each.

Soon, Kennedy had narrowed the options down to two: the airstrike or the quarantine. Neither approach was fool-proof, either one could trigger a nuclear war.

After even more deliberation, the options narrowed to one: Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of the island. The U.S. Navy moved heavy cruisers, destroyers and the aircraft carrier Essex into positions around Cuba. Six tense days later, the Soviet Union backed down and removed the missiles. The highly rational, open-minded, methodical decision making of Kennedy and his team avoided a nuclear catastrophe that could have killed one-third of humanity.

It is now nearly sixty years later. Harvard and other business schools still use Kennedy’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis as a definitive case study in solid decision making.

How Could We Make Decisions Like Kennedy During the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Now, I am not telling this story to suggest that our elected leaders could suddenly stop operating as politicians and start operating purely as rational, open-minded, methodical decision-makers. Consider the thicket of interests politicians have to weave through: donors, parties, special interest groups, political opponents, and critics in the media. There are so many forces acting on politicians that push them away from rational, open-minded, methodical decision making, and toward politically calculated decision making.

But regular American citizens, who do not need to get re-elected, do not have to contend with all those political forces. If we wanted a multitude of Americans (hundreds of thousands, or even millions) to participate in a rational, open-minded, methodical decision-making process like Kennedy and his team AND arrive at a consensus…what would it look like? What would we need?

We Would Need: A Shared Goal As A Nation

To begin, we’d need to identify a shared goal as a nation. For Kennedy’s team, the shared goal was removing the missiles and avoiding nuclear war.  For Americans today, it might be reducing violence in America, providing high quality, affordable healthcare to all Americans, protecting critical infrastructure around the country from decay and sabotage…the list goes on. We could focus on any of those goals or others.

We Would Need: To Establish the Facts on the Ground

Like Kennedy seeing evidence from the U-2 spy plane showing the location of the missile sites on Cuba, to solve a national problem we’d need to establish the facts on the ground as they exist today. If we’re focused on reducing violence, for example, we’d look at the data on the many forms of violence suffered in America: child abuse and pornography, domestic violence, school shootings, crime, hate-based violence, etc.

Now, how do you establish facts in a way that Americans will see as accurate and reliable? If you’re interested in this question, take a look back at Blog Entry #3, Problem Solving by Jury. In it, I discussed using our system of justice as a model for vetting facts in a way that is legitimate and transparent.

Now, when taking on subjects like violence or healthcare or immigration or infrastructure, there are a lot of facts on the ground. But if you’re going to solve a problem, first you need to understand the problem. I mean, if Congress were to seriously tackle any of these issues, one would hope that our lawmakers would fully understand the facts on the ground before creating legislation to fix things. Probably not always the case. But that’s what we’d want to do.

We Would Need: Solution Teams to Develop Plans of Action

Next: Kennedy formed teams to examine the different options for resolving the crisis. We would also need to form, let’s call them, “Solution Teams.”  Let’s say, 6 teams, with a dozen people serving on each. A team’s members would include a diverse mix of subject matter experts, public policy experts, thinkers, and leaders from totally different fields, systems designers and at least a couple of regular citizens to keep things real. Each team might work for a year or more, engaging the help and advice of scores of other experts and regular citizens. Ultimately, each Solution Team would be charged with formulating a Plan of Action to achieve the shared goal.

And like Kennedy’s teams, the Solution Teams are not tasked with “winning” — they are tasked with coming up with the best options they can and having faith in the wisdom of consensus; having faith that a multitude of Americans who are all well informed AND come to a consensus will have found the best way forward.

We Would Need: To Convene an American Jury

Let us call this multitude of citizen decision-makers an “American Jury.”  As was the subject of Blog Entry #3, this theory of consensus is modeled on the idea of an impartial jury, enshrined in our constitution. Each American Juror would spend 2-3 hours every week reviewing material: well-produced, engaging videos, paired with full-text transcriptions, summaries, and graphics for easy reference.  

An American Jury might spend 12-18 months building an American Consensus on a Plan of Action for a shared national goal.

We Would Need: A Consensus Building Process

Stage 1: Presentation & Discussion: The Facts on the Ground

As you’d expect, for the first 2-3 months, the American Jury is presented with the Facts on the Ground.

American Jurors would not operate in isolation. Every week every Juror would examine what they are learning with another Juror or a small group of Jurors in “Discussion Groups.”  Discussion Groups would pull together American Jurors from different walks of life. Why is that helpful? Even in learning about the facts on the ground, especially when there’s a lot of them, different people will focus on different information. If, for example, the shared goal was about healthcare, Jurors can bring to life different aspects of the facts, based on their own experiences with the healthcare system. The cause of consensus will benefit from Jurors listening to and learning from, each other’s stories along the way.

Stage 2:  Presentation & Discussion: The Plans of Action

In the next stage, the Jury would be presented with the different proposed Plans of Action. Each presentation would include as comprehensive accounting as possible of the pros and cons of each Plan. This stage would take place over several months, with the Discussion Groups continuing throughout. The final presentation of this stage would recap each of the Plans of Actions and their major pros and cons.

The Jurors would then deliberate to determine which Plan of Action is best.  

At this point, you may be wondering: “How in the world will that many people come to a consensus on which Plan is best?  

I know, it sounds impossible.  But stick with me…

Stage 3: Deliberation

During this stage, Jurors would leave their Discussion Groups and be re-assigned to similarly small “Deliberation Groups” of perhaps 10 jurors each. The hope here is that Jurors would bring the broad perspective gained in their Discussion Groups to the process of deliberation with new Jurors, to widen everyone’s perspective even further. Again, the belief is the more we listen to each other, the greater the chance for consensus.

Unlike a jury in a court case, however, the ten American Jurors of a Deliberation Group, do NOT need to come to a consensus. Their only goal is to explore the options together. Like Kennedy’s team, Jurors may argue for one Plan over another, but there’s no reward for “winning” an argument. So, Jurors can quickly change their minds and change their minds again as they listen to each other’s points of view.

Stage 4: The First Elimination

Ultimately, every individual American Juror votes on which of the Plans of Action they believe are best.

Out of six options, will the vote produce a consensus for one Plan? Almost certainly not. Will one Plan out of six even get 50% of the vote. Also: probably not.

However, as with Kennedy’s process, the weakest options are eliminated first: the Plans of Action with the fewest number of votes are taken out of the running. Let’s say of the six Plans originally proposed, two are eliminated.

Now we’re down to 4.  

Interim Stage: Improving the Remaining Plans

After this first vote, the American Jury would be surveyed to gain insight into what were the problems with the Plans that were eliminated, but also, what were features of the eliminated Plans they nonetheless admired. The survey would also ask the American Jury their opinion about the Plans remaining.

In essence, the American Jury, the decision-makers, would provide feedback to the Solution Teams along the way, as Kennedy provided feedback to his teams along the way.

The Solution Teams can then improve their Plans of Action to take advantage of what they’ve learned from the Jury.

Once the Solution Teams are ready with their improved Plans, those improvements are presented to the Jury over several weeks.

Stage 5: The Second Elimination

And then another vote is taken.  

Two more Plans of Action get eliminated. We’re down to 2 remaining.

There’s another survey of the Jury and more tweaking of the remaining two Plans of Action.

Stage 6: Electing The Most Favored Plan

A vote is held pitting the final two plans against each other. One wins. Now we’re down to The Most Favored Plan of the original six, adjusted as it may have been during the process.  

BUT that plan may not have consensus. It may have only won 70% of the votes, or 60% or at worst, 51%.  

So there is still one more vote left…

Stage 7: The Vote for Consensus

And that final vote pits The Most Favored Plan against the Status Quo (that is, against doing nothing…continuing to operate as we always have).  There’s a final presentation comparing the two.  

For example: if our goal is to make high-quality health care affordable for all Americans, then there would be a recap of the relevant Facts on the Ground about how our health care system works today. And, while our health care system today has big problems (costs are out of control) it also has benefits (in some hospitals, care is second-to-none in the world).  

And that is often true with the status quo: it’s rarely all bad. So, when making a decision…as with the Cuban Missile Crisis, doing nothing, sticking with the status quo, is always an option. That said, doing nothing may mean leaving huge problems in place now, and risking catastrophe later.

On the other hand, The Most Favored Plan of Action is unlikely to be perfect with no risks. The downsides of the Plan and its risks would also be recapped at this stage in the process.  

So, for this final vote, there’s a real decision to be made: Enacting the Most Favored Plan of Action or maintaining the Status Quo. And the Most Favored Plan needs a consensus to pass…a virtual consensus, let’s say 80-90%. As a point of reference, in some civil trials in the United States, a final verdict can be reached with 10 out of 12 jurors or 83%.  

If the Most Favored Plan reaches this high threshold for support it becomes The Plan of Action of the American People on how to achieve a shared American goal:  The American People’s Plan for Healthcare, The American People’s Plan for Immigration, The American People’s Plan for Infrastructure, etc.

What happens if the consensus is not reached?

If The Most Favored Plan fails to get 80-90%, then it’s like a hung jury. Maybe another attempt will be made in the future, especially if the underlying problems the American Jury was out to fix don’t go away. The hope, however, is that even without a consensus, the very public process of convening an American Jury to attempt consensus raises the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the public discussion on the shared goal.

What’s next if consensus is reached?

If we do, in fact, reach consensus on a shared solution to a shared goal, the next step is to put The Plan of Action of the American People in place.  And that will almost certainly mean carrying at least part of the Plan into the political arena.  This will be the subject of our next entry in this series.


I realize that, even with this Theory of Consensus, achieving such a consensus with hundreds of thousands to millions of Americans seems improbable. But as far as we know, it’s never been tried. And you don’t know, if you don’t try.  So, we’re going try.  

If you’d like to be a part of this giant experiment in democracy, your first step is to sign up for the Unify Challenge.