Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Giants Win the Peanut!

In 1951 Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the world." With the Giants down 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning in a do-or-die playoff game against the dog-ass Dodgers, they fought back to have runners on second and third with two outs and a run in. Dodger manager Charlie Dressen brought in Ralph Branca to relieve a tiring Don Newcombe to face Bobby Thomson (who had hit 31 homers in the regular season—some off Branca).

After throwing the first pitch for a strike, Thomson pulled a high inside fast ball into the left field stands, and Giant radio announcer Russ Hodges said it all:

There's a long drive ... it's gonna be, I believe ... THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!

[Did you ever wonder why the Dodgers chose to face Thomson, a home run threat, with first base open? On deck was the Giants' rookie-of the year candidate, Willie Mays, and the Dodgers wanted no part of him.]

The reason I bring that up is that two nights ago Travis Ishikawa, a journeyman defensive specialist that the Giants brought up from their Fresono farm team for the second half of the year, took a fastball from St Louis Cardinal reliever Michael Wacha into the right field stands, sending the San Francisco Giants (which the New York Giants of Bobby Thomson became when owner Horace Stoneham moved them west in 1958) to the World Series. Just like Bobby Thomson 63 years ago, Travis' pennant clinching belt came with two on board in the bottom of the ninth. Travis will never have to buy a beer again as long as he drinks in the City by the Bay.

I write about all this because I'm a sport fan. Baseball is my first love, and the team I love above all others is the San Francisco Giants, which I inextricably bonded with the moment they departed the Polo Grounds of Manhattan and landed in the Golden State. There is a capriciousness and purity about this that may only have been possible among eight year olds who grew up watching Leave It to Beaver, but here I am.

When Travis went yard on Michael, my inner eight year old went bananas: a Wach-off homer! My 33-year-old son—a diehard Cardinal fan—grudgingly texted me, "Hope you turkeys win it all now..." which passes for graciousness among the male sports fans in my bloodline.

Knowing of this internecine rivalry between Ceilee (the Cardinal fan) and Laird (the Giant fan), Annie (Ceilee's mother, who grew up an Indian fan—talk about long sufffering) sent me a two-word email the next day, "Go Giants!" After all, it's not just about getting to the World Series; you actually have to play it. In this case against a red-hot Kansas City Royals team that ripped off eight straight playoff victories to get there on the American League side of the bracket.

Semi-famous for her tongue-in-cheek malapropisms, Annie (whom I've known since 1968) was wont to ask each summer, "Who's gonna win the peanut this year?" This from the same person who grew up attending a Protestant church inspired by the teachings of John Calvin and who thought as a child that road signs at intersections were expressly for the benefit of her congregation: "Presbyterian Crossing."

For the sake of father-son relations it's gratifying that we've been trading ascendency the last five years, with the Giants winning the pennant in the even years and the Cardinals in the odd ones. Now all the Giants have to do is cool off the Royals. Both teams have had a good run to get to the Series. Both snuck into the playoffs as wild card teams, yet roared through their opposition with ease. It's the fifth-seeded Giants against the fourth-seeded Royals. Who's streak will endure for one more round?

Though it's anybody's Series, I feel lucky. Surely it's an omen that Bobby Thomson's birthday was Oct 25, the same as mine. At least such rabbit-foot logic makes sense to this baseball fan, a part of whom will always be eight years old.

Go Giants!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Waiting for Frost

Today (at noon) marked the exact mid-point of October. As we cross into the dark side, a strange thing happens—gardeners start longing for a frost. 

Mostly, frost is something homesteaders want to assiduously distance themselves from. They want it to depart their fields as early in the spring as possible and stay away late into the fall—but there are limits. As the root cellar fills and pantry shelves begin to groan with the collected abundance of the growing year, you reach a point where enough is enough. Sure, you could just walk away and let the rest of the garden go, but that's hard to do; farmers are hard-wired to gather everything they grow, and it sometimes takes a frost to euthanize a garden that still has life in it. We're just about there.

 • • •
Homesteading in mid-America means that nine months of the year (September through May) you're paying close attention to whether the forecast calls for temperatures above or below freezing.

In the Winter
Although this is the sleepy time for growing things, there is still plenty of outdoor work to do (it's a farm, after all). If you need to cut wood, for example, it makes a huge difference if the temperature is 25º or 35º. If there's no snow on the ground, then 25º is much better. The ground will be firm and you should have no problem maneuvering in the woodlot. At 35º, think mud.

On the other hand, if there is snow then 35º may be better because the white stuff will melt off the log (less ice to dull your chain saw) and the ground is likely to still be frozen. 

If you're splitting wood, I suggest looking for something closer to 15º. The ground won't be greasy (better footing) and the cord wood pops right open in the cold (plus the brisk temperatures help counterbalance the heat you generate wielding a maul).

In the Spring
When the sap starts rising in the trees (typically in February in northeast MO), everyone starts to get itchy to plant garden. While some things can tolerate freezing temperatures (peas, onions, beets, carrots, potatoes, salad greens, and brassicas) most of the garden has to wait patiently for danger of frost to have past.

Depending on how green your thumb is—and how long you've been without fresh vegetables—it can be an excruciating wait. (Is there anything more delicious than your first homegrown or wildcrafted salad of the year?)

In the FallOn the one hand, homesteaders keep a close eye on Weather Underground (or old ankle injuries) for early warnings of impending freezes so they know when to strip the garden—after doing all that work to get everything planted and weeded, you want to capture as much of the bounty as possible. In the 40 years I've lived in northeast Missouri we've had our first killing frost as early as Sept 15 and as late as Nov 10—which is quite a wide range. Obviously this means big swings are possible in the amount of produce harvested from gardens at the end of the season.

If you last into October though (as we have this year), the sweet corn is long gone, the tomatoes have already dialed it back on their own, and the green beans have dried up. Still going are peppers, okra, and basil, all of which will just keep on trucking until Jack Frost paints them white.

I cranked out a batch of end-of-season pepper relish last week and I believe those will be the last jars we add to our store of 2104 canned goods. In the weeks ahead there will be sweet potatoes to dig, and the late root crops and salad greens will persist into December, but everybody here is ready to trade access to a few more late peppers in exchange for witnessing a population crash among houseflies and grasshoppers.

We're ready now to sing hallelujah and amen to another growing year.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Saying "No" to Prospective Members

One of the trickiest issues that intentional communities face is screening prospective members.

Some groups find this so odious (judging whether others are good enough) that they don't even try. Instead, they rely on prospectives to sort themselves out appropriately, based on what the community has said about itself (on its website, in brochures, or in listings), and how the new person relates to the community when they visit.

Another factor when it comes to screening is that communities often borrow money from banks to develop their property and are thus subject to federal Fair Housing Laws, which means they may not discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. Some groups mistakenly translate this into a proscription against using any discernment about who joins the group (or buys a house) but that's not true. It's perfectly legal to insist that people be financially solvent, not have been convicted of felonies, or agree to abide by common values and existing agreements. In fact, it's legal to choose against a candidate for any reason other than the seven protected classes listed above.

What's more, there are any number of people who are attracted to community for the right reasons but are not a good fit, and it's better all around if the community plays an active role in screening for decent matches. In many cases (unless the would-be member is a community veteran) the new person is still wrestling with the question of whether any intentional community is a good choice for them, much less your community. There will be many new and strange things that people have to make sense of during their initial visit, and in the process they can easily miss clues as to whether the visit is going well or not as seen through the host's eyes.

Finally, when you take into account how important it is to have your membership aligned about what you're trying to create, it becomes clear why it's not a good plan to rely mainly on the new person figuring it out on their own. Yes, this may mean that someone washes out sooner, but isn't that better for them as well—rather than getting a false impression about how things are going and discovering the mismatch six months after moving in? Delayed disclosure may relieve the community of having a difficult conversation up front, but at what cost?

OK, let's suppose I've convinced you that communities should get actively involved in membership selection. In broad strokes, there are four possibilities about how a prospective visit may go:

a) Both the community and the prospective realize it's not a good fit. While there's the possibility of some hurt feelings if the prospective feels that what they found did not match what the community promised, mostly this ends amicably and there's no problem.

b) You both like each other and the prospect converts to becoming a new member. Hooray! That's what you had in mind and you're off to a good start. Of course, the honeymoon will end and not everything that starts out well stays that way. While there's no guarantee of long-term happiness, you did your best and now you take your chances.

c) The prospective doesn't feel there's a good fit, though the community likes what they see and wants to encourage the prospective to hang in there. Most of the time when this occurs it's because the prospective comes across as a "good catch" and will likely be attractive to a number of communities. In short, they have options. In this situation also, there's unlikely to be hard feelings. The community may be sad at losing a good prospect, but dating doesn't always lead to marriage and you knew that all along.

d) The hardest combination—and the one I want to focus on in the remainder of this essay—is when the prospective likes the community but it's not reciprocated. Now what?

In general, this is because of one or more of the following factors:

o  Poor social skills
There's a high value placed on good communication skills in community and it can be a serious problem if the prospective is not good at:
—Articulating what they're thinking
—Articulating what they're feeling
—Hearing accurately what others are saying
—Expressing themselves in ways that are not provocative
—Taking in feedback about how others are reacting to their behavior
—Being sensitive to how their statements and actions are landing with others

The issue is not so much whether the prospective fits right in, as whether the members feel they can work things out with the prospective when there are differences—because there will always be differences (eventually).

o  Weak finances
Sometimes it's a question of whether the prospective has sufficient assets or income to meet the financial obligations of membership. Not everyone who is drawn to community has their life together economically.

o  Too needy
Occasionally prospectives come to the community to be taken care of, and there appears to be a frank imbalance between what the person can give relative to the level of support they're needing. For the most part communities are looking for a positive or break-even balance from prospectives and will tend to shy away from those with mental health issues, emotional instability, addictions, or extreme physical limitations—unless there is a plan offered whereby those needs will be taken care of in a way that works for all parties.

Note that there are some excellent examples of communities that have built their identity around serving disadvantaged populations:
—Gould Farm (Monterey MA) focuses on mental health
—Innisfree Village (Crozet VA) focuses on intellectual disabilities
—Camphill Village (the first in the US was located in Copake NY and now there are 10 others) focuses on developmental disabilities
—L'Arche Communities (the first in the US was located in Erie PA and now there are 17 others) focus on intellectual disabilities

o  Failure to keep commitments
It's hard on communities when members make agreements and then don't abide by them; when they make commitments and then fail to keep them. Sure, everyone has a bad week, but with some people it's a pattern and communities are leery of folks who aren't good at keeping their word.

To be sure, it can be difficult to discern a pattern during a visitor period, yet it's one of the reasons groups like to ask prospectives to lend a hand in group work parties—so they can assess follow through and work ethic. People who come across as allergic to group work don't tend to be viewed as good members.

o  Too different
This factor is something of a nebulous catchall. It can be an unusual personality, a quirky communication style, strange tastes or habits… Perhaps this traces to a different cultural background, but regardless of the origin it can be hard when there are no others like this person already in the group. Members may feel awkward in this person's presence and questions arise about whether they can make relationship with this person.

Even where there is a group commitment to diversity, that doesn't mean that everyone can find a happy home there.

• • •
One of the measures of a group's maturity is its ability to have authentic and compassionate conversations about hard things. And discussing the sense that a particular prospective is pushing the group's edge around the limits of what it can handle is an excellent example of a difficult conversation.

Saying "no" is not fun, and it can be very hard to hear it if you're the one being voted off the island. Yet sometimes groups have to do it, and putting it off doesn't make it easier later. The best you can do is anticipate that this is coming and discuss ahead of time what qualities you want in new members, so that you've already established the criteria you'll use before you start applying them.

There will still be challenges: such as the dynamic where one member wants to stretch to take a chance on a prospective that another member is convinced is a poor risk, but at least you'll have established a basis for the conversation—in this case: what is the perceived risk, and how much is too much?

While living in community can be a wonderful experience—I've been doing it for four decades and love it—it isn't always easy.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Questioning Technology

Do you ever wonder about how much technology to embrace in your life? I do. I figure the answer lies somewhere in the gulf between ball point pens and nuclear power plants, but where exactly should we draw the line?

I realize that we're not likely to stuff any genies back in the bottle, but having a genie on hand does not necessarily mean we should request wishes from it. What is the intersection between a sustainable life and a technologically abundant one? What technologies make sense?

This requires some discernment. 

First, we can cross off the list those things that are flat-out too dangerous, such as automatic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And it's not much of a stretch to go a layer deeper and eliminate nerve gas, crewless aircraft, and genetically modified organisms (such as tomatoes spliced with fish genes).

Next we can knock off technological advances of dubious utility, such as electric knives, fake seafood, and stretch Hummers. In some cases, we've just taken a good thing too far: vacuum cleaners are useful, but who needs one with variable speed suction? 

Of course, some choices are far more nuanced: table saws are dangerous (accounting for half of all woodshop accidents) yet also very useful—not many carpenters can approximate the precision of a machined straight line cut with a rip saw.

One of the most important lessons I learned from doing construction was to figure out how to build things such that I could repair them when they failed—not if they failed; when they failed. It occurs to me that that wouldn’t be such a bad way to assess technology either. If I can’t reasonably repair a thing myself—or at least locally—how dependent do I want to be on it? How confident am I that I’ll have access to replacements? What will I do instead if that technology is no longer available? It may make sense to use it until it's gone, or it may not. Sometimes dependency on new technology leads to an atrophy of the old technology—the one you'll need to rely on when the new one is no longer available. 

For example, I suspect we're losing a generation of farmers who understand the intricacies of crop rotation and green manure cropping in the post-World War II era, where mainstream agriculture has come to rely on anhydrous ammonia for nitrogen and pre-emergent herbicides for weed control. These are things to ponder. 

What about computers? Leaving aside the obvious fact that no is going to be manufacturing microchips in their basement, to what extent is computer technology anti-relational? Are email, texting, and Facebook becoming a substitute for face-to-face conversation, and at what cost? To what extent are people increasingly holed up at home at a keyboard (like I am right now) instead of visiting the neighbors? For that matter, how often do you encounter people fully engrossed with their laptops and smartphones even when they're in social spaces like coffee shops and restaurants? I'm not convinced this is a good trend.

Google is able to track what kind of information you're seeking and then display ads for products and services related to your search. Amazon suggests titles similar to the one you asked about. On the one hand this is smart advertising. On the other it's encouraging us to reinforce our opinions rather than seek a variety of viewpoints. Is the increasing sophistication of information technology reinforcing the trend toward polarization that currently plagues political discourse in this country? 

These are not simple questions, but the most dangerous choice of all is not asking them.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Critique of Sociocracy Revisited

Back on Aug 18 I posted an entry, Critique of Sociocracy, and it elicited an unusual amount of response. After taking time to digest it, here is my riposte, relying on the same format I used two months ago.

Caveats 

Over the last 10 years, I’ve had personal conversations with or read materials from a number of sociocracy advocates, including John Buck, Sharon Villines, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, John Schinnerer, Sheella Mierson, Nathaniel Whitestone, Barbara Strauch, and Diana Christian. Cooperative group dynamics is a field I’ve been living in for 40 years and working with professionally for the last 27 years.

All of that said, I have had limited experience with sociocracy in action (attending workshops that outline the theory and demonstrate the techniques are not the same as dealing with real issues in live groups) and it’s important to acknowledge that if the practice of sociocracy turns out to have solid answers for my concerns then that deserves to be honored. The fact that I haven’t yet heard answers to my reservations that satisfy me, or seen sociocratic groups perform as claimed, does not mean that there aren’t groups doing well with it.

With that prelude, here's a continuation of the conversation (I realize that I've repeated a number of paragraphs from the Aug 18 post to establish context—bear with me):

1. Does not address emotional input

One of my main concerns with this system is that there is no mention in its articulation of how to understand or work with emotions. As I see this as an essential component of group dynamics, this is a serious flaw.

Nathaniel Whitestone responded:

While the framework of sociocracy does not refer to emotions specifically, I find that I can effectively use the framework to include emotional content. Emotional content is a valid input, along with any other information, during every phase of the policy development & decision-making process. Most of the trainers (and all of the certified trainers) I have worked with have training in emotional processing of some kind and bring that into the process. I see that as essential.

That’s good to hear, yet I still worry that the literature says nothing about this. I believe strongly that we need an integrated model of working with the whole person (rational, emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, spiritual) and it bothers me when this is not addressed. I’ve worked with some groups that have embraced sociocracy, and have not noticed among them any better-than-average understanding of how to work emotionally, which makes me wonder how much this is incorporated in sociocratic training.

To be fair, I rarely find groups have done much work on this. It’s hard and tends to be scary. It’s heartening to hear Nathaniel’s confidence that skill in working emotionally is a standard feature among Sociocratic trainers. I just wish I saw more of it in the field.

Sharon Villines takes a different tack:

Is addressing emotional input any different from addressing any other input?

Yes, it's a different animal, and one that our culture is particularly poor at.

Sociocracy has developed a handshake relationship with Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for the identification and resolution of feelings. My understanding is that some sociocracy trainers are also teaching NVC. The technique is helpful in addressing the feelings attached to issues.

This may work fine, yet I want to make the case for a system that includes emotional input from the start, rather than an occurrence that triggers a different approach. My life work has been aimed at integrating energy and content—not placing them in separate boxes.

People bring their fears and anxieties and personal preferences to sociocratic circles and the workplace just as they bring them to any other context. When the number of group members who have learned to focus on the aim, listen to each other, and resolve objections reaches a tipping point, friction will be reduced. But certain personalities and differing aims will clash sooner or later.

The research by Richard Hackman at Harvard shows that teams work better together when they focus on and achieve success. All the other problems blamed for team dysfunction fade—personality clashes, inequality of effort, lack of expertise, etc., suddenly have no meaning. The identified problems are still there; they just no longer impede productivity.

Hackman found that addressing emotions, personalities, and contributions is less effective than focusing on an aim and accomplishing it. Since that is a prime purpose in sociocracy, it leads not only to effectiveness but to harmony—which sociocracy was originally designed to accomplish.
 
Hackman’s claim contradicts my experience in the field. In looking at his work it appears that his research was focused on the business world, where maintaining healthy relationships may not be as central as it is in cooperative groups in general, and in intentional communities especially.

I’ve found that once distress reaches a certain level it’s not possible to do good problem solving because of all the distortion that’s associated with high distress. You have to first attend to the distress. Most groups—sociocratic or otherwise—don’t handle this well. Lacking an agreement about how to engage with this dynamic, most groups are either paralyzed by distress, or seek ways to contain or marginalize those in distress, who tend to be labeled disruptive.

2. Double linking of committees (or “circles” in Sociocratic parlance)

When a group is large enough (probably anything past 12) it makes sense to create a committee structure to delegate tasks. While people can serve on more than one committee, it’s naturally important to have a clear understanding of how each committee relates to each other, and to the whole.

While the above paragraph is Organizational Structure 101, in sociocracy there is the added wrinkle that committees regularly working together (as when one oversees the other, or when two committees are expected to collaborate regularly) are asked to place a representative in each related committee. These reps (one each way) serve as liaisons and communications links from one committee to the other, helping to ensure that messages and their nuances are more accurately transmitted.

Barbara Strauch (from Austria) wrote:

The most important motive for double linking is to protect leaders from being torn apart. With double linking there is a representative from each lower circle sitting with the leaders, participating in the decision-making, making sure that the needs of lower circles are fully represented.

Further, groups only need double linking when they get large enough to need a leadership circle that oversees smaller circles. When all organizing is accomplished in a single circle, double linking is superfluous.

Barbara did not say at what size double linking makes sense, and maybe her view is that intentional communities rarely get that big (perhaps because organizing can be accomplished in plenary and thus additional circles are not needed). However, the sense I’ve had from other sociocracy advocates is that double linking is appropriate for intentional communities—at least the larger ones (30+?)—so I want to respond to that.

While this sounds good in theory (and may work well in practice in the corporate environment for which sociocracy was originally created), it runs smack into a chronic problem in cooperative groups that are highly dependent on committee slots filled by volunteers: too many slots and too few people to fill them well. In all my years as a process consultant for cooperative groups, I don’t recall ever having encountered a group that reported being able to easily fill all of its committee and manager positions. Sociocracy asks groups to add an additional layer of responsibility to what they already have in place, which means even more committee assignments. I don’t understand how that’s practicable.

In the responses I received to the above, there was emphasis placed on the distinction between “circle meetings” (at which policy is discussed) and “operational meetings” (at which work is organized and accomplished). The point being that double linking only need come into play at circle meetings, and that these need not happen that often. While I can certainly understand the claim that if there are fewer meetings at which double linking is expected than there is less of an additional burden on personnel, there is still some additional burden and I wonder where the energy to fill those slots will come from.

3. Selection process calls for surfacing candidate concerns on the spot

One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is handling critical feedback well. That includes several non-trivial challenges:

Creating a culture in which critical feedback relative to group function is valued and encouraged.

● Helping people find the courage to say hard things.

● Helping people with critical things to say to sort out (and process separately) any upset or reactivity they are carrying in association with the critique, so that they don’t unload on the person when offering feedback.

● Helping recipients respond to critical feedback openly, not defensively.

Even though the goal is worthy, none of these is easy to do, and my experience has taught me the value of giving people choices in how to give and receive critical feedback. (For some it’s absolutely excruciating to be criticized in public.)

In the case of Sociocracy, the model calls for selecting people to fill positions (such as a managership or committee seat) in an up-tempo process where you call for nominations, discuss candidate suitability, and make a decision all in one go.

While that is admirable for its efficiency, I seriously question whether that promotes full disclosure of reservations, complete digestion of critical statements (without dyspepsia), or thoughtful consideration of flawed candidates. While I can imagine this approach working fine in a group comprised wholly of mature, self-aware individuals, how many groups like that do you know? Me neither.

A number of sociocracy advocates tried to assure me that these selection processes invariably work well and bring out the best in people, but I've worked with too many groups (over 100) that contain too many frail egos to swallow that whole.

4. The concepts of “paramount” concerns, and “consent” versus “consensus”

Sociocracy makes a large deal out of participants only expressing: a) preferences about what should be taken into account; or b) reservations about proposals if they constitute “paramount” concerns. While “paramount” is not easy to pin down (what is paramount to me may not be paramount to you), I believe that the concept maps well onto the basic consensus principle that you should be voicing what you believe is best for the group—as distinct from personal preferences—and that you should only speak if your concern is non-trivial.

In addition, sociocracy is about seeking “consent” rather than “consensus.” I believe that the aim in this attempt it to encourage an atmosphere of “is it good enough,” in contrast with “is it perfect” or “is everyone happy with it.”

To be sure, there is anxiety among consensus users about being held hostage by a minority that may be unwilling to let a proposal go forward because they see how bad results are possible and are afraid of being stuck with them. This leads to paralysis. While it shouldn’t be hard to change an ineffective agreement (once experience with its application has exposed its weaknesses), I believe a better way to manage tyranny-of-the-minority dynamics is by educating participants (read consensus training) and developing a high-trust culture characterized by good listening, and proposal development that takes into account all views.

If “consent” is basically the same as “consensus” than we needn’t worry the terminology so much. If, however, they are meant to be substantively different, then I can only make sense of this if “consent” is a weaker standard than “consensus” that allows the group to move forward (it’s good enough) when it would still be laboring to find consensus.

Let’s see where that leads. The interesting case is when there are reservations among the group that would not stop consent, yet would stop consensus. I expect the spirit in which sociocratic advocates favor consent is an attempt to address the dynamic when individuals are stubborn about allowing a proposal to go forward because of personal reservations. While this undoubtedly happens, the question becomes whether the dissenter is acting out of a what’s-best-for-the-group perspective (that others are missing or failing to weigh appropriately) or out of a personal preference, which no groups want to be burdened with.

What environment will best lead to an open (non-entrenched) exploration of what’s happening? In my experience the key to accessing whatever flexibility is possible with a dissenter is first making sure you’ve heard they’re viewpoint and why it’s important. While this can be delicate work regardless of the group’s decision-making process, I’m worried that if sociocracy is about getting across the finish line faster, that engagement with a dissenter may come across more as “Is your concern really paramount?” with a view toward asking them to let go, rather than “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying and why it matters,” with a view toward finding a bridge between that person and others.

Now let’s take this a further step. Sociocratic advocates often make the point that consent (it’s good enough) shouldn’t be such a big deal because you can always change agreements later if they’re not working. Maybe. If an agreement flat out doesn’t work then I agree that changing it probably won’t be hard. But what about an agreement that’s working well in the view of some and not so hot for others? Or more vexing still, an agreement that’s working well for most members of the group, but not well for the dissenter—the person persuaded to let go because their concerns weren’t paramount enough? Uh oh.

5. Rounds are not always the best format

Sociocracy is in love with Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to offer comments on the matter at hand. While it’s laudable to protect everyone’s opportunity for input, this is only one of many choices available for how to solicit input on topics (others include open discussion, sharing circles, individual writing, small group breakout, silence, guided visualization, fishbowls, etc.). Each has their purpose, as well as their advantages and liabilities.

While Rounds are great at protecting talking time for those more timid about pushing their way into an open discussion, and serve as an effective muzzle for those inclined to take up more than their share of air time, they tend to be slow and repetitive. If you speed them up (Lightning Rounds) this addresses time use, yet at the expense of bamboozling those who find speaking in group daunting, or are naturally slower to know their mind and be ready to speak.

While I’ve been told that it’s OK for Sociocratic groups to use formats other than Rounds—which relaxes my anxiety—what I’ve seen among Sociocratic groups to date is a heavy reliance on Rounds, and I’m concerned.

6. Starting with proposals

In sociocracy (as well as in many groups using consensus) there is a tendency to expect that items come to plenary in the form of a proposal (“here is the issue and here is a suggested solution”). In fact, in some groups you won’t get time on the plenary agenda unless you have a proposal.

While this forces the shepherd to be ready for plenary (a good thing) and can sometimes save time (when the proposal is excellent and does a good job of anticipating what needs to be taken into account and balancing the factors well), it can also be a train wreck. Far better, in my experience, is that if something is worthy of plenary attention, that you not begin proposal development until after the plenary has agreed on what factors the proposal needs to address, and with what relative weight. If the manager or committee guesses at these (in order to get time on the agenda) they may invest considerably in a solution that just gets trashed.

Not only is this demoralizing for the proposal generators, but it skews the conversation about how to respond to the issue. (“What needs to be taken into account in addressing this issue?” is a different question than “Does this proposal adequately address this concern?”) In essence, leading with the proposal is placing the cart (the solution) before the horse (what the solution needs to balance).

In response to the above, I was told that sociocratic groups don’t always start with proposals. While I’m glad to hear that, it doesn’t match what I’ve encountered so far when working with sociocratic groups. If it turns out that I’ve just been unlucky and only found groups that have been confused about the model, I’ll be happy to be wrong.

7. Governance System or Decision-Making Structure?

Some advocates have taken the position that sociocracy is a governance structure while consensus is a decision-making process. Other advocates have stated that sociocracy is both.
As a cooperative process consultant my body of work covers both topics and I see them as inextricably linked. At the very least, consensus implies a certain approach to governance and I'm not inspired to try to parse out what belongs in one category and what belongs in another. I prefer to teach them as complementary aspects of well-functioning cooperative culture.

I think governance questions are things like:
o  Committees and managerships in relation to plenary
o  How committees and managers relate to each other
o  Defining the difference between standing committees and ad hoc committees
o  How authority is delegated
o  How subgroups are populated and their work evaluated
o  Standards for how committee work is made available to the whole group 

I think decision-making questions are things like:
o  How decisions are made
o  How topics are addressed
o  Standards for how meetings are run (including the role of facilitator)
o  Standards for what's plenary worthy
o  Standards for meeting notification
o  Conditions under which meetings can be closed
o  Standards for how plenary proposals get developed
o  Conditions under which a dissenting minority can get overridden
o  Standards for when an agreement might be reviewed
o  Standards for minutes

As sociocracy definitely has things to say about how meetings are run, it’s clear to me that it delves into decision-making. More accurate, I think, is to describe sociocracy as a governance system and decision-making process that offers a particular, highly structured approach to consensus. It’s about doing consensus a certain way. 

While I’m not sold on that model, I’m fine with its being put forward for consideration as a model. At the end of the day, the proof is in the doing, and if groups like what they’re getting with sociocracy then that trumps everything.

8. A Structural Response to an Energetic Challenge

My final uneasiness is on the macro level. My sense is that a lot of the motivation for coming up with an alternative to consensus is that groups are frustrated with it. They struggle with obstinate minorities, working constructively with dissent, effective delegation, engaging productively with distress, and a sense of overwhelm and slog. These are real issues.

Over the years I’ve come to the view that the key issue is that most groups commit to using consensus without a clear idea that it requires a commitment to culture change to make it work well. The vast majority of us were raised in a competitive, adversarial culture and we bring that conditioning with us into our experiments in cooperative culture. When the stakes are high and people disagree, people tend to respond from their deep conditioning—rather than from their cooperative ideals. That is, they fight for their viewpoint and feel threatened by those who see things differently.

In broad strokes, sociocracy appears to offer a structural response: Rounds even out access to air time; the standard of voicing only paramount concerns protects the group from getting bogged down in personal agendas; double linking and open selection of managers and committee slots ensure transparency and information flow; starting with proposals streamlines plenary consideration.

All of these objectives are worthy. Yet I’m questioning whether that package is the best way to get there. To the extent that I’m right about cooperative groups not having connected the dots between cooperative processes and cooperative culture (where people learn to respond with curiosity when presented with different viewpoints, rather than combativeness), the main issue is energetics, not structure.

Naturally enough, high structure folks are going to like structural solutions. Unfortunately, cooperative groups also include low structure people. They also include people who are not quick thinkers, or comfortable voicing their views in front of the whole group. I’m wondering how well sociocracy will work for them.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sorghum for $9

I'm was in St Louis this past weekend, attending the Best if Missouri Market at the Botanical Gardens. Sandhill Farm—my old community—used to participate regularly in this event, but it's a by-invitation-only deal and we lost favor with the selection committee back around 2002. Sandhill was able to achieve rehabilitation this year by combining its application with the Milkweed Mercantile at Dancing Rabbit, who were first-time applicants.

Here's a promotional image for the event used by a local television station in the Gateway City:
https://localtvktvi.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/best-of-missouri-market.jpg
Note the prominent display (left of center) of a half-pint of watermelon jelly made by Mrs. Milkweed (who masquerades in day-to-day life as Alline Anderson, my neighbor and fellow impresario in the condiment business).

Alline had secured an end booth in the center aisle of Tent #2, which gave us three sides to sell from. That turned out to be brilliant as we were peddling stuff fast and furious, keeping three people busy most of the time. We were on duty for 21 hours during the stretch from 6 pm Friday through 5 pm Sunday answering inquires, giving out samples, wrapping purchases, running credit cards, and making change. (Boy, did it ever feel good to sit down at the end of the day!)

The highlight of the weekend was having Brenda Stemler stop by our table. She sampled our sorghum and bought a pint on Saturday. The reason that's a big deal is that she's a past president of NSSPPA (National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association), and her family has been making sorghum since the Depression (the one that started in 1929; not the one in 2008). That means she absolutely knew good sorghum when she found it, and couldn't resist buying some of ours. A high compliment.

Then she came back Sunday and bought a quart for her father—the paterfamilias of the sorghum-making Stemlers. An even higher compliment.

Reflecting on the Stemler tradition got me thinking about how long I've been associated with sorghum making. I go back pretty far myself. It was amusing to realize that there have been a lot changes since I first started attending fairs for Sandhill's in 1977, where we sold sorghum at the Bethel Harvest Fest (now defunct), and at the inaugural edition of the Hannibal Historic Folklife Festival. That year you could buy a gallon of Sandhill sorghum for $9.
Today, you can still buy a jar for $9—but only a pint. Interestingly, that's about what a gallon of raw juice will yield after we cook it down. Now we sell a gallon of syrup for $50. We've come a long way, baby.

In fact, I recall that a number of our elderly customers back in the late '70s were fond of telling us that they used to be able to buy a gallon pail of sorghum for $1, and that their parents used to buy it for as little as 25¢. That last must have been before even the Stemlers were in the sweet sorghum business. Think of it: in a century the price has for a gallon of biscuit topping has risen 200 times!

I tell you, $9 just doesn't buy today what it did then.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Balancing Listening and Speaking

I got in trouble recently when working with a client that had brought me in to help the group understand consensus better. Though they'd been living together for six years—and making decisions by consensus all that time—they'd never done any training in it.

My work with the client began one evening when I listened to a subgroup of about 6-7 folks provide background on the topic they wanted me to use as a demonstration for how to handle a complex and vexing issue. After listening to a round of everyone saying what they thought I ought to know about the topic, I started asking questions about what they had tried or whether they had a committee in place who's job it was to be concerned with certain things bearing on the issue. When the responses were mostly negative, I proceeded to outline some suggestions for different things to try… and that didn't sit well.

At least for one person, I was making suggestions far too soon. She and her partner had put in a tremendous amount of effort over the years to help with the community's various challenges, and was put off by my suggesting initiatives less than an hour into my visit. (I couldn't possibly know all that had been tried, and she felt her family's efforts were being cavalierly dismissed.)

As a process consultant, I'm expected—in a short time—to accomplish five things: find out what's happening in the client group, connect the dots among people's statements about history and the current state of affairs, outline a pathway through stuck dynamics, lead the group down that path, and recommend changes designed to improve group function in the future.

Though I demonstrably have a lot to do under tight time constraints, sometimes I go too fast.

To be clear, my venturing into potential responses in the first hour of my visit did not land poorly with everyone. In fact, most of the others in that initial meeting were intrigued (and hopeful) that I had ideas of different things to try—which was the response I was hoping for. Yet for at least one person, that approach didn't work. While I was able to meet with her later and repair the damage—so that we could work together productively the bulk of the weekend—it would have been better if I had read her more accurately in the first place. While it's good to mend fences, it's better yet to not damage them.

Here's a fuller statement of what I'm typically attempting in a weekend:

I. Find Out What's Happening
This has several components:

o  What happening on this topic today (this includes existing agreements, whether they're being adhered to, and where the tensions lie).
o  What's the relevant history on the topic, leading up to where we are today?
o  How are people relating to the topic emotionally (irritated, bemused, concerned, angry, afraid, bored… )?
o  What, if anything, has already been tried to address this issue, and with what results?
o  How urgent is movement on this topic relative to other challenges the group is wrestling with?
o  Are there any players in the penalty box (by which I mean labeled intractable and badly behaved)?

II. Connect the Dots
On the surface, this means:

o  To what extent do the stories from group members differ? Is it a matter of different emphasis, or are they working from different "facts"?
o  What are themes that will need attention in order to work through the topic? How many strands are there to work?

Below the surface, this means:

o  How volatile does the topic seem to be? To what extent are the players holding unresolved tension that's likely to distort our ability to be productive in problem solving?
o  How are the personalities and styles of some likely to triggering poor reactions in others?
o  How well do people seem to be hearing each other—especially when their input and viewpoints vary?
o  To what extent is the stuckness attributable to poor process, a weak sense of common values, a clash of principles, a clash of personalities, or some combination of the above.

III. Lay out a Pathway Through the Thicket
Based on what I'm hearing and observing, I need to map out a route to guide the group from where they are to something more resolved and more unified. This means not only figuring what to do about the topic we're focusing on, but getting there in such a way that people feel better connected and less tense. In short, I need to attend to both energy and content.

Further, I need to be able to explain the route—both what we'll be doing and why—so that people know what's being asked of them, the sequence in which things will happen, and why I'm asking them to stretch and try something less familiar.

IV. Lead the Group Down the Path
Then, of course, I have to execute the plan. Sometimes this comes across as firewalking (when I ask them to follow me into the scary territory of unpacking emotional distress); sometimes this is experienced as pulling a rabbit out of a hat (when I'm able to see a workable solution to the issue before anyone else); sometimes it's mostly about managing the discussion: keeping people on topic, limiting repetition, summarizing frequently, altering formats to keep people fresh.

I have to walk my talk.

V. Recommend Next Steps
This comes in two flavors:

A. Work remaining to complete the issue
Most of the time groups ask me to tackle an issue that's both complicated (many threads) and volatile (impacted distress), and it's not possible to both teach what I'm doing and complete the work on the issue. Thus, it is common that work remains when the time runs out and it's my job to leave the group with a recommended sequence for how to frame the remaining subtopics and a recommended order in which to address them.

B. Changes in how the group handles issues
To the extent that I've been successful in moving things along on the topic, I've given the group a first-hand taste of why my approach may be worth adopting. In my report, I'll lay out discrete changes they may make in how they do things—a sample of which they'd just experienced—in order to extend that success to future issues.

• • •
With all of this in motion, it can be a strain at times to resist moving onto the next step when I'm ready—to allow adequate time for the client to complete the step that's gone before. Sometimes I get the timing wrong.