Sunday, August 24, 2014

Serendipity and College Recruitment

This past week, Ma'ikwe & Marqis dropped off their 17-year-old son, Jibran (my stepson), at college. It's the start of new adventure—both for Jibran and for Ma'ikwe & me, who will be living together alone for the first time in our nine years of intimacy.

Jibran is attending Shimer College in Chicago (it shares a campus with the Illinois Institute of Technology), a well-aged liberal arts school with the tagline, "dangerously optimistic since 1853." Given that they have fewer than 200 students, I reckon any school that sustains itself on such a shoestring enrollment has earned its optimism. For crying out loud, the school started before the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

In honor of Jibran's rite of passage, I want to share the amazing story of how he came to Shimer, an institution of higher learning that no one in our household had heard of before the evening of Nov 4, 2012—which most people recall as the night that Obama was elected to a second term.

The Front Story of Jibran's Recruitment
Let's go back to that fateful night almost 22 months ago. Ma'ikwe was suffering through another bad year battling Lyme disease, and she and Jibran were just ending a week of R&R with Ma'ikwe's mother—Kay, who lives in nearby Canandaigua and who had dropped them off at the Rochester RR depot in time for the scheduled 11 pm departure of the westbound Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. 

Right before the Amtrak stop, Kay, Ma'ikwe, and Jibran (three generations of Howards) had been watching election results in a Rochester bar, but the Presidential winner was still too close to call when it was time to catch the choo choo. Not possessing a smart phone, and finding no television or internet signal in the Rochester depot, Jibran walked up to a stranger and asked if the woman would mind checking the latest election results on her iPhone. She didn't, and they struck up a conversation as they watched the tallies come in.

Impressed with Jibran's perspicacious political commentary, the woman (Susan Henking), casually asked about Jibran's education. He openly shared that he was only 15 and was being privately tutored at Dancing Rabbit, a budding ecovillage in northeast Missouri. Susan suggested that he consider thinking about enrolling at Shimer College when he was ready to move beyond high school. It just so happened that Susan had recently been appointed Shimer's President.

Whoa! Impressed that a college president would find time for a thoughtful conversation with a odd-duck teenager, Jibran started looking into Shimer and liked what he saw. Among other things, it's a Great Books school, which means that their core approach to learning is reading source materials, followed by lots of discussion and writing. As a budding epistemologist, this appealed to Jibran greatly (who's never met a philosophical podcast he didn't like). In addition, Shimer does not ask applicants to submit a high school diploma, GED, or SAT scores (none of which Jibran possessed)—you just have to favorably impress the admissions office with your essay and interview.

Not only does Jibran come with a minimal academic paper trail, but he's entering college one year ahead of his age cohort. While some colleges may balk at that, at Shimer they don't blink—you're ready when you're ready. (In fact, Ma'ikwe reported that their incoming freshman class this year spans an age range of 15-28, which means that Jibran is not even the youngest.)

In any event, Jibran is now a freshman at Shimer. Talk about a long-shot coming in! To the best of our knowledge, Susan does not make a habit of trolling railroad depots in the wee hours for incoming recruits (but maybe she should).

The Back Story of Jibran's Recruitment
Ma'ikwe got back from Chicago yesterday morning, and one of the first things she shared with me was a conversation she had with Susan, in which the Prez revealed why she was at the Rochester train depot that evening with time enough for a recruitment pitch in her chance encounter with Jibran. Yes, she was also boarding the the train to Chicago, but she was there unusually early because she'd had a tiff with the friend she was visiting and they decided it might be as well to end their visit early, resulting in Susan putting in some serious bench time at the depot. 

Apparently Susan wasn't having her best day, and Jibran turned out to be the silver lining. If she'd arrived right before the train departed—as most travelers do—it's probable that Jibran and Susan would never have met. Then where would we be? Probably still scratching our heads over when Jibran would move out of the Moon Lodge loft and whither he'd be going.

I'm telling you, you can't make shit like this up.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Flying Blind

My laptop is in "Depot" (the name Apple gives its high-tech service centers scattered around the country) getting a complete overhaul. When I brought it in to the St Louis Genius Bar to have the keyboard replaced last week—because the "e" key was getting balky—the technicians discovered when they opened the hood a "brown, sticky substance" had been corroding the motherboard. Bad, bad, bad.

Not only does that mean a longer delay (sending it out to Depot instead of effecting an in-house repair) but the damage is not covered under warranty—because it looked to them like someone slopped hot chocolate on the keyboard, even though I have no memory whatsoever of having spilled anything on my keyboard, and I'm the only person who uses my machine. Grr.

So here I am, composing this blog on my wife's laptop (until she departs for four days in Chicago to drop Jibran off at Shimer College, and takes her laptop with her) realizing that I'm going to have to operate for the reminder of the week without benefit of digital support (other than what I can manage with my actual fingers). That means:

o  No email (I can hardly wait to see the avalanche that will be waiting for me when I finally get reunited with my refurbished laptop—ugh).

o  No access to my calendar.

o  No access to my address book.

I figure this is Nature's way of telling me to concentrate on the non-electronic aspects of life:

—Organizing and otherwise putting away the myriad boxes of stuff that I just imported from my old bedroom at Sandhill. These are seriously restricting passageways in Moon Lodge and Ma'ikwe will be highly pleased if I can unclog the house. Further, It's an excellent opportunity in that Jibran's departure (as a regular resident in the house) means there is a serendipitous opening for storage in the loft that has heretofore been Jibran's sole domain.

—Helping Sandhill form up and pour a lid for their cistern.

—Continuing to dig out the damaged water line from the house to the cistern at Moon Lodge.

—Keeping abreast of food processing, which tends to get out of control this time of year.

All of which is to say that I'm not exactly out of work, or in danger of expiring from ennui. I just have an unexpected temporary simplification of my how-will-I-spend-my-day menu. My biggest challenge is accepting what I can't control and embracing my reality (rather than lamenting it—and obsessing over the jerk who spilled hot chocolate on my laptop).

While this is not exactly flying blind (I can still see and hear, after all) it's nonetheless an apt metaphor in that I'll be operating the next few days without navigational markers that are digitally based—which is just about all of them in the Information Age. While there is a refreshing, back-to-the-basics quality about this stretch of days, it is also evocative of the dead days of the Mayan calendar, when normal life (whatever that is) is suspended while the mathematically elegant (but slightly inaccurate) human-constructed calendar gets realigned with the earth's actual orbit around the sun.

These are days out of time, or least days out of digital time, and that's probably a good thing, affording me an opportunity to get my psychic gyroscope re-tuned to my physical reality. It also gives me more time to read, of which I never seem to get enough.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Critique of Sociocracy

Following is a summary of my reservations about sociocracy (aka Dynamic Governance) as a governance system for cooperative groups—especially ones depending on voluntary participation. I'm just not that excited about it.

In this monograph I am paying particular attention to how this contrasts with consensus, which is the main horse that sociocracy is stalking. (Do not assign any meaning to the order in which I’ve presented my points.)

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.

I even had one advocate tell me once that when you use sociocracy no one gets upset. Puleeease! If you have a system that only works well when everyone is thinking and behaving rationally then you have an unstable equilibrium. This is not a system; it's a fragment.

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

When a group is large enough (probably anything past 12, and maybe smaller) 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.

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 27 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 blithely asks that groups add an additional layer of responsibility to what they already have in place, which means even more committee assignments. It’s unworkable.

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:

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

o  Helping people find the courage to say hard things.

o  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.

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

Even though the goal is worthy, none of these is necessarily easy to do, and my experience in the field has taught me the value of giving people choices in how best 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, you cannot convince me that this 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.

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. Unfortunately, the term “paramount” is undefined and results in considerable confusion about what the standard represents. I believe that this 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 short, I have not found this principle to be illuminating, or distinctive from consensus thinking.

The second piece of confusing rhetoric is insisting that 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”?

To be sure, there is anxiety among consensus users about being held hostage by an obstinate 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.

In the end, sociocracy’s “consent” is not significantly different from “consensus”; it’s just playing with words.

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). 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 affective 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.

If you only have a hammer (one tool), pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail and reality is not nearly so one-dimensional and who wants to lie down on a bed of nails anyway? You need more tools in the box.

6. Starting with proposals

In sociocracy (and in many groups using consensus as well) there is the expectation that when an item comes to plenary it will be in the form of a proposal ("here is the issue and here is a suggested solution"). In fact, 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).

Cooperative groups make this mistake a lot, and sociocracy follows them right down the same rabbit hole.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Econtrol

Have you ever attempted digital communication without a functional "e" key? It's a booger.

Over the course of last weekend, the most-used key on my laptop started misfiring. By Monday it was failing more than 75% of the time. Ufda. While it's somewhat better now—performing intermittently—I can't count on it.

At the moment I'm queued up for a keyboard transplant under warranty at the St Louis Apple Genius Bar. Meanwhile, I've been coping by substituting "command V" for "e" when I compose messages. While it's a damn nuisance, there is an amusing, creative aspect when normal systems fail and one is forced to improvise. Under duress, its amazing what work-arounds we can come up with. (And I've already had two people offer even more creative ways to produce an "e" on my screen without actually using the "e" key—apparently I'm not the first to have suffered this malaise.)

The good news is that I was scheduled to be in the Gateway City anyway for four days of duplicate bridge, and I'm playing cards less than 10 miles away from the Apple Store (read hospital).

The bad news is that the operation requires general anesthesia and my laptop will need to be in sick bay two days—an excruciatingly long separation when you're as dependent on electronic communication as I am. It's like entering radio silence, or sitting a Vipassana course.

The good news is that when I'm immersed in the arcane world of tournament bridge, all I do is live and breathe cards anyway and thus was anticipating a vacation from email (I'll play somewhere in the vicinity of 240 hands in 75 hours—and, yes, I will sleep each night).

The bad news is that when I checked in at the Genius Bar Wed evening (when I first hit town) they didn't have the part in stock.

The good news is that they can secure the part quickly and I can keep my laptop until it came in (which is why I've been able to compose and post this blog on my regular three-day cycle).

The bad news is that the delay to secure the part means there is a smaller window in which to effect the repair. As I'll be driving home Sunday evening whether I have a new keyboard or not, my fingers are crossed that there will be time enough.

And to think that this "crisis" wasn't even on my horizon a mere week ago. When Hayoka energy shows up in your life like this, you realize that the gods are smiling at our attempts to impose order on life through planning. Not only is it a myth—but it's one that we sustain despite consistent evidence to the contrary.

• • •
Over the course of the last 25 years I've gradually transitioned from communicating via mail to communicating via email. While it's a difference of only one letter, it's a big shift.

We are, without question, firmly operating in an electronic world these days, and moving more in that direction every day. In fact, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that I'm evolving into becoming an emale myself—a man who functions significantly in an digital context. In addition to my daily dose of email management (the volume of which is much greater than postal mail ever was), I regularly participate in conference calls, and two days ago I delivered my sixth process workshop via webinar. Are we headed for a future where we're constantly online?

To be sure, there remain significant and precious portions of my life that do not involve electronics or virtual reality. Intimate time with my wife, face-to-face dates with friends—witness my Sunday evenings with Men's Group, time with my counselor, and the bulk of my work as a process consultant. I reckon there will always be a benefit to being in the room, observing and responding to people in real time, where all senses can be brought to bear.

Thus, while econtrol in one's life may be desirable—the ability to understand and accurately manage digital content—it is not the same as control in one's life. And for today, at least, I have the much more modest goal of simply reestablishing "e" control.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Filing Cabinet in the MIddle of Our Kitchen

Our house is a wreck.

This past week I finally completed moving out of my old bedroom at Sandhill—a process I'd begun right after Thanksgiving and had been dragging my feet about completing. Partly I was waiting to see how well it worked out with Ma'ikwe and me living together. Nine months and one marriage recommitment ceremony later, the answer is that we're going to stay together. Unfortunately, the "yippee!" associated with that decision is inextricably commingled with the grief of letting go of my home for 40 years. This is exactly what people are talking about when they use the phrase "mixed emotions." 

Mind you, I'm not questioning my decision, I'm just heart sore. 

At a Sandhill meeting July 28 I announced that I'd made my decision (I was technically on a leave of absence for one year), and agreed to complete my relocation to Moon Lodge by the end of last week. It took me three trips, but I finished Saturday evening. Whew! There are undoubtedly some stray items lurking in other locations around the farm (it's scary how much one can "spread out" in four decades) and I haven't touched the attic yet, but I've completely liberated my bedroom and that was huge.

Removing everything from my room, layer by layer, was like conducting an archeological dig of my adult life. It was tender, and the memories flooded in much faster than I had time to dwell on. It was all I could do to keep my consciousness floating with the tide, and not stop my hands from putting the next item in a box. I had kinda been hoping that I could avoid this and die in place (leaving the detritus of my life to my survivors), but this has more integrity and, in the end, I'm glad to have done it. For one thing, it's sobering to have my nose rubbed in the reality of all that I've accumulated despite my conscious choice to lead a non-acquisitive lifestyle (where did all this shit come from?). It's a first-world morality play.

While significant chunks of my material life were siphoned off to either Sally Army or the landfill, Sandhill's loss has largely been Moon Lodge's gain—and I don't necessarily mean in a good way. Ma'ikwe's and my house is now bloated with my stuff. (I had no idea I owned that many pairs of shoes!) Hence the awkward (temporary) location of the legal-sized filing cabinet that Ma'ikwe just snagged off Craig's List. 

As if it weren't challenge enough to absorb with grace the disgorgement of Laird's possessions from Sandhill, we're staging things for Jibran's imminent departure for college next week, are entering the height of canning season (we have to put all those jars of sunshine and goodness somewhere), and still have to figure out a permanent home for Ma'ikwe's four-drawer inspiration of boxy metal (which, ironically, was purchased in the hopes of decluttering the living room furniture—that Ma'ikwe is in the habit of using for file storage). 

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that we're closing off a 4'x4' firewood pass-through in our west wall this week. Nothing like a little strawbale retrofit to ensure that we don't run low on dust motes.
 

On the subject of imposing order, we hardly know where to start.

While a high percentage of things have day-to-day utility, there are some curious oddments—such as:

—My collection of board games (still growing). These are in active use—I typically play something once a week.

—Our semi-serious investment in kitchen gadgetry. The frequency of their use varies widely, but some are absolutely precious.

—My cosmopolitan liquor (and liqueur) inventory. For some reason, I buy bottles of alcohol like I buy books: faster than I consume them.

—My stamp collection (inherited at age 10 from my mother's Uncle Art, whom I never met), but which has now been dormant for the past 15 years.

—My camping equipment (all together, I've spent about a year of my life in a canoe and I have a sizable assortment of clothes and paraphernalia that are strictly reserved for that use. I even have a homemade map drawer that contains a lifetime investment in Canadian topos at 1:250,000 (four miles to the inch) which is what I guide with when serving as the bourgeois on a canoe trip. Just as a large part of my heart remains at Sandhill, a smaller, though still significant portion of my heart resides in the boundless wilderness of the Canadian Shield (pre-Cambrian granite, the oldest rock on Earth) that stretches across much of central Canada. Though my last trip was in 2006, I may yet have another one in me, and retaining my camping gear keeps that flame alive.

Luckily, Moon Lodge is a big house (900 sq ft) and my wife and I are resourceful—in the sense of: a) having a lot of resources; b) possessing the ingenuity to figure out how to store the damn stuff; and c) having the resolve to let go of what we no longer need or use.

I expect Moon Lodge to be my last home. While that may not be the case (Ma'ikwe is an Enneagram Seven, after all), I'd rather not go through the chaos of moving again, and thinking long-term produces better solutions for the here and now.

At the very least I expect to have the ding dong filing cabinet moved in the next few days, so we can once again enjoy a straight path through the kitchen to the side door. Sheesh.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Personal Work or Relational Work?

I recently observed a group that is in the habit of regularly taking time to meet for the purpose of looking into member's reactivity. (Good for them!)

When getting together for that, participants are asked at the front of the meeting if they have anything they want to work on, and to indicate their relative level of urgency—with the understanding that whoever wants it most will get attention and that no one will be pressured into the spotlight. There is the further agreement that each participant is fully responsible for getting their own needs met.

As you are undoubtedly aware, there is an incredible array of options for doing personal work, yet this group has a particular approach that it used most often. It's based on the assumption that if you have a reaction to something that another person said or did, then there is probably a self-judgment in you about doing versions of the same thing and it's useful to root that out—so that you can better understand where you're unresolved; so that you can better understand how you're triggered by others; and so that you can more easily move beyond your reactions. It's powerful stuff.

Let's suppose that Chris had a reaction to Adrian. If Adrian isn't present, then it's turned out to be relatively straight forward maintaining focus on Chris. However, when Adrian is present, things get more complicated.

On the one hand, Chris still has personal work to do (looking for the self-judgment). On the other, Adrian may have a reaction also, after hearing Chris' upset. Maybe Adrian is surprised to learn that Chris had a reaction, or perhaps Adrian is knocked off center by the strength of Chris' expression of upset (while the group may have helped Chris by encouraging them to "get it all out," that may not be so wonderful for Adrian, who is the landing spot for Chris' judgment). Think of it as a multi-car accident.

Where does the group give attention now? Do you stay the course with Chris, and hope you have enough time afterwards to tend to Adrian later, or do you hit the pause button with Chris to give Adrian mouth-to-mouth? What if Adrian asks for attention in the midst of focusing on Chris (putting the group in an awkward situation)? What if Adrian is too overwhelmed to know what to ask for? What if Adrian feels it's too disrespectful of Chris to interrupt the focus that Chris has requested, even though Adrian needs help? In short, it's messy.

I think it's best to approach this dynamic using triage principles: go first where the need is greatest, and work your way through the room. Thus, Chris should still get the chance to do personal work, yet there may be times when that's interrupted to handle an emerging reaction in real time.

While that's my view on how to manage the dynamic where more than one person has something "up" for them simultaneously, there are other ways to see this. For example, you could take the position that if personal work is the primary purpose of the group, then ermergent relational dynamics should take a back seat, and group attention shouldn't be deflected from Chris regardless of what Adrian experiences: it's Chris' turn and Adrian will have to wait.

Further, some hold the view that relational work always proceeds better after personal work has been completed. If you buy that, then examination of the Chris/Adrian dynamic will be enhanced by the delay to focus solely on Chris. 

Of course, going the other way, there is surely a component—perhaps the main component—of the Chris/Adrian kerfuffle that is personal work for Adrian. Thus prioritizing Chris over Adrian may not translate into emphasizing personal work over relational work; it may simply be giving people attention in priority order at the outset and agreeing to not change focus to another person until work with the first is completed, regardless of what bubbles up in the examination

In working with this group there have been two occasions where I witnessed a Chris/Adrian dynamic where the person in the Adrian role was clearly struggling with what the Chris person had reported, yet the group doggedly kept the focus on Chris (which was the norm), even when Chris got stuck in their story and was having trouble getting traction on their personal work. It was excruciating watching Chris flounder while Adrian needed oxygen. In both instances I expressed my uneasiness with the choice to stay with Chris, and the group is chewing on whether it wants to do anything differently in the future.

While I still prefer my approach to this dynamic (giving focus where the need seems greatest, even if that means switching from one person to another before the work with the first person has been completed), it's important to report that in both cases I named, the Adrian character ultimately got attention and the meetings in question ended satisfactorily for all parties. So I'm not talking about disasters; I'm talking about minimizing anguish and what constitutes effective work.

There is integrity to any of the approaches I've outlined above. The important thing is reaching agreement in the group about how it wants to handle it, which includes an analysis of what will ultimately serve group members best, helping them be more fully actualized and aware.

• • •
Finally, I want to add a contextual comment about working with relational tension in cooperative groups. As a for-hire facilitator it's common for me to encounter unresolved tensions among members (who hires outside help when everything is going well?), but it's rare that there is an agreement in the group that all members are committed to doing personal work, so I am expected to navigate the tension without reliance on self-awareness among protagonists. (The range I've encountered over the course of my 27-year career as a group consultant is startling: all the way from it's never my fault, to the second coming of Saint Francis of Assisi.)

While I firmly support the view that doing personal work will enhance one's ability to respond constructively when encountering relational tension, when I work conflict in cooperative groups I proceed without reference to personal work (since there's no agreement to go there, and I'm not a therapist). Instead, I work directly with how people are feeling and thinking (never mind how they got there) and try to bridge differences what's available in the room. With diligence, compassion, and good intent it's almost always possible to get the job done. While that work may benefit people on a personal level, I make no claims that that will happen.

I operate from the premise that everyone wants and deserves to be heard and understood, and that unresolved tension among group members is both unpleasant and expensive. Let's see what we can do to restore flow without anyone being "bad." While this approach would undoubtedly be more potent if everyone were committed to doing personal work, it still works.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tragedy of the Commons in Community

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom came out of nowhere to win the Nobel prize in Economics. A jill-of-all-trades political economist, she'd conducted considerable research into the dynamics of managing the public good. Her research ultimately led to her publishing in 1990 her seminal piece, Governing the Commons, the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In this she laid out eight principles for self-governing common elements.

I have listed these below as they appear in David Sloan Wilson's 2011 book, The Neighborhood Project, which includes David's explanatory text:

1. Clearly defined boundaries
Members of the group should know who they are, have a strong sense of group identity, and know the rights and obligations of membership. If they are managing a resource, then the boundaries of the resource should also be clearly identified.

2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
Having some members do all the work while others get the benefits is unsustainable over the long term. Everyone must do his or her fair share, and those who go beyond the call of duty must be appropriately recognized. When leaders are accorded special privileges, it should be because they have special responsibilities for which they are held accountable. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.

3. Collective-choice arrangements
Group members should be able to create their own rules and make their own decisions by consensus. People hate being bossed around but will work hard to do what we want, not what they want. In addition, the best decisions often require knowledge of local circumstances that we have and they lack, making consensus decisions doubly important.

4. Monitoring
Cooperation must always be guarded. Even when most members of a group are well meaning, the temptation to do less than one's share is always present, and a few individuals might try actively to game the system. If lapses and transgressions can't be detected, the group enterprise is unlikely to succeed.

5. Graduated sanctions
Friendly, gentle reminders are usually sufficient to keep people in solid citizen mode, but tougher measures such as punishment and exclusion must be held in reserve.

6. Fast and fair conflict resolution
Conflicts are sure to arise and must be resolved quickly in a manner that is regarded as fair by all parties. This typically involves a hearing in which respected members of the group, who can be expected to be impartial, make an equitable decision.

7. Local autonomy
When a group is nested within a larger society, such as a farmer's association dealing with the state government or a neighborhood group dealing with a city, the group must be given enough authority to create its own social organization and make its own decisions, as outlined in points 1-6 above.

8. Polycentric governance
In large societies that consist of many groups, relationships among groups must embody the same principles as relationships among individuals within groups.

The reason I bring this up is that intentional communities—almost by definition—manage common elements, and in practice, issues with that not going so well are widespread.

Where is the line between the individual's purview and the group's purview? (I'll give you a hint: there's overlap.) There is awkwardness here both in knowing whether the group is a stakeholder, and in knowing how to proceed when it is decided that a group conversation is appropriate

I want to start with a couple of general observations:

o  Adjusting for Scale
This operates at two levels. 

First, for the purpose of exploring how Ostrom's work (and Wilson's interpretation) applies in the context of intentional community, we can safely set aside Principle #7 as a significant factor because virtually all intentional communities comprise autonomous units (excepting those that are outposts from the mother ship), and principle #8 is aimed at larger scales (such a city, state, or nation).

Second, intentional communities are purposeful attempts at greater involvement in each other's lives, which translates to greater intimacy even with the same size group. (Thus, you'd expect it to be easier to handle common assets in an intentional community than in a Thursday night duplicate bridge group, or a softball league of the same size.)

o  Group Identity 
To the extent that a person identifies with the group, they are internally motivated to be respectful with commonly held assets—because anything that degrades the common assets degrades their resources.

The converse is that if group identity is weak than so will the sense of collective responsibility. While no intentional community that I know of intends to have weak group identity, many do. And one consequence of that is a greater incidence of tragedy of the commons (the concept whereby commonly held assets are poorly treated because the members are acting more in their individual best interest than in the group's best interest).

Now let's drill down on the six remaining principles, as seen through the lens of intentional community:

1. Boundaries
I always think it's a good idea to spell out the rights and responsibilities of members. While all groups don't do this, most do a fair job of it and it's not a common problem that people are confused what assets are commonly held or who has access to them.

A more subtle problem is the way some members will forgo using jointly held assets (saving them for a time of greater need, or for those in greater need than themselves) while others use them whenever they want, because they can. People will naturally vary in whether they are consumers or savers, and this variance will show up in how frequently members will avail themselves of commonly held assets. This may be a source of tension and it may not, but you'd be advised to be sensitive to the possibility.

2. Costs and Benefits
This one has subtleties as well. While straight forward on the surface, it's not unusual for an imbalance in one arena to be compensated by an imbalance somewhere else (like the person who does more cooking in exchange for another raking more leaves). Community is full of such creative arrangements and sometimes you need to look at things broadly enough to understand whether something is truly out of kilter.

3. Self-determination
The key to this is making sure that the people affected by usage of a common asset are the ones making decisions about its management. While this is eminently sensible, there's are a couple ways groups can go astray.

First, not all common assets are of interest to all members who might have a right to their usage, and it often makes sense to limit decision-making power to those who are interested in using the common asset. (It will not tend to go over well if non-users want to wade into management issues, possibly complicating things for users.)

Second, you can also get in trouble going the other way, when management is delegated to a subgroup, but the boundaries of authority are murky. In those instances you can have a subgroup making decisions that adversely impact members who have a right to the common asset and interest in using it, yet do not have a voice in the subgroup.

4. Monitoring 
Often intentional communities are not so good at this, mainly because there is hyper-sensitivity to anything smacking of the "resource police." If people are watching resource use, then they'd be expected to speak up if there were a problem and that can be an uncomfortable and unpopular position—especially with anyone caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Thus it's tempting to simply trust that no one will abuse the resource, which often doesn't work that well either.

5. Sanctions
While I thoroughly support the notion of graduated consequences for persistent coloring outside the lines, I want to underline that punishment should be the last resort. Sometimes communities are unwilling to even consider options such as fines or exclusion. Better, I think, is that you put the possibility in place—which means defining the conditions under which sanctions are conceivable, without mandating that they be levied. That makes it clear up front (pre-need) that consequences can occur, yet doesn't tie the group's hands, or lead to anyone rushing to reach for the hickory switch.

Note: if you go that route, be sure to spell out the process by which you'll determine: a) whether a sanctionable offense has occurred; and b) if so, whether to actually impose a sanction, which one, and in what degree of severity.

6. Conflict resolution
Who could be opposed to swift and effective response? That said, the Ostrom/Wilson standard is geared toward binding arbitration, yet that's rarely how communities address conflict. Instead, in community there is generally a decided preference to seek a resolution that all parties accept energetically (rather than embrace a solution that is thrust upon them).

The tricky part is whether all players are willing to look honestly at their culpability in what went wrong. If you have one or more interested parties who feel that they are wholly the victim and all the wrong-doing has been done by others, conflict resolution can be an uphill slog.

Further there is an art to discerning the difference between promptness (which is laudable) and haste (expecting people to engage before they're ready); and it can be quite delicate crafting a format for engagement that provides reasonable safety and support for all (because what those concepts mean can vary so widely).

The bar is much higher in intentional community where people have to live in close proximity and share their lives. People living in the same residential neighborhood, or attending the same church, do not have the same degree of intertwined lives, and "conflict resolution" in those lesser circumstances can simply mean negotiated coexistence or an agreement to not serve on the same committees or projects.

• • •
Taken all together, this is a fascinating problem. On the one hand, it's a tragedy that common resources are sometimes misused in community. On the other, communities are pioneering some exemplary ways of dealing with issues that don't necessarily mean resorting to rules and punishments. At their best, tragedies in community can lead to deeper understanding and compassion—where everyone benefits.