Friday, March 28, 2008

The Nuances of Consensus with Back-up Voting

Today I'm going to explore the dynamics of groups using consensus with a provision to vote in the case of a stalemate (it is the companion piece to what I posted two days ago). This will be a play in four acts.

Act I: The dynamics of having the option to vote at all
I know groups which have a provision to vote in their bylaws but never use it—even after a couple decades. In situations like this, the group has grown to trust consensus and they truly operate as if the voting back-up were never there. It's abhorrent for them to consider voting, even though they have an agreement on the books making it legitimate.

However, if the group does exercise its right to vote, at least occasionally, all members will know that it's a possibility and that awareness has a subtle affect on the dynamics of conversations whenever the group is struggling to find its way. In true consensus (where there is no voting), the train isn't leaving the station until everyone is on board. It is the whole group's responsibility to find an answer that everyone can accept.

If there's a voting back-up however (the club in the closet), then those in the majority position on an issue can start to relax, because they know that time is on their side. If the minority cannot persuade others to join them before the clock expires on consensus, the club will come out of the closet and they'll lose the vote that will break the deadlock. Worse, if you are fairly sure you'll be voicing an unpopular opinion, you may decide to keep quiet—just to avoid the anguish associated with being isolated and losing a vote (why go through the hassle?). And anything that works to erode the environment in which people are encouraged to voice their views can be a mortal wound to consensus.

If a group gets in the habit of reaching for a vote frequently, it will eventually subvert the culture of consensus and the group will start behaving like a voting group (with a veneer of lip gloss about its commitment to inclusivity). Voting will start being used to circumvent the objections of individuals who are frequently difficult to deal with (either because of their positions or their personalities, or both), and the claim of making decisions by consensus will become a sham. If your group moves in this direction and is OK with it, then I recommend you abandon consensus all together and embrace voting officially as your decision-making process. Pseudo-consensus is worse than voting.

The litmus test here is the energy in the room when people disagree in plenary about non-trivial issues. Is it caustic or curious? Is it cantankerous or cooperative? While this is a challenge for consensus groups of all stripes, for those with a voting back-up much depends on how frequently the group reaches into the cloak room and takes out the cudgel.

Act II: A situational escape clause
While some consensus groups don't think of it, there is always the option to make a decision—by consensus, of course—to make an exception for how a particular decision will be made. You don't need a bylaws revision for this either. You just need minutes stating that "The group agreed by consensus to determine the color of the Guest Room bathroom by throwing darts at a color wheel." Or you could decide (by consensus) to make a decision about the (overdue) proposed 2008 budget by a 2/3-majority vote. [This last example is a reference to the specifics I described in my previous blog.]

While the minority, who might reasonably expect to be outvoted, may object to switching from consensus to a 2/3-majority vote, you may be surprised. In any event, there's no harm in asking—so long as you've made a reasonably thorough effort to consider the issue and resolve any concerns through your normal process first.

Act III: Defining when voting can be invoked
There needs to be a clear understanding about the conditions under which a stalemate is declared and voting can be invoked. (Note that you should also be clear about the kind(s) of voting that may be used: simple majority of all members, 2/3-majority, 80% of those in the room, secret ballot, show of hands, etc.)

An example of this might be: "There need to be at least two plenaries where proposals for dealing with an issue have been thoroughly considered before the voting back-up can be invoked to decide what to do at the next plenary."

Or: "If there is a plenary at which a proposal on a topic is considered and the group agrees at the end of the consideration that: a) everyone has had an adequate opportunity to state their views on the matter; b) there has been no progress made on resolving substantive differences among members despite there having been adequate time in the mtg to do so; and c) there is no expectation that 'aging' will help move the issue forward, then the group can invoke the voting back-up to determine what to do at the next plenary."

While you can't think of everything, it is important to be as explicit as possible in laying this out. Remember: you'll be applying this protocol only at times where there appear to be irreconcilable differences, so you cannot expect good will to be oozing out of everyone's pores. Clarity in the conditions will be invaluable in navigating this moment without weathering claims of foul play.

Act IV: Defining the process by which it will be determined whether the conditions in Act III have been met
There needs to be a clear process by which the group will consider whether the conditions necessary to invoke voting have been met. You may think this is simple, but it ain't necessarily so. Let's go back to the two examples of conditions-to-invoke that I offered above.

Questions about whether a particular plenary "counted" as one of the two required could surface along the following lines:
o Was there adequate announcement ahead of the mtg that this would be on the agenda?
o Were the minutes of the mtgs sufficiently complete and accurate?
o Were the minutes disseminated in a timely way?
o Were people known to be strong stakeholders on the issue and
out of town for one or both of the mtgs appropriately notified what was happening?
o Was the plenary consideration adequately "thorough"?
o Were there some plenaries at which this issue came up yet focused only on discussion and no proposals were offered (and thus don't count toward satisfying the protocol for invoking a vote)?
o What constitutes adequate advance notification that a vote is coming up on Topic X at the plenary to be held on Date Y?
o By what standard can you determine that reflection between mtgs is unlikely to produce movement?

As you can see,
there is plenty of room for ambiguity. Defining the process in the midst of a controversy about its application is a train wreck, and nobody wants that.

Epilogue: Minimizing the drama
Even if your group is crystal clear about what the voting back-up is and how it will be invoked, you still want to pay close attention to the energy around its use. There is a lot that a savvy group can do to minimize upset by careful work outside of plenary.

The politics of this dynamic are such that it's best to bend over backwards in an attempt to resolve the impasse without resorting to a vote. If everyone has the feeling that the group made an excellent effort to not let people become isolated in their differences, and gave them multiple chances to work things out in a variety of venues (plenary, small groups, one-on-one conversations, ouija board, outside consultant) the call for a vote and the experience of its application will land much more softly. Remember: what's at stake is more than just the disposition of the immediate proposal; you also need to be thinking about the long-term health of the group. If people feel a vote was rammed down their throats, it can be very expensive.

Here are some practical suggestions about what non-plenary laboring on a knotty issue can look like:
o Canvassing all people with remaining concerns one-on-one, to make sure that you've heard them accurately, and that they feel heard.
o Striking an ad hoc threshing cmtee comprised of all people with concerns and one or two skilled facilitators who help them attempt to iron out differences (separating the kernels of solution connection from the chaff of confusion and contentiousness).
o Posting a concise summary of remaining concerns and asking everyone to meditate on what might help the group through the impasse.
o Investigating the experience of similar groups when they've faced issues analogous to what you're wrestling with.
o Sometimes people balk at deciding the current issue because it represents leverage for them at getting the group to address a larger issue. Where that's the case, explore ways that commitments can be made to address the larger issue so that the proposal on the table is no longer being held hostage.

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