Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Working on Work

I’m in North Carolina right now, having just finished up a weekend of process consulting with Eno Commons in Durham. (I’ll be working next weekend with Pacifica in Carrboro.) The topic we examined at Eno was Participation: how much are residents expected to contribute to the cmty’s non-monetary maintenance and development. This is an excellent topic—by which I mean a lot of communities struggle with it. I’ve been the outside facilitator for this conversation at least half a dozen times in my career.

Participation is a good-sized chunk of a larger conversation about what it means to be a member, and there are a number of known swamps you can get bogged down in:
—Should you quantify what’s expected or not (and if you do, will you record it)?
—What counts (is serving on a cmtee valued equally with cleaning toilets; how about making desserts for birthday parties?)
—How do changes in work assignments get made?
—How do you handle disgruntlement about who does what, how much they do, and how well they do it?

Rather than address any of the specific knotty questions I’ve just enumerated, today I want to lay out my thinking about how cooperative groups can best manage Participation as an important, yet predictably messy and pervasive aspect of cmy life, I think it deserves its own standing cmtee. (For some reason, almost all groups have a Finance or Budget Cmtee, yet few start with a Work Cmtee. I think they should.)

Fresh from my work at Eno, here’s my generic thinking about a mandate for what I’ll style here the Contribution Cmtee (Note: none of what’s written below presumes particular answers to the swamp questions listed above):

This cmtee's primary purpose is to facilitate productive and good-feeling responses to addressing the cmty's non-monetary needs. It is expressly trying to help all residents be more accurately understood and better connected around cmty contributions. The cmtee will not have authority to impose solutions or sanctions—it is advisory and coordinating only—yet it will be expected to:

o Meet periodically with all residents to find out their skills, availability, and desire for making non-monetary contributions to the cmty.
o Periodically canvass all cmtees and managers/coordinators to get a current sense of labor/skills needs.
o Match-make to the extent possible.
o Keep the cmty regularly informed of what people have agreed to do.
o Submit an annual assessment of how well the cmty is doing in meeting its non-monetary needs. Among other things, this report will include an assessment of the balance of member contributions, tensions among members relating to participation, and how well members are cooperating with the cmtee.
o Regularly celebrate and make known accomplishments by members.
o Try to fill all holes, with priority attention given to tasks that are "needed." (Note: if the group has not already done so, it will need to explicitly determine what jobs it considers needed or most important.)
o Be the shepherd for all questions and concerns about non-monetary contributions to the maintenance and development of the cmty. (That means they'll be the ones making sure the unresolved questions come forward in an orderly sequence for plenary consideration.)
o Be available to help people surface and constructively work through tensions and concerns relating to non-monetary contributions. (Note: this cmtee is not obligated to be the ones facilitating the conversations at which attempts will be made to name and resolve tensions; rather, they are responsible for seeing that it happens. If there's another cmtee that specifically serves to help members work through such tensions [Hint: that's another good idea for a standing cmtee], the Contribution Cmtee can hand matters over to them.)
o Periodically set up a forum for the cmty to have a "Martyrs & Slackers" conversation to clear the air. (The concept here is that it's basically inevitable that groups will experience over time a gradual build up of tensions and misunderstandings around perceived imbalances of what people are contributing to the cmty. Every so often—perhaps every couple years—it's a good idea to set aside time explicitly to tackle this head on. See the spring 2008 issue of Communities magazine for a full article devoted to this dynamic and how to address it.)
o Manage a budget for training or hiring outside help to accomplish the prior two tasks.
o Manage—if the cmty desires it—a budget for hiring outside help to do needed tasks that members are not getting to (in some groups, members have more money than time, and this is an atrractive option—but it depends on the group).

For their part, all cmty members agree to:
o Cooperate with the cmtee in answering questions about their skills, availability and desire for doing cmty tasks.
o Make themselves available for a good-faith attempt to resolve any tensions they have (or others have with them) about non-monetary contributions to the cmty. Note: all parties should be given reasonable options around when such conversations will happen, who will be in the room, and how the mtgs will be set up. The priority here is to find a way to proceed that all concerned parties feel is the most friendly and constructive they can agree to.

• • •
Warning #1: Setting this cmtee up will not eliminate problems with Participation, yet it will create a solid basis for a conversation when tensions arise, and it can help enormously to have a group of members empowered to go around asking well-intended questions about what people are doing now and would like to do in the future.

Warning #2: Be careful about how members are selected to serve on this cmtee—it's typically trickier than just asking for volunteers and taking the first five people who put their hands in the air. It can be important to the cmtee's viability that the cmty feel there's a representative balance of pro-structure folks with those who favor a more informal, let-people-come-forward-as-they-are-moved-to approach to getting the work done.

Also, I recommend taking a moment to reflect on whether the proposed cmtee composition is such that you believe every group member will feel there's at least one person on the cmtee whom they can approach and trust to hear them accurately. To the extent that you have disgruntled and estranged folks in your group, this can be a challenge. If you don't handle this well,
the disenfranchised will tend to view the Contribution Cmtee as the "Work Police," and it won't be pretty.

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