One of the hallmarks of consensus is taking sufficient time to thoroughly consider everyone's views and then balancing the factors to reach the best conclusion about what action to take. What happens when you don't have enough time?
Last weekend Ma'ikwe and I were working with a forming cohousing community in Brooklyn that was struggling with trying to do everything at once. Started about a year ago, the group has six full members plus many seriously considering it. Altogether, there are about 21-22 households currently in the mix, and the issue of the moment was whether to make an offer on a fabulous, but expensive piece of property. And if they decide to go for it, how much should they put on the table? There's a lot riding on this decision and want to get it right.
As new as the group is, they have virtually no process agreements in place (beyond a baseline commitment to make decisions by consensus, which no one in the group has been trained in). Oh boy. The good news is that they realize they need help, and have asked for it well before they've dug a big hole. The tricky part was trying take enough focus away from their immediate issue (what to do about that property!) to learn how to better work through immediate issues. It was a chicken-and-egg deal.
Stepping back from the particulars of this group, I want to write about how most cohousing groups face something similar: the challenge of needing to navigate a gauntlet of crucial decisions (site selection, design, and construction management) under considerable time pressure—all of which are front-loaded and occur when the community is least prepared to deal with it. Mistakes made in how this is handled can haunt the group for years, so the stakes are high.
Leaving aside the matter of learning the skill of working creatively through non-trivial disagreements (a decidedly interesting topic, but not the subject of this entry), new groups tend to be weak in two crucial areas: understanding what is worthy of plenary consideration, and how to effectively delegate. Groups often fail to develop a) an explicit understanding of what the whole group should be working on; and b) a concomitant iron discipline about not talking about what is not plenary worthy. (Hint: this problem is often a substantial portion of the root cause for complaints about how much time is spent in meetings.)
The second part of this is understanding how to make committees work in concert with plenaries, such that subgroup work is honored (rather than trashed or reworked in plenary) and that they are given clear enough guidance and a wide enough mandate to usefully act on the group's behalf without everything substantive collapsing on the whole.
With these two caveats in mind, I suggest that forming cohousing groups would greatly benefit from the careful empaneling of what I'll style a Development Committee, which would be asked to accomplish the following:
1. Be the liaison between the community and the professionals who are directly involved with developing the property. This will include the architect, the general contractor, the bank, government officials, and the developers—in whatever combination is appropriate to the project. This committee will be charged with bringing forward decisions that need to be made by the whole group, and act on the community's behalf when there is not sufficient time to consult with the whole group. (Note: this last piece is huge, and needs to be developed with great care and high buy-in.)
2. Create and maintain an up-to-date timeline for the project's development, such that the need for plenary decisions can reasonably be anticipated, obviating (or at least minimizing) the need to invoke the committee's powers for streamlined decisions [see #4 below].
3. Field all member questions about development. If the committee does not know the answer to a question, it will undertake to get answers from the professionals, so that all community-based inquiries are coming through the Development Committee (strict adherence to this protocol will greatly simplify life for the professionals).
4. Be authorized to make decisions on behalf of the community, if conditions warrant. (Remember: when faced with a call for cloture that is based on a sense that delay will be too costly, any group can always ask, "What happens if we don't decide today?" Sometimes, the damage to group relationships ensuing from forcing the issue is more expensive than the penalties associated with non-decision. At least you can weigh it.)
I suggest the following criteria be adopted for invoking the power to make a streamlined decision (this would be about something you'd otherwise take to the plenary):
—There is the perception that taking the time to consult with the entire group would cause an unacceptable delay, by which I mean there would be a serious financial or relational consequence (that is, significant cost penalties or damage to working relationships). Note: you may need to define, at least broadly, what people consider "serious" and "substantial."
—The Development Committee needs to be in consensus about invoking this power.
—The committee will be expected to make a prompt report (with 48 hours?) to the community whenever it invokes this power, explaining what conditions justified the invocation, and what action was taken.
Because trust in this group is essential, considerable care should be taken in determining who will serve on this committee. It is important that it be a representative group (by which I mean every member feels there is at least one person on the committee whom they can easily approach with their concerns, and the community collectively feels it is an appropriately balanced group—however the community defines "balanced"; perhaps gender, age, parent/non-parent, risk averse/risk tolerant… that kind thing). Here are qualities I think you'll want members of this committee to have:
—Skill at understanding finances and evaluating contracts.
—Good communication skills and ability to collaborate well with others.
—Availability to do the work.
—Responsiveness on short notice.
—Ability to work under time pressure.
—Good at problem solving.
—Has at least a rudimentary understanding of group dynamics and good group process.
In deciding who will serve, I dis-recommend simply asking for raised hands (volunteer roulette). I suggest something like the following, which is much more deliberate:
o Post the committee job description and desired qualities for the members who serve on it.
o Ask all community members if they are willing to serve and create a written ballot listing all those who agree to be available.
o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.
o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they find acceptable to serve (people can pick none, all, or anything in between).
o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due in and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.
o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are asked if they would be willing to serve with others who have already accepted the calling. This process continues until all slots are filled.
o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the team (which does not require cmty ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is disbanded.
I'm offering this advice as an attempt to take into account both the real need to act with alacrity during development, and the long-run need for accountability. I'm trying to balance the advantages of quick action with the advantages of inclusivity. The answer, I think, is crisp delegation and prompt disclosure. It can be done.