Monday, September 28, 2009

Power of One

Last weekend I was working with a 36-year-old community in northern California that was founded by Quaker activists. Among other things they wanted to spend half the weekend refining how they work with consensus. It's a great topic, and one that I wished more groups devoted time to—especially groups who supposedly operate by consensus.

Here are the four consensus questions the group wanted to tackle:

1. How to get back on track once the consideration veers into negative or unproductive behavior?

2. How do we define "blocking" and "standing aside," and what are individual and group rights & responsibilities when these surface?

3. When working a topic on which there's substantive disagreement about how to proceed, how do we work constructively with differences and foster an atmosphere of appreciation for people willing to surface their concerns?

4. How can we discern when our input is based on what's best for the group, in contrast with personal preferences?

Well, we didn't run out of things to talk about. In today's blog I want to share some insights that surfaced for me in connection with addressing Question #2—in particular, about how blocking is viewed. In subsequent blogs, I'll try to address the other questions.

Consensus (in some form or other) is the most common way that intentional communities make decisions. As a process consultant I'm often hired to help groups learn more deeply how consensus works and how to develop the culture in which it can flourish. (Unfortunately, many groups make the commitment to using consensus without acquiring a deep understanding or investing in training, and they get indifferent results.) How to understand and work with blocks is one of the most frequent questions about consensus that I field.

In some cases, especially where groups are unsure of their footing around how the group can successfully navigate deeply held differences (reference Question #3 above), the group can become terrified of blocks, for fear of divisiveness and polarization.

In the case of the community I was working with last weekend, we were able to resolve fairly quickly what I'll style the difference between "blocks" and "pseudo-blocks." In a typical sequence of engagement on an issue, the group will go through the following phases:
o Presentation of the Issue (what portion of the issue needs to be tackled at the plenary level?)
o Discussion (identifying the factors that a good response needs to take into account)
o Proposal Generation (what response best balances the factors named in the previous step?)
o Decision (is the proposal good enough?)
o Implementation (who is doing what, when, and with what resources?)

In consensus theory, a "block," or "standing in the way of," occurs only in the Decision phase—at the end of thorough Discussion and careful Proposal Generation. Essentially, healthy groups rarely experience blocks because they almost never advance proposals that everyone cannot accept.

However, when a group is unsure about what constitutes a legitimate block and/or how to handle that examination, then trouble tends to show up earlier. A person with a strongly held position (or style) may draw a line in the sand early in the Discussion phase with a statement something like, "If someone proposes that we use capital reserves to fund repainting the Common House, I'll block it. That money should never be used for maintenance."

Although the speaker actually used the B word, it wasn't really a block because wasn't a proposal on the table. Rather, it was a strong concern, and a factor that will need to be addressed (which is exactly what should be surfacing during the Discussion phase). We call this a "pseudo-block" because it didn't occur during the Decision phase, yet it can be every bit as effective as a legitimate block in stopping a line of inquiry if the group does not know how to work differences.

The community I was working with was struggling mainly with pseudo-blocks. And while that was fairly easy to sort out to everyone's satisfaction, the confusion was partly begged by their being unclear what actually constituted a legitimate block. And it was that conversation that was especially potent for me.

To my knowledge, there is no single way that groups using consensus define a block. That said, it's typically a problem if groups don't define it and, for my money, I prefer that the test of legitimacy be that the blocker believes that the proposal either violates a common value of the group or a prior agreement in force. In other words, that the proposed action or agreement will harm the group in some substantial way.

While the group was united in its desire to to define a block (no one was standing up for ambiguity), there was not clear agreement about what that would be. In a Go Round, the majority expressed comfort with the standard of legitimacy that I offered. However, a notable handful dissented. And I was touched by this dissent.

After 22 years as a process consultant, I've run into many examples of groups which have been hamstrung by obstinate individuals who claimed they were blocking proposals for the good of the group yet no one could see how the proposal violated a group value. It just looked like the individual was abusing their right to block in pursuit of a personal agenda, and the group was reluctant to push against this.

The people who were uncomfortable with requiring that an individual needed to "justify" their block, or (put another way) that the group could override a block, spoke eloquently for trusting that members would take seriously the responsibility to think deeply and carefully before exercising their right to block. While I'm not yet convinced that the standard for a block should not be "for the good of the group," I can see how trusting members to do well may be a better model than preparing for churlishness or manipulation by protectively putting in place a process for invalidation.

There was not a shred of doubt in my mind that the dissenters were operating for the good of the group when defending the right of individuals to be the sole judge of whether their block was appropriate, and thus, in the true Quaker tradition, this group will let this question season and come back to it later.
After all my years in the field, I've learned that groups tend to manifest what they expect to find. Those dissenters reminded me of the power of expecting the best, and I was touched by how they all exemplified the very care and integrity in considering this matter that they were projecting that all group members will exercise when considering whether to block.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Long time reader but this is the first time I have left a comment.

First, I enjoy your blog and look forward to your frequent updates. I have found that your suggestions on communication provide a real and constructive way to enhance my communication with other. For me, this has been very helpful on both a personal and profession level. Thank you.

I also enjoyed reading the New York Times article on "Living Together: A Modern Answer to the Commune" was thrilled to see you quoted!

Thanks again for such an interesting blog.