Monday, March 29, 2010

The Firefighter's Lament

Part of my work as a process consultant is out-of-town firefighting. In the small but intense world of intentional communities, if a group catches on fire and can't put it out on their own, I'm one the people who might get a call. It's a specialty that requires both that you understand the fluid dynamics of group conflagration, and the ability to not wilt in the heat of the moment. It takes a certain combination of savvy, groundedness, and improvisational chutzpah which I'm crazy enough to embrace.

While it's only a piece of my work as a consultant, some of my most precious memories are the work I've done with groups in crisis. While you're never happy that people are in struggle, you're glad for the chance to ease the pain, and offer a helping hand.

After being in this line of work for more than two decades, there's a steady stream of inquiries that reach my ears concerning hot issues (as opposed to requests for trainings or for non-crisis facilitating—both of which I also do), and they tend to fall into one of three categories, all of which occur in roughly equal proportions:

A) Groups who have recognized that they need help, have hired me, and have subsequently gotten their fire under control (whew!).

B) Groups who have recognized that they need help, but could not agreed to hire me—either because the prior work I've done with that group drew mixed reviews, or because they've never seen me before and are having trouble imagining how someone from rural Missouri could possibly be worth the $1200/day I tell clients I'm worth.

C) Groups that have not yet recognized that they need help (despite the fact the people in and around the group have already pulled the fire alarm).

While I'm wistful about the groups in Category B, it's the ones in Category C that haunt me, because I know what help can mean for a group in crisis, and it's hard to watch them suffer while they find their way, often tortuously, to being ready to give outside assistance a chance. Even when you know you can help, you have to wait for the group to be ready… and sometimes they never are.

Right now I'm waiting on four Category C possibilities, not knowing if any of them will convert to becoming clients:
—A land trust in the Southwest where the governing board hasn't met in over a year and two of the three members are at odds with each other.
—A West Coast retreat center where the professionals have broken off regular meetings because of unresolved internal tensions (folks, these things don't self-heal!)
—A Mid-Atlantic community that is struggling with mental health issues—how much can the group handle before their lifeboat is swamped?
—A Northeast group that is wrestling with how to balance the needs of members who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity with those who want to garden and burn wood (which activities are more ecologically sustainable yet make life harder for those suffering with MCS).

And that's just in the last two months.

When a cooperative group moves into crisis, what's at stake is often more than the viability of the membership of the individuals at odds. Sometimes it's the viability of the entire cooperative. Worse than that, it can be the viability of hope in a cooperative future. A bad experience can suck all the air out of the room, leaving the players' souls burnt to a crisp.

As a firefighter my job is threefold:
o To bring everyone who's not already toast back from the brink of immolation (this is battlefield nursing, where the players are scarred with emotional distress and you're operating mostly on instinct to salve the burns).
o To guide the group through the fire onto the cool grass beyond the flames, where they can function more or less normally again (teaching people that they can survive the heat).
o To offer the group the skills needed to manage their own fires (teaching people that they can thrive in the heat).

While I rarely get the chance to offer a group all three, I live for those times where I do. Knowing what's at stake, and how badly our culture needs to learn the skills to turn this around, the crises which keep me awake at night are the Category C's I don't get to fight—where good-hearted people are burning and they could have been saved.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Not Letting the Smoke Get in Our Eyes

I'm home now from two weeks on the road, enjoying the sound of spring peepers as a bedtime serenade, and watching the Earth lumber awake from the long winter with chlorophyll-engorged shafts of green poking through the decaying brown residue from last year's efforts. The sodden ground is slowly shedding its excess snow melt borne away on the kite-flying breezes of late March. Someday in my future it will no longer be muddy walking on the lawn...

Just as the bees are now building up their corps of workers in anticipation of the elm and maple pollen about to become available (fresh food for the first time in months!), Sandhill's population is burgeoning as well. From the winter trim of six adults, we've added member candidates Chris and Owen, and we're currently hosting experienced communitarians and long-time acquaintances Alex and Bri, who have stopped by for a fortnight visit en route from Des Moines (where they recently ended a stint at the Catholic Worker House) to Baltimore, where Bri will start nursing school.

Just as the activity is picking up in our beehives, it's buzzing in the greenhouse as well. The walls are lined with flats full of brassicas, onions, and salad greens started from seed and now merrily sporting little green rows of promise. Just this week we planted the more thermophilic and longer-germinating peppers seeds, which require longer in the nursery and a spot nearer the wood stove. I'm tellin' ya, spring is coming!

• • •
Over coffee this morning, Gigi checked with me about our line of condiments. We're close to completing a process of overhauling our labels that's been dragging on for years, and there was a red flag raised recently by our certifying agency (OneCert) about the liquid smoke we use as a flavoring in our barbecue sauce. As it's my recipe, Gigi wanted to know whether I preferred to alter the formula to do without the offending ingredient, or simply let go of getting the BBQ sauce labeled organic.

Apparently the brand of liquid smoke we use (purchased locally by the quart from a Mennonite dry goods and grocery just three miles down the road) contains polysorbate 80, which OneCert brands a proscribed ingredient in organic products. (I reckon anything with a name that has that many syllables and a number at the end is automatically suspect.) While polysorbate 80 is FDA approved as an emulsifier (it's a common ingredient in commercial ice cream, so that it will hold air and retain its shape better as it melts—and we all know that's important), it's suspected of monkeying with fertility among those who innocently ingest it. (Actually, it probably causes just as much trouble among those who guiltily ingest it, but you know what I meant.)

Organic certification generally allows food producers to use non-organic ingredients (up to 5% by weight) if an organic source of that ingredient is not available.
As liquid smoke is potent, I'm putting less than a teaspoon in every pint of finished product—which is to say, you're much more at risk for unproductive family planning eating Coldstone vanilla ice cream than baked tempeh slathered with Sandhill barbecue sauce. Though I did due diligence when I cobbled up the recipe years ago, my search for an organic source of liquid smoke came up empty.

While that still seems to be the case (it's conceivable, I suppose, that an organic supply does exist somewhere and mighty Google somehow failed to ferret out that particular ort of food arcana), now that I've been alerted to the health questions about polysorbate 80, I tried a different tack than the two choices Gigi offered. Instead of giving up on the coveted "organic" designation or the use of liquid smoke (a flavoring I deem essential), I started hunting for a liquid smoke that didn't contain the execrable emulsifier.

The Wright Stuff
It turned out that Google had no trouble at all pointing me to a source of no-additive liquid smoke: B&G Foods out of Parsippany NJ makes a brand called Wright's. I can get it by the gallon and I even have a choice between mesquite or hickory. Yeehah! Just to be on the safe side, we're running Wright's liquid smoke ingredient list by OneCert to make sure they don't label it Wrong.

Ultimately, we've been thinking it might be a good strategy to build our own smokehouse, where we could not only cure our own bacon and hams (starting with our own organic porkers, of course), but we might be able to smoke new-crop onions each August and then use those to flavor our barbecue sauce instead of what comes out of a bottle. If this works, salt and Irish Moss flakes (a seaweed used as a thickener) will be the only ingredients we're not producing right here on our farm. Talk about locavore.

In any event, when the smoke clears, we hope to have an organic barbecue sauce proudly bearing the Sandhill label. And by the way, it tastes great!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Poor Minutes Lead to Wasted Hours

I recently got a request from Rebecca Krantz, a friend in Madison WI who is also a process consultant. She asked me my thoughts about a number of questions regarding consensus, and I've used my responses to her as a series of four blog entries. Here's what she wanted to know:

1. How to choose a decision-making process (in what contexts should groups adopt consensus, and in which contexts shouldn't they) See my blog of March 14.

2. So you want to make decisions by consensus? (basic definitions of what this means and choices the group has in how to go about it)
See my blog of March 17.

3. Consensus decision-making from soup to nuts (highlights of the key steps—agenda setting, initial discussion, delegation/committee work, proposal generation, conflict resolution, decision-making) See my blog of March 20.

4. But who seconded the motion? (recommendations for how minutes should be structured for consensus process meetings)

In this entry I'll address the fourth question. Good records of what happened at meetings are important for a variety of reasons:

—Informing members who missed the meeting what happened (with sufficient detail that people will be able to tell if points dear to them have already surfaced in the conversation—if this is not clear, you’ll can be certain you'll hear comments repeated the next time that topic is addressed).
—Providing a record of decisions and task assignments, which can serve to clear up ambiguities when memories fade or don’t agree. This is particularly valuable for committee mandates and for explaining to prospective members what they are joining (in a consensus group, new members must abide by the full body of agreements already in place—this generally works better if new folks are fully informed about those decisions ahead of time, rather than surprised by them afterward).
—Helping the agenda setting crew figure out exactly where the plenary left off and where it needs to pick up when the topic is next considered (re-plowing old ground can be the height of tedium).
—Providing background on the rationale for decisions. This can be crucial in deciding whether it’s relevant to reconsider a prior agreement. For my money the litmus test on whether to reconsider is "what's new?" If the minutes are good enough to spell out what factors were taken into account the last time the group grappled with that issue, you'll be in an excellent position to discern whether anything has altered enough to warrant a fresh look.

• • •
Groups can benefit enormously from discussing what they want minutes to accomplish and the standards they want to set for them. This is a plenary conversation. Following is a list of questions to consider:
o Timeliness (how soon after a meeting should they be posted?)
o How will they be disseminated (is email to a list serve enough, or should there be a hard copy posted on a bulletin board as well—and if so, where)?
o How will minutes be archived?
o Minimum standards for what content will be covered (keep in mind the need get enough sense of the discussion that people who missed the meeting will know whether their concerns have surfaced or not—if this is not done well enough, you'll be condemned to hearing comments repeated in plenary.
o Process by which people can propose revisions to the minutes, and how it will be decided what changes should be incorporated if there's disagreement about it.
o Suggestions for formatting such that readers can easily scan minutes for decisions and tasks. (Do you want executive summaries of the minutes to help those with limited time get the gist?)
o What will be your standard for recording attributions (who said what)? In general, the two situations where it tends to be most valuable are when someone is expressing upset or when they are speaking in an official capacity (for example, as a board member, manager, or committee chair)?
o Do you want to create an (indexed?) Agreement Log, which would provide a place for people to look up more easily what the group has agreed to?
o What compensation (if any) will notetakers get for doing minutes?
o What committee will be responsible for seeing to it that notetakers are trained, and that minute standards are being adhered to?

Not Just for Secretaries Any More
It can often be challenging for a group to find enough energy among its membership for taking, editing, and organizing minutes. Here's a hint for how this might be enhanced: ask folks who want to learn to be better facilitators to take turns doing minutes. The art of quickly crafting a concise yet accurate synopsis of a speaker's comments is the same as that used by facilitators to track and summarize conversations. Though the facilitator is doing it orally, while the notetaker is doing it in writing, it's still the same skill. This awareness might help generate some additional enthusiasm for practicing the noble craft of taking minutes—and doing the group a good turn into the bargain.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Consensus from Soup to Nuts

I recently got a request from Rebecca Krantz, a friend in Madison WI who is also a process consultant. She asked me my thoughts about a number of questions regarding consensus, and I intend to use my responses to her as my next four blog entries. Here's what she wants to know:

1. How to choose a decision-making process (in what contexts should groups adopt consensus, and in which contexts shouldn't they) See my blog of March 14.

2. So you want to make decisions by consensus? (basic definitions of what this means and choices the group has in how to go about it)
See my blog of March 17.

3. Consensus decision-making from soup to nuts (highlights of the key steps—agenda setting, initial discussion, delegation/committee work, proposal generation, conflict resolution, decision-making)

4. But who seconded the motion? (recommendations for how minutes should be structured for consensus process meetings)

In this entry I'll address the third question. As this is a huge topic, I'll only be skating across the surface of answers that can run quite deep. Nonetheless, the list below should give a decent overview of what I consider some key elements of consensus.

A. Process Agreements
Essentially, this is the body of agreements the group develops relating to how it will do its work. It includes what it means by consensus (see my blog of March 17), yet also covers what authority it gives facilitators to run meetings, what is the relationship between the plenary and committees (or managers)—I'll talk about this more under Point F, Delegation below—and the standard for minutes of community meetings (see my next blog for more on this).

The new piece in the above list is the authorization for facilitators. To give you an idea of what I have in mind, here are the Ground Rules I typically ask groups to accept when I came in as an outside facilitator:
o Emotional expression is OK; aggression is not.
o If you're confused about what's happening, ask.
o Raise your hand to speak (unless the group is fewer than eight).
o I'll call on people in the order in which they've raised their hands, with two exceptions:
—I'll preferentially call on people who've spoken less frequently.
—I reserve the right to suspend the stack to follow and energetic thread (and will return to the stack when the thread is complete).
o Silence = assent on procedural matters.
o If the group is undecided about what to do next, the facilitator will make the call (Note: this is about where to focus the conversation, not about what policies or agreements the group should make).
o I'm here as everyone's ally when it comes to their voice being accurately heard.
o I'll interrupt people I perceive to be repeating.
o I'll keep people on topic.
o I'm agreement prejudiced (meaning that I'll be preferentially looking for the ways that comments fit together, rather than ways in which they don't).
o I'll assume good intent.
o Please silence electronic devices.

The important thing here is not that you use this list; it's that your facilitators have a license to act and everyone knows what that is.

B. Agenda Setting
I think any group member or committee should be allowed to propose that a topic come to plenary, yet I think it works best if there's a committee whose job it is to screen suggestions for what's should come forward as a draft agenda. See my blog of Jan 25, 2008, Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for a monograph on how to handle this. You might be interested as well in my
companion piece of Jan 28, 2008, Selecting Plenary Facilitators.

C. Discussion Phase
Once you've got an issue on the table (and everyone knows what you're talking about), it's important to identify all the factors that a good response to this issue needs to take into account. That's the point of the discussion phase. One the challenges here is being disciplined enough to not jump into problem solving prior to completing this phase. (If you do, it's guess work whether the solution offered will take into account the factors that haven't yet been named. This is a classic case of the cart before the horse.)

For a more thorough discussion about how to handle this when it gets messy, see my blog of Sept 23, 2008, Untangling Hair Balls. Note that there are typically three steps to this phase:
o Brainstorm
o Vet (which factors are appropriate in light of common values)
o Prioritize (do some factors trump others?)

D. Proposal Generation
In this phase, you want to lay down advocacy (there was time enough for that in the discussion phase) and invite ideas that bridge factors, especially ones that may appear to be non-compatible. While you were encouraging an expansive mind set for discussion, you should be in a bringing together, or honing mind set for this phase. In any event, this should be a creative phase, not a combative or protective one.

For a treatment of the distinction between discussion and proposal generating, see my blog of Jan 30, 2010, Nurturing the Culture of Collaboration and Curiosity.

E. Decision-making
If you've handled the discussion and proposal generating well, then the decision-making—formally adopting the proposal—tends to be straight forward. You just need to give everyone adequate time to digest the proposal (and perhaps time for people who've missed the meeting at which the proposal was generated to reflect on what the group did) before officially saying omini domini, nobiscum friscum (or whatever ritual your group does around announcing that a consensus has been achieved).

In a consensus group, people have essentially three different choices when it comes to decision-making:

i) Agree. This can be anywhere between benign indifference and wild enthusiasm, yet it all adds up to a green light and support for the proposal.

ii) Standing aside. This means you are not in support of the proposal, yet neither do you want to stop it from going forward. That is, you do not think it is a mistake for the group.

iii) Standing in the way of, or blocking. This means you are actively stopping the group from adopting this proposal. In full consensus (that is, consensus where there is no voting fallback) it is enough that one person blocks to stop a proposal. For a fuller understanding of the nuances of standing aside and blocking, see my blog of March 17.

F. Delegation
In order for a consensus group to function well, it is essential that it understand when it is working at a level appropriate for the entire group, and when it isn't. When the conversation drops to a level of detail that's below the boundary of what's plenary worthy, then it's time to delegate.

That said, knowing when to delegate is not the same as knowing how to delegate. Here's a checklist of questions to consider when crafting a solid delegation mandate. Although not all questions obtain in all situations, if you walk through this template, you'll rarely miss an important element. Although this has been cast for committees, this list can be readily adapted for managers as well:

o Is the committee ad hoc or standing? If ad hoc, will the committee automatically be laid down when it's mission is completed? If standing, are there terms or term limits for how long a member serves?

o What qualities are valuable or desirable for people serving on this committee? (Hint: distinguish between qualities that are important that someone have, from those that are important that all have.)

o How will committee members be selected? Caution: If the committee is doing work for which balanced participation and/or high trust are deemed important, simply asking for volunteers may not be a satisfactory method for choosing.

o Is the committee empowered to self-organize? (For example, is it important or necessary that committee decisions be made in the same way that plenary decisions are made, or can they decided that for themselves?)

o Is the committee expected to have a convener (the person responsible for calling meetings, drafting agendas, making sure that minutes are kept and posted, and answering question about the committee)? If so, who will serve as the start-up convener (at least until the first meeting, at which time who will fill this role in an ongoing capacity can be discussed and decided)?

o What is the committee expected to accomplish?

o Are there deadlines for when work is due, or when partial product is expected?

o What resources will be made available for the committee to do its work? (This can include money, labor, expertise, or access to equipment or information.)

o What reports are expected, what are they expected to address, how and to whom will they be disseminated, and when are they due?

o What license does the committee have make decisions without coming back to the plenary for approval? (The flip side: when is the committee expected to come back to the plenary for additional guidance?)

o To what extent is the committee expected to coordinate or share authority with other committees?

o Is it clear how group members not on the committee can offer input on committee topics? Is the committee empowered to establish drop dead dates, such that the committee is no obliged to consider input that arrives afterward?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Many Flavors of Consensus

I recently got a request from Rebecca Krantz, a friend in Madison WI who is also a process consultant. She asked me my thoughts about a number of questions regarding consensus, and I intend to use my responses to her as my next four blog entries. Here's what she wants to know:

1. How to choose a decision-making process (in what contexts should groups adopt consensus, and in which contexts shouldn't they) (see my blog of March 14)

2. So you want to make decisions by consensus? (basic definitions of what this means and choices the group has in how to go about it)

3. Consensus decision-making from soup to nuts (highlights of the key steps—agenda setting, initial discussion, delegation/committee work, proposal generation, conflict resolution, decision-making)

4. But who seconded the motion? (recommendations for how minutes should be structured for consensus process meetings)

In this entry I'll address the second question. Consensus is far and away the most popular choice among intentional communities for how they'll make decisions. Unfortunately, it comes in many flavors and simply saying you use consensus leaves considerable room for ambiguity about what your group actually does. Today, in no particular order, I'll try to lay out some of the main options.

A. Commitment to creating a culture of cooperation
The heart of consensus is creating an environment in which participants labor with one another in a spirit of curiosity and collaboration whenever non-trivial differences emerge (nobody needs help when everyone agrees about what to do or differences are perceived by all parties to be minor). Without a commitment to doing this foundational work, the kind of consensus that results will tend toward the formulaic and brittle, amounting to little more than unanimous voting.

See my blog of Jan 30, 2010 for more on this: "Nurturing the Culture of Collaboration and Curiosity."

B. Silence
Groups have a fundamental choice about how they interpret silence in meetings. In the Quaker tradition, meetings are characterized by considerable spaciousness and members are expected to be in agreement with what's already been voiced unless they speak otherwise. In the Native American tradition, the reverse is true—disagreement is assumed until agreement has been voiced. Either way can work, it's just important that everyone knows how it works in your group.

Based on my experience, I recommend that secular groups use silence=assent for procedural matters ("Does everyone think my summary was an accurate statement of what everyone said the last half hour?" or "I propose we focus on Question Three first, is that OK?"), and rely on something more demonstrative when testing for agreement on policy. Some groups use hand signals, some use colored cards, and I even ran into a art collective in San Francisco once who used pirate arrghs to indicate agreement.

C. Sunset clauses
Consensus is a conservative process and once you have an agreement in place it takes a new consensus to change it. When a group is wrestling with a new policy and there's anxiety over getting it wrong and not being able to change it later, it's sometimes better to have the option to make a consensus decision with a sunset clause, such that the decision expires on a certain date if there is not a consensus to continue it. This option can reduce the feeling that the group is making a decision in wet concrete, which will be hell to change later if they change their mind.

The key question here is whether your group practices a brand of consensus that allows this option.

D. Standing aside
This is the middle ground between assent and blocking when a proposal is tested for consensus. The person making this choice is neither in support of the proposal, nor wanting to stop the group from moving forward, and it's important for the group to determine what are appropriate grounds for standing aside, and how that moment will be handled in a meeting—for example, what is the standard around making sure that the group understands the basis for making that choice? Some groups stop to check it out (the better to make sure that nothing has been missed and that everyone has been thoroughly heard); others don't (to speed things up). How will you handle it?

Further, there is nuance around how many stand asides can be tolerated and still have a solid decision (there's a world of difference between three people standing aside in a group of 100 and three people standing aside in a group of seven). In most consensus groups there is no numerical limit on how many stand asides can be tolerated; in some though, there is.

E. Grounds for blocking
It is essential that groups using consensus define carefully the conditions under which a member can legitimately block a proposal, and the process under which that block will be explored, both for legitimacy and for potential resolution. As a process consultant I advocate strongly that groups only allow blocks when a member believes that the proposal will violate a group value or is incompatible with other agreements already in force. Essentially, the blocker must believe that it will be a non-trivial mistake for the group to accept this proposal, and the blocker needs to be able to demonstrate the plausibility of this analysis to at last one other member of the group (the point here being that the block need not be validated if no one else can understand—not agree with, just understand—the claim that the group will be making a mistake).

For more on blocking, see my blog of Sept 28, 2009: "The Power of One."

If a groups waits until it is in a blocking dynamic before attempting to elucidate the legitimate grounds for making that choice, it's too late, and a train wreck is sure to follow. It is crucial, in my view, that the group spell out carefully what each party's responsibility is for making a good faith effort to resolve a block. Finally, it is important for a group to decide explicitly the conditions under which a block can be overturned, if any. Some groups allow for a super-majority to prevail if a proposal remains deadlocked after x number of meetings have been devoted to attempts to resolve the concerns; some groups do not allow this option.

For more on this, see my blog of March 28, 2008: "The Nuances of Consensus with Back-up Voting."

F. Emotional input
Every group is comprised of people. Every person has emotions. It's important that groups discuss how they intend to work with feelings that surface in the context of deliberations. Hint: if your group expects members to park strong feelings at the door before meetings, then you're ducking this issue, not dealing with it. There will be times when strong feelings enter the room whether there is permission or not, and the question I'm posing is how you'll handle it, not whether you can forbid it (hopeless) or contain it (possible, yet expensive).

A group's position on this has enormous impact on how the group functions, how it solves problems, and how it builds trust.

For more on working with emotions, see my blogs of
—Aug 31, 2009: "Passivity Versus Neutrality"
—May 18, 2009: "Three Essential Ingredients"

G. Working with conflict
This one is an important (and volatile) subset of the previous point on working with emotions. This is the dynamic where there are at least two points of view and at least one person with non-trivial distress. While this dynamic doesn't surface a high percentage of the time for most groups (unless the group's purpose is therapeutic), it occurs often enough that it's very expensive for the group to not have a clear idea about how it will attempt to work with it.

For more on conflict, see my five-blog series starting March 18, 2009.

H. Conditions under which there's an involuntary loss of member rights and the process by which that will be examined
While it's hard to get enthusiastic about discussing this topic prior to needing it, it's a nightmare to attempt to put policy about this in place under pressure of an existing dynamic that causes you to consider applying it. At the extreme, we're talking about expulsion. Short of that, it's discussing measured responses to a member failing to meet obligations, or violating agreements.

In wrestling with this, be sure not to skip the second part, where you lay out the process by which the group will examine the perception that the conditions have been triggered, and be careful to not tie the group's hands around how sanctions are applied—being allowed to invoke sanctions is not the same as being required to.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Deciding How to Decide

I recently got a request from Rebecca Krantz, a friend in Madison WI who is also a process consultant. She asked me my thoughts about a number of questions regarding consensus, and I intend to use my responses to her as my next four blog entries. Here's what she wants to know:

1. How to choose a decision-making process (in what contexts should groups adopt consensus, and in which contexts shouldn't they)

2. So you want to make decisions by consensus? (basic definitions of what this means and choices the group has in how to go about it)

3. Consensus decision-making from soup to nuts (highlights of the key steps—agenda setting, initial discussion, delegation/committee work, proposal generation, conflict resolution, decision-making)

4. But who seconded the motion? (recommendations for how minutes should be structured for consensus process meetings)

In this entry I'll tackle the first question, though I'll limit my focus to the appropriate uses of consensus.

There are many forms of decision-making and they all have a place. Where consensus really stands out as a superior choice is when the following conditions obtain:
o The group intends to be around for a long time.
o The group values maximal buy-in with decisions.
o The group wants to foster and nurture a cooperative and relational way of being in the world.
o The group values how it makes decisions as much as what decisions it makes.

It's useful, I think, to distinguish between how a group normally makes decisions and the choices it has about decision-making in particular cases. In this context, I am not promotional of groups dabbling in consensus on a case-by-case basis—if a group is not using consensus as its normal decision-making process, I recommend that it not use consensus at all. My reasoning is that doing consensus well is not easy, and you're much less likely to achieve solid results by dipping in and out of it. Better to leave it alone if you're not going to make the investment.

That said, I feel differently about the reverse dynamic. I think it's fine—even advisable—that a consensus group occasionally rely on alternate methods for making particular choices (when, for example,
choosing what color to paint the Common House bathroom, what name to give the new dog, or what to serve at Thanksgiving dinner). The key here is deciding, by consensus, that you'll settle that particular matter another way (whether by majority vote, by Ouija board, or by letting the person with the next birthday choose).

Don't use consensus unless you're willing to invest in learning it (Hint: it's way more than just reading a book or attending a few Quaker meetings).

One of the keys to getting good results with consensus is understanding the potency of four main ingredients:

a) Common values
What the group stands for (why it exists and what its trying to do in the world) is the bedrock upon which all sound decisions are built. A consensus group needs to know what those values are and members need to be prepared to labor with one another over how to sensitively apply them in the case of the specific issue at hand.

b) Work appropriate for the group
For consensus to thrive, it's essential that the group discuss what kinds of concerns are appropriate for plenary consideration and then be disciplined about not tackling topics outside that scope. Often this means working through the parts that are plenary worthy, and then rigorously offloading the remaining pieces to an appropriate committee or manager.

c) Willingness to engage
Good group meetings are based on a contract among members. Each individual is making a promise to bring their full attention to the topics that the group has collectively agreed to discuss. If the issue matters to you personally, you need the support of others to find your way to the best solution. If the issue does not grab you, you can play a crucial role as a bridge-builder among the stakeholders. Everyone has a role to play on every topic.

d) Belief in the process
After years of working with groups, I've come to appreciate that most of us have been conditioned to focus on what's not working ahead of what is. In the context of meetings, we tend to focus on what's not getting accomplished ahead of what is, and there's a cultural norm to have low expectations about meeting output (that what will happen is more likely to be something to endure than something to endear). If you expect poor results, you are already most of the way to manifesting that experience. Alternately, if you expect good results and believe that consensus will work, then you have already greatly enhanced the likelihood of manifesting that experience.

If I haven't discouraged you yet, consensus may be the right choice for your group. It's terrific for bridging different styles and different perspectives (not the same things), and when practiced with skill and sensitivity I think it's unbeatable for building group cohesion and raising energy.

One of the biggest complaints about consensus is that it takes to long (decisions are made by exhaustion, or by the folks with the largest bladders). However, the accounting for efficiency is often deficient—you need to measure the quality of the implementation, not just the time devoted to meetings. It's no bargain making a decision in 15 minutes if the implementation subsequently sucks and you have redo the work, perhaps because the right people weren't in the room, the decision was rushed, or there were too many assumptions about the actual agreement or who had authority to do what. With consensus, the group is often investing extra time in plenary (being careful to get the decisions right) with the expectation of reaping substantial dividends when it comes to implementation.

When you have the kind of group that can't afford to go fast, consensus may be the right choice for making choices.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Springing Ahead

While it’s not quite time yet for the daylight savings switcheroo (which happens Sunday), Ma’ikwe and I just got through experiencing the automotive equivalent of time lapse photography by driving from northeast Missouri to central North Carolina.

Tuesday morning we loaded the car, trudging suitcases from her house across a field of spongy fescue completely sodden with snow melt. While the snow cover is steadily receding as daytime temperatures consistently push into the 40s, the ground around home is still more than 25% white.

However, just two hours into our journey—halfway to St Louis—the snow cover had receded to the point that there were only occasional remnants to be seen, bunkered in on north-facing embankments. Winter had stubbornly held on in northeast Missouri and we were more than ready to leapfrog our way into warmer weather! (Our two-day car ride was something like participating in a giant game of Chutes and Ladders—the Weather Version.)

We stopped overnight in Louisville, which is about midway to the Tar Heel State, staying with long-time friend Ella Peregrine. Coming out from the restaurant where we rendezvoused for dinner, Ma’ikwe and I were pleasantly surprised to realize that at 8 pm it was still warm enough to not need jackets. Spring was in the air!

Wednesday morning we started seeing fresh chlorophyll in the grass and chartreuse smudges in the tree branches by the time we got to the convergence of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. While the snow cover reasserted itself as we navigated the mountainous twists and turns of I-77 riding down the spine of West Virginia, we finally shook winter for good once we shot through Fancy Gap and coasted into Winston-Salem. While the steady drizzle that greeted us there was not exactly our first choice on the weather menu, a spring rain at 50 degrees nonetheless touches the psyche (and nose) in a refreshingly different way than snow showers at 25.

We arrived at our hosts at 8:30 pm. During our brief scramble to unload the car amidst light rain, I noticed the unmistakable upward thrust of daffodil stems in the front yard. Yippee! After a brief stint in the living room featuring hot peppermint tea and lively conversation, Ma'ikwe and I gratefully gave ourselves over to horizontal therapy. The last thing I heard before drifting off to sleep was frog song—a far cry from the ecological niche we'd departed the morning before, where in northeast Missouri we're still in the yo-yo of temperatures ideal for pumping maple sap into our waiting buckets, and the predominant outdoor noises are the raucous honks of the first brave geese pushing tentatively north.

In short, Ma'ikwe and I are thoroughly intending to enjoy the advanced stages of spring during our fortnight on the East Coast, a harbinger of what awaits our return to Missouri March 24, when even the calendar will say it's spring.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Milestone Meal at the Mercantile

Yesterday Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and I had a delicious lunch, lovingly prepared and served by the owners and wait staff of the restaurant. What's remarkable about this is that we ate in, not out. Around noon we simply walked a couple hundred yards from Ma'ikwe's house to the Milkweed Mercantile, where husband & wife proprietors Kurt Kessner & Alline Anderson had the unofficial opening of the restaurant portion of their eco-inn/general store.

Yesterday was only for members of the three local communities—Sandhill Farm, Dancing Rabbit, and Red Earth Farms—to work the kinks out in anticipation of passing a Health Dept inspection this coming week, which is their last hurdle before opening the restaurant to the public. In addition to the great meal, it was an important marker in our combined efforts to create alternative culture.

The story here goes all the way back to 1974, when Nixon was still regnant despite his misadventures in Southeast Asia (his ignominious resignation after the debacle of Watergate was still three months away). In May, four of us idealistic twenty-somethings arrived in Rutledge to start an experiment in group living on 63 acres. Two years later we settled on the name "Sandhill Farm," and we've been here ever since. We expanded to an adjoining 72 acres in 1988. Dancing Rabbit bought 280 acres three miles away from us in 1997; Red Earth Farms launched on 76 acres bordering Dancing Rabbit in 2007. Today the three communities have a combined adult and child population of about 70, and we're all growing.

Unlike Sandhill and Red Earth—which intend to remain relatively small with a homesteading ethos—Dancing Rabbit aspires to be a village of several hundred, and that means a robust internal economy. While it's still early days, and most of the intra-three-community activity has been limited to a steady stream of barter and hiring fellow community mates to work on specific projects, it has always been intended that the community would reach the scale where it made economic sense for full-fledged businesses to operate on site, where an essential portion of the flow would come from member purchases (rather than being sustained solely by curious outsiders, or members' relatives who are a bit too squeamish for the rough and ready lifestyle of composting toilets and no grid electricity). With the opening of the Mercantile's restaurant—filled yesterday to capacity by supporting members of the tri-communities—we passed an important milestone.

A month earlier, I observed a large portion of Dancing Rabbit's annual retreat, where one of the most intriguing proposals was to create an energy co-op and purchase a large wind generator (where the excess energy would be sold back to the grid through net metering until is was needed by the growing community). There's talk of establishing an on-site school in its own building (to relieve pressure on the multipurpose Common House during school hours). Dan Durica is planting grapes for a vineyard cum winery, and there's momentum building for a tri-community dairy (think butter and cheese, not just raw milk).

Dancing Rabbit is building an intentional town, not just a community, and it won't be too many years before their population exceeds that of Rutledge (an even 100 as of July 2008), where our post office currently resides, yet may not always. Strategic thinkers spend as much time focusing on roads, waste water management, and underground utility cables as they do about debt service, vehicle fleets, and how to fill committee slots.

It's exciting to realize that all of this work to create sustainable culture has been accomplished in 36 years, in my lifetime. There was nothing alternative about Rutledge when we arrived in 1974, and now we have a substantial cultural beachhead, with excellent prospects for the future. When I contemplate the world's situation, I figure the need for sustainable culture is pandemic—we need it badly, and we need it everywhere. It gives me great hope to realize that we've been able to collectively create a promising nucleus of sustainable culture in unassuming northeast Missouri. I figure if we can succeed here, it can be done anywhere, and that's the part of eating at the Mercantile yesterday that sent shivers up my spine—not just that great medium rare hamburger made with grass-fed beef, topped with crisp greenhouse lettuce, local cheddar, organic bacon, and onion rings marinated in balsamic vinegar.

Sure, there's still a long way to go, yet what work could be more joyous or more meaningful? And now we have great hamburgers to sustain us on the journey.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Home from the Strange, Where the Dear and Antidotes Play

Home is one of those elephant words, whose meaning at any given time depends upon which part you’re touching. This is the fourth installment of a blog series where I unpack some of those meanings…

Essentially, I experience home as the familiar yet precious elements of our lives. Home is where we feel seen and connected. It is where we touch our roots and the place from where we fruit. It is at once a paradoxical touchstone that is both now and hopelessly distorted by a past that we can never really return to, nor ever truly free ourselves from.

Here's the outline of my series:
—Home as Family (Dec 24, 2009)
—Home as Place (Dec 27, 2009)
—Home as Culture (Jan 18, 2010)
—Home as Routine
—Home as Work

In this fourth entry, I'll focus on Home as Routine. This is about our comfort with the familiar; how we're at ease most with what we know best. Some of us, of course, are more willing the others to plow new ground, to attempt a thing for the first time. Adventure and the unknown can exhilarate and promote growth. It can also exhaust and feel clunky.

It's been my observation that most us can only handle so much newness at a time, and even those who claim an affinity for working without a net prefer that it happen only within strict bounds (in the Big Top, two shows daily—at 4 & 8 pm, right after the dancing elephants and before the barking seals). In short, we all need a certain amount of routine, and the comfort of the familiar—even it is largely masked by moments of sheer terror as we whiz through the air on the flying trapeze of life.

Routine comes in many guises: when we get up, what we have for breakfast, the clothes we wear, how we drink our coffee (or tea), what we order at our favorite restaurant, how we shuffle cards, when we balance the checkbook, what pen we prefer, what triggers the need for a haircut, whether we read before bed or watch TV, what kind of dessert we like on our birthday, whether we sleep with the window open or closed. It's about managing life so that the new portions are manageable, affording you the psychic space to prepare for the unscripted parts (or to process them afterward) because your mind needn't focus on what's routine.

When you live with others, they will, over time, become familiar with what's routine for you, even if they consider your preferences are quirky (or even weird). One of the litmus tests of whether someone is a good candidate for group living is the degree of tolerance you have for other's routines. If you need others to do things your way—especially minor, everyday things such as the laundry list of routine possibilities I trotted out above—your life is going to be fraught with irritation and you aren't going to be much fun to live with, regardless of how well you match up on common values.

To the extent possible, you want your routines (and those of others you're in regular contact with) to be minimally distressing, so that when one person is acting within their comfort zone it's not pushing someone else out of theirs.

Another way to put this is that we all crave—albeit in varying degrees—feeling at home some non-trivial portion of our lives, and one important aspect of "home" is doing things that are familiar and nonthreatening (think of comforts acts, analogous to comfort food). It is the opposite of strange; it is where we are nurtured by and can relax in the presence of what is dear and familiar. It is, in a small yet important way, an antidote to anxiety and the ever-present potential for stimulation overload and tension overwhelm. Routine and play allow us to exhale, slow down, and integrate our experiences below the level of consciousness. It is the heart of Yin, and every bit is necessary to a healthy balance as the excitement of Yang.

For me, it's drinking strong coffee with cream first thing in the morning; it's looking out the train window while traveling en route to my next meeting or consulting gig; it's playing duplicate bridge every Wed night I'm not on the road; it's yoga before dinner; it's flossing my teeth every night. Lately, it's also been crafting a blog entry every three days.

Monday, March 1, 2010

When Good Intentions Are Not Enough

As I reported in my previous entry, I was working last weekend with The Vale, a well-established community on the southeastern outskirts of Yellow Springs OH. One of the topics I was asked to facilitate was Shared Resources. As you might imagine, in an intentional community this touched many aspects of cooperatively living. Despite the breadth of this topic, it didn't take us long to whittle it down to management of the woods, as that's where the brush fires of ambiguity were burning most brightly.

The community's 40 acres are held in a land trust and the community has a long term lease. Individuals and couples own their own homes and have small leaseholds controlling the land immediately around their houses. The conditions of the lease allow members to use wood grown on the land under certain conditions:

o On the land managed by the community, only dead wood is allowed to be harvested, unless a live tree is so severely damaged that there are no reasonable prospects for recovery (think ice storms or high winds breaking off tops).

o On homeowner leaseholds residents are allowed to cut live wood at their own discretion if the diameter of the tree is less than than 12 inches. Beyond that, they need to get community approval—as in the case where a tree i
s leaning over a roof, or has grown so large as that the canopy shades a garden.

o Under the above conditions, members are allowed to freely harvest wood for firewood, so long as the the wood is used on the property (no selling firewood off site).

o If someone wants to cut a tree into lumber, it's at the discretion of the person who works up the tree and is willing to pay the saw bill.

While there can be complications when the person who harvested the log isn't the same one who's willing to pay to get the boards sawed (who gets to decide the dimensions of the lumber, how it will be dried, and where it will be stored) the main ambiguity we unpacked had to do with who controls the use of the lumber.

In the spirit of generosity, the tradition at The Vale is that lumber cut from trees grown on the land belongs to the group, and many of the homes have portions of their structural members, trim, and decorative pieces that have been lovingly harvested from the land. As the stalwarts of the community have positioned themselves comfortably toward the casual end of the rules/no rules spectrum, the community has developed no agreements about who will decide how lumber will be used if it was cut without a specific purpose in mind. Thus, today there are piles of Vale lumber tucked away in a variety of barns, garages, and sheds awaiting disposition.

When we explored this on Saturday, no one was quite clear what all there was, there was uncertainty about who was managing the piles, and there was no understanding about how someone could get permission to use boards—short of a group meeting to discuss, which everyone readily agreed was would quickly get ridiculous.

One member indicated that
he felt fine with any member taking whatever they needed from the lumber that he had paid to have milled. Others wanted users to compensate for the saw bill. Some members reported that they didn't feel comfortable using any lumber, for fear of inadvertently upsetting someone who might be coveting the particular boards they selected. Talk about getting lost in the woods!

As far as I was concerned, this was good will and informality run amok. Not surprisingly, a system that relied heavily on nuance and tradition was more comfortable for long-term members and more mysterious for the newer folks. Not only that, but the longer-term members were surprised to learn how awkward these subtleties were for everyone else to understand.

The awkward dynamics that led the group to select this as a topic had to do with a second generation member who was insisting on getting clear at the outset about how a recent batch of logs would be cut into lumber, who would pay for it, how much he would be able to substitute labor for dollars, and what portion of the lumber he could claim. Others wanted to proceed in the same informal way that they had in the past and found the insistence on addressing these concerns to be off-putting.

The point of this story is not to cajole groups to move more toward the let's-spell-everything-out end of the rules/no rules spectrum—groups should be free to locate themselves wherever members feel most comfortable in that regard. Rather, it's to absorb two lessons:

A. Unless you screen new members explicitly for their comfort level about rules, you'd be wise to anticipate this kind of tension and the need to navigate it without judgment about the variety you're statistically bound to manifest among individual's proclivities.

B. The more informally a group operates, the greater the investment that will need to be made by established members to integrate the new ones, as there will be little written material to work from and the newbies won't even know what questions to ask (until after they accidentally get it wrong and piss someone off). Expecting the sight-impaired to learn how to cross a room (that they've never seen before) by bumping into walls and stepping on sharp objects is poor technique. It's much better to give them glasses, footwear, a map, and a reliable guide. After all, the objective is that they get safely to the other side of the room, not to demonstrate how tough they are.

If you want members to be have reasonable access to local lumber, spell out a fair way by which that can happen and make sure that new folks understand the process. It doesn't have to be a test of one's forbearance or intuitive insight.