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?

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