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.


Unknown said...

Very thoughtful summary of the principles of consensus. I particularly liked the conditions placed on blocking. That does seem important and overlooked. There should be sound basis (something beyond obstinacy) for a block.

I also liked the inclusion of a sunset clause. Things are rarely done right the first time even if everyone does agree. This makes the whole process adaptable -- an essential ingredient for a successful system.

Jeff said...

This is good stuff.

I never thought about having a group decide the meaning of silence- wonderful.