Monday, May 17, 2010

Taking Pot Shots at Consensus

OK, I've had enough. I'm tired of people trashing consensus based on initial poor experiences. While I can appreciate how this has happened, who promised that changing the world was going to be easy?

In the world of Cultural Creatives (the term coined by sociologist Paul Ray to describe the substantial—and growing—segment of the population who are moving beyond traditional and conservative paradigms to create a different, and hopefully better functioning & more humane society), there is a broad-based analysis that mainstream decision-making sucks. It favors the people with privilege, the people with money, the people with power, the people who are quick, the people who are articulate, and those good at competing. There is a strong impulse to move toward more collaborative and inclusive processes for solving problems—especially when the stakes are high.

Consensus, in one form or another (see my blog of March 17, The Many Flavors of Consensus, for more on this), is among the most popular choices for groups trying to address the challenge of finding a a more cooperative way to make decisions. Unfortunately, having an analysis about the need for something different, as well as the will to do something about it (both of which are excellent things), is not sufficient to guarantee a good result. Bummer.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the need for cultural change, it's naive to expect to achieve it merely through rewriting the rules for how you make decisions. If you expect a rules change to manifest more cooperative behavior, you're just not getting it. It needs to work the other way around, where you first commit to creating a more cooperative culture and then embrace a decision-making process that reinforces that commitment
(consensus anyone?). If you don't—and I'm here to tell you that there are untold numbers of well-intended progressive groups that have fallen into this trap—consensus gets transmuted into unanimous voting, where groups unwittingly recapitulate the competitive environment of adversarial politics with a very difficult standard for reaching agreement (no dissent is much harder to achieve than a 51% majority in this atmosphere). While it's not too hard to get everyone to dress up as sheep for the meeting, if the topics are close to the bone, the inner wolf emerges and there is no form of bloodletting quite so poignant or outrageous as pacifists cutting each other to ribbons (with the blunted knives of "I" statements).

Over the years I've been a part of a number of groups which use consensus, beginning with my joining others to found Sandhill Farm in 1974. After 36 years I've come to understand it as an amazing and hopeful process. However, that understanding took years to mature and did not come all at once. Like many groups committed to cooperation, at the outset we did not have a very sophisticated understanding of what it took to create and nurture collaborative culture. We stumbled our way through until we got better, and in the early years we weren't even smart enough to ask for help.

I tell this story both to establish my credentials and my sympathy for others whose pioneering wagons have fallen into the same ruts that ours did, committing to consensus without really knowing what the hell we were doing. I totally get it how consensus can be an exhausting and debilitating experience when practiced by the unpracticed. My remedy for this is to take a closer a look at what it means to commit to culture change, and to commit to getting training in consensus.

A good many others, however, have taken a different approach, and that's where I'm focusing today's blog. They prefer to look critically at the process, rather than at the orientation and understanding of the practitioners. Thus, if you look at Sociocracy, Holacracy, or the Transition Town movement—all of which are excellent, vibrant examples of good faith efforts to promote positive cultural change—each one has a naive critique of consensus, primarily playing off the frustrations that are commonly experienced by the newly converted. Each offers a "new and improved" process for making decisions which attempts to push consensus into the mud as a stepping stone to navigate the quagmire of how humans—with all our messy complexities—make decisions when the stakes are high and people disagree.

Further, I recently read
James Surowiecki's intriguing book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which offers valuable insights into how groups can be consistently relied upon to find better solutions than experts so long as the individuals in the group offer their thinking independently and have access to diverse sources for their opinions. In this book, Surowiecki criticizes consensus for its tendency to undercut the independence of the individual opinions to the extent that the group values conformity and harmony above inquiry and breadth. While consensus can be practiced that way (justifying the author's comments), that does not mean it must be or should be, and I was frustrated by Surowiecki's critical conclusions regarding consensus. He could just as easily have gotten excited about how consensus offers unusual promise for surfacing differing views in a supporting environment, but it doesn't seem to me that he has a very thorough understanding of consensus. (Do you see the theme here?)

I am not here to do the reverse, to trash the ideas being generated under the banners of others (and thereby attempt to elevate the flag for consensus). I find many of the ideas offered by those named above to be intriguing and deserve to be tested. It seems appropriate to me that Cultural Creatives, after all, ought to be creative in their search for new culture, and I fully support trying out new ideas. That said, consensus is a richer and more robust process for supporting cooperative culture than it is being given credit for, and I'm standing up for it.

While I cannot tell what, in the end, will work best for making cooperative decisions (it may well be a variety of approaches, with choices tailored to the application), I am certain that we will not manifest lasting, positive cultural change by simply adopting a new operating manual. Shifts of the magnitude we seek (and need) will only succeed when accompanied by an understanding that we need to work much more holistically in tackling problems. We need processes that work with our hearts and our spirit as well as with our heads. We need magic and intuition as well as courage and good thinking. We need more curiosity than casuistry; more humility than hubris.

Can I get consensus on that?

1 comment:

Dave Pollard said...

Hi Laird: Wish I could have attended your session on WoC. I've written a lot on my blog on Surowiecki's book and most of the criticisms of it have been naive and uninformed, but I think your criticism is valid. Surowiecki comes from a different culture in which consensus is often used as a tool for manipulation or the suppression of diversity. I think if he had more experience of IC his criticism of consensus would at least be more nuanced. Thanks for the important work you do.