Thursday, December 30, 2010

Paint by the Numbers Facilitation

After 23 years as a group process consultant I'm getting ready (slowly) to write a book about facilitating cooperative groups. It's a big topic—and doesn't get any smaller by virtue of my going deliberately. In fact, one of the trickiest parts is knowing when to ease off of doing in order to write about doing. It's a little crazy-making.

One the themes I stress as a trainer is that a good facilitator needs to be able to work both with content and with energy. I call this "riding two horses," and it's no small feat. The skill to do one well is completely unrelated to doing the other well, and it's not unusual to encounter students who are fairly accomplished equestrians with one horse, yet total greenhorns on the other.

One of my motivations to author a book about facilitation is that most of the existing literature on this subject is slanted toward the content horse—how to manage the conversation effectively and efficiently. I'm convinced though that you also need the second horse, to be able to read the the subtle undercurrents and handle volatility (pretending that upset doesn't occur, or making a rule against its expression, simply doesn't work).

My attitude about this is rooted in 36 years of community living, where there's a clearer understanding that relationships are primary to quality of life, and that you haven't solved a problem if there isn't a high level of buy-in from the individuals in the group. While I think this is essentially true for all cooperative groups, it's more apparent in intentional communities, where discord and disgruntlement have more immediate deleterious consequences.

One of the spurs (riding the equine metaphor for all it's worth) for my writing about facilitation is that most authors offer up a recipe for good meetings with an "if A, then B" approach—suggesting that if you could get good enough at it (that is, learn all the rules), then you would always know what to do. If you could only get a large enough set of colored pencils, then you would always have the one you wanted for filling in the dragon's eye.

Some authors focus principally on expanding one's tool kit (the person who has mastered the most techniques wins). See Holman & Devane's The Change Handbook for an example of this approach, offering up their sense of the best of whole systems practices.

Others have a favorite technique that they view as a golden compass, always pointing you in the right direction. Or perhaps I should say a golden hammer, where every group challenge appears as a nail. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication comes across this way, where the key is learning how to speak as a giraffe instead of as a jackal. The sociocracy craze is founded on the notion that the right organizational structure will see you to the promised land. The Institute for Cultural Affair's Technology of Participation offers an up-tempo formulaic approach to problem solving.

While I definitely think it's worthwhile learning patterns, and I believe that many of the above approaches have merit, meetings are not like pantyhose, where one size fits all. [Ma'ikwe just proofread this and informed me that even pantyhose does not come all in one size fits all—who knew? Probably I should confine my metaphors to lingering on topics about which I have more knowledge, and stretch less to offer metaphors about confining lingerie.] In my view, there is no single approach that always works or is always best in any situation. While you want to learn principles, you need to stay fluid about their application.

I see facilitation more as an art form than a craft, and this is a crucial distinction. While I'm all in favor of facilitators doing their homework and coming to a meeting prepared, they also have to be light on their toes and willing to alter the plan to follow the energy, adapting to what presents in the moment. This does not mean that facilitation is all about contact improv, yet it does mean that you will be too brittle if you're adamant about following a script.

For my money the facilitator's mantra is: What does the group most need right now? It could be a summary; it could be a graphic laying out where you are in the conversation; it could be a pause in the action to give attention to someone in tears; it could be a potty break. It's way more than just deciding whose turn it is to speak next. While the baseline skill is accurately hearing what people are saying, a great facilitator needs to also hear what's not being said, and the deeper meaning that underlies what's happening on the surface. A top-notch facilitator needs to be able to look around the curve, see what's coming, and decide whether to keep the herd moving in that direction or pick another path.

In short, facilitators need to be able to develop their horse sense and come to meetings with a fully stocked saddle bag; they need to know when to trust their instinct and when to haul out a technique. In the end, it's all about what works—by which I mean what moves the group productively and authentically through the agenda and builds relationships in the process.

While it's no doubt an easier pedagogy to teach brush strokes and how to mix pigments, I don't think that's really good enough. Sometimes, to get the full beauty of the moment, you have to color outside the lines. And that's the kind of facilitation I teach.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Vegas Convergence

Yesterday was a long day. It started when the alarm went off at 4 am and didn't end until Ma'ikwe and I crawled back into the same bed at 1:30 am (technically today).

In between we dropped off a friend at the Quincy train station (to catch the 6:12 am to Chicago), delivered a quart of honey to the doorstep of a sleeping customer in Hannibal, and continued on down to De Soto (less than an hour south of St Louis) to spend the day with my son and his family (Ceilee, Tosca, and their daughter Taviyn), who were visiting Tosca's family over the Christmas weekend.

I'd last seen them in October and figured this would probably be as close as I'd get to them until April at the earliest. So it was worth 9+ hours in the car to visit for 11+ hours.

My next visit will almost certainly be in Las Vegas, which is where Ceilee has been living the past four years, and where Jo, my daughter, will be living in a few days. Even as I type this Jo is caravaning to Vegas with her partner (Peter) and her mother (my ex-partner, Elke). Jo & Peter just closed out two years in Toledo yesterday, and life in Vegas glitz belt should offer considerable contrast with life in the Midwestern rust belt.

It's a bit weird that both my kids will start 2011 living in Vegas, which I don't consider to be an affirmation or natural extension of the agrarian homesteading values in which they were raised. Yet there's also a logic to it. Tosca was originally drawn to be in town for sommelier training; Ceilee likes it for the mild climate, the free-wheeling business environment, and proximity to natural recreational areas. Peter's career is in television (electronic promotions), and Jo has a budding career in food service. Vegas makes sense for all of those reasons.

Even though it's 1600 miles west, Vegas is a relatively inexpensive place to get to, and whenever I have work on the West Coast I'll get a chance to stop by (either coming or going) and see both of my kids in one go. If I'm successful in launching a two-year facilitation training program in northern California this year, that will translate into eight chances to see my kids over a 24-month period. Pretty sweet.

This coming Friday evening I'll be sedately ringing in the New Year over at Dancing Rabbit, (where there's a 50-50 chance I'll still be up at midnight). My kids, meanwhile, will be smack in the middle of Sin City where every kind of excess known to humanity is close at hand. While the juxtaposition is startling, I reckon we'll all be having a good time, with each doing what he or she wants to be doing. At the end of the day (or year), I reckon that's as good as it gets

Friday, December 24, 2010

Neither Snow, nor Rain, nor Heat…

Back in 1995, we painted Sandhill's mailbox green. If you pulled down the door, on the inside would be a message painted in yellow: "Hi Charlie." That salutation was for Charlie Houghton, our regular mail carrier for almost 22 years—from Jan 14, 1989 until yesterday, when he gave himself an early Christmas present and retired. We'll miss him.

In this season of exaltation and exhalation, it seems an auspicious time to reflect on the many years of good service we've enjoyed from our local Post Office.

While it's something of an urban distortion that change in the hinterlands comes slowly, the pattern holds true to stereotype when it comes to Rutledge mail carriers. I've lived here since 1974 and in all that time we've only had two regular mail carriers: Charlie and the guy before him, Hillis McCabe, whose time in the saddle went back far enough that a regular portion of his delivery route literally required him to spend time in the saddle. The roads were so poor when Hillis broke in that whenever it rained he'd have to deliver nine miles on horseback, slogging through the mud. (I don't know if it was uphill both ways, but I'm sure there wasn't any "swift completion of his appointed rounds" on wet days.)

Charlie was an easy-going mail carrier, happy to take a moment to discuss the weather (what were the chances of rain overnight?) or the whether (he'd take your package whether you had the right postage or not; if you underpaid he'd front the difference and bill you the next day—try getting that kind of service in the city).

Charlie knew where the vicious dogs were (and knew that ours were all bark). If there was a bad dog, he'd simply stay in his truck. What with the FIC's national headquarters located at Sandhill and my community's need to ship sorghum hither and yon, it's a common occurrence for our packages to exceed the capacity of our mailbox. If it was a nice day, we leave the extras on a skid next to the mailbox. In inclement weather, we'll stash the surplus on the front porch and leave a note in the box. Without complaint, Charlie would pull up to the steps, walk up to the porch, and gather the packages. In the country, you see, the Post Office doesn't just deliver, it also collects.

Our happy association with the Post Office goes further than our relationship with our mail carrier. Of the four postmasters we've had during my community's tenure in the outskirts of Rutledge, we grew quite close to the one we had the longest: Mary Walker, who served from 1990 to 2007. She came along right as the FIC was developing its role as a publisher, and together we plumbed the depths of the DMM (domestic mail manual) to learn about the arcane features of bound printed matter, periodical rates, and bulk mailing (we were the first locals to blow the dust off some of the sections of the DMM, and FIC was assigned Bulk Permit #1 when we started dabbling in direct mail campaigns).

In the early days of publishing Communities magazine, I'd go into the back room of the Post Office once a quarter to count and weigh all the bags with Mary's help. On Tuesdays she'd drive the two miles to Sandhill to take her one-hour lunch break with us, and we got to know her pretty well. In the depths of winter, it became a tradition to attend the Walker's Super Bowl Party, where the entertainment was equal parts of: a) watching the high-priced efforts of Madison Ave's latest attempts at clever TV ads; and b) listening to Mary's husband, Roger, who'd regale us with stories from his career as the road manager for Buckwheat Zydeco. Some of us even watched the football game.

• • •
The next in line to ascend to the regular mail carrier's position is Charlie's substitute, Kim. There are rumors though that we may lose our small town post office to the larger one in Memphis, our county seat, in which case the Rutledge routes would be consolidated and Kim might be out of a job. Wile we don't want that to happen, it's probably out of our control. Politics.

If closure decisions are based on volume of mail, the FIC is doing its part to help keep the Rutledge Post Office open, averaging around 100 pieces of mail outgoing each week. We're crossing our fingers that it will be enough, and our small town of 100 will not lose one of its favorite spots for socializing. If you're ever out our way, stop by and visit a spell. Hillis still lives in Rutledge, and you can ask himself yourself about all those miles of mud.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Getting Lost in the Fun House: the Nuances of Delegation

This past week I got an inquiry from a friend who lives at a community I've worked with a few times. They're a consensus group that's wrestling with a question of delegation and what comes to plenary. Here's what my friend wrote:

A while back you helped us set up the idea of the Gatekeepers [Laird's note: to determine if and when a topic is appropriate for plenary consideration] and advised us on how to determine if a topic is plenary ready. We have a Finance Committee (FC) that handles all the money, leases, legal, budget, etc stuff for the community. Part of what that committee does is work with the Office Users Group (OUG) to handle the leasing of the shared office space in our common house. (This space is rented to members based on a formula that was negotiated and worked out a few years ago.) We have one member, Chris [Laird's note: I've changed the name] who thinks that the office users are not paying enough money for the space. Chris went directly to the Gatekeepers and requested time at the plenary. The Gatekeepers put Chris off for several months due to other priorities but eventually the topic got on the agenda. When the “Office Rates” item showed up on the posted agenda, a lot of people freaked out. The problem, according to members of both the FC and the OUG is that Chris never came to either of them to discuss any concerns. People are feeling defensive, blind-sided, worried, angry, etc; it’s pretty messy. Further, faith in the Gatekeepers’ role—and in the Gatekeepers' understanding of their role—is in question because this is a very hot topic. Those who worked on the leasing rates labored long and hard to reach an agreement, working through a lot of emotion and engaging professional legal and financial counsel into the bargain.

As far as anyone can remember, nobody has ever tried to put a topic on the plenary agenda that dealt with a committee's area without going to the committee first. So this is a test case.

My question is: Should the Gatekeepers have told Chris to work with the FC and/or the OUG before requesting plenary time? I understood the process to be that, should an individual fail to feel satisfied after consulting with the host committee on his issue, or should a person have an issue that doesn’t have an obvious host committee, then—depending on the topic’s relevance and readiness—the Gatekeepers could decide to put the item on the plenary agenda. Our Gatekeepers remember that it was not necessary to go through a committee as long as the person had an issue that was "ready." (I’m not sure how they determined that this issue was ready but I think that might be a separate question for another time.)

This is a great question, and I thought I'd share my response:

For the purposes of this explanation, I'll use the term "committee" to refer to either the Finance Committee, the Office Users Group, or both—whichever is relevant.

Here's a thorough treatment of the sequence I think should be used:
1a) If the committee has a clear mandate to set office rates (the thing Chris wants reviewed), then Chris should go to them first, and the Gatekeepers should have directed Chris that way.

2a) If Chris takes it to the committee, three things can happen:
i) Chris is satisfied with their response. Done.
ii) Chris is not satisfied, yet acknowledges that the committee acted within its authority. In this instance, Chris may be unhappy yet will have to live with it. Done.
iii) Chris is not satisfied, and believes that the committee acted inappropriately. This can be appealed to the plenary. (Perhaps because Chris believes the committee blew her off, or misapplied group standards in disagreeing with her.)

3a iii) Chris should automatically get a chance to make her case in plenary (with the Gatekeepers deciding when this item should fit in the queue for a plenary agenda topic). When this happens, the discussion will be in two parts:

A) The plenary first hears Chris' case for why the committee acted inappropriately. The committee, of course, gets to speak to its side of it as well, and the plenary makes a decision about whether the committee acted in bounds or not.

If the plenary decides that the committee did fine, then Chris must live with it. Done.

If the plenary decides there was ambiguity, or the committee acted inappropriately, the plenary can clarify any confusing parts of the committee's authority, and then decide to either hear Chris' issue directly, or refer it back to committee with the clarified guidance.

B) If the plenary decides to hear the issue, then it tackles the question of office rates.

1b) If the committee does not have a clear mandate about setting office rates, or Chris can make the case that it has exceeded its authority in this regard, or Chris can make the case that what she desires is outside the scope of what the committee can decide, then the Gatekeepers were right to have the issue come to plenary—though they certainly should have alerted the committee that this was in play at their earliest opportunity.

2b) The plenary decides to do one of the following:
i) To clarify or modify the committee's mandate to handle Chris' concern, and turn the matter over to committee; or
ii) To tackle the issue of office rates directly.

There is also another possibility: the Gatekeepers could be satisfied that the committee has the authority to tackle Chris' concern, yet the committee demurs. In that case, the matter must come to plenary for the purpose of clarifying the committee's mandate (and the plenary must further be available to tackle the issue if the committee steadfastly refuses to take it on).

• • •
I don't think it's all that hard to figure this out if you can: a) keep track of where you are in the conversation; b) manage emotional distress (without condescending, kowtowing, or freaking out yourself); and c) remember to solve process questions ahead of content questions.

Last, there is an issue below the surface here about regularly evaluating standing committees—both to review whether folks are satisfied with the mandate, and with the way that the current configuration is doing their work. In a healthy group, this should be done periodically (once every two years?) and it's possible that some portion of Chris' upset would have surfaced sooner—and in a less messy way—during a routine evaluation of FC or OUG.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sleeping in the Bed I Made

The year is winding down and my suitcase will sit quietly in the corner for the remainder of the year. My next trip isn't until 2011 and it's great to be home for the holidays. I can cherish cooking and consuming Christmas comestibles—Tom & Jerry's, pinwheel cookies, and Aunt Hennie's plum pudding with rum sauce. I have time to sneak off to the workshop to craft a gift or two from wood grown on Sandhill's land; to settle into a daily yoga routine on my bedroom floor before dinner; to tailor individual holiday greetings to friends scattered far and wide.

When home, I appreciate the seasonal rhythms of the winter: sipping my morning coffee on the couch next to the wood stove; lingering in conversations because the workload on the farm drops with the temperatures; savoring the miracle of freeze-dried laundry (where cotton comes off the line softer than down on a new chick); snuggling under the covers with my partner, where we sleep with arms and legs interwoven like snakes; enjoying a healthy mix of contemplative noodling on my laptop, juxtaposed with aerobic outdoor forays to secure next year's firewood; testing the pond ice to see when it's stout enough to conduct the annual census of snapping turtles, parked liked submarines in the mud near shore; pausing in the late afternoon to admire the graceful descent of the weak winter sun as glimpsed through the bare branches of the majestic white oaks southwest of our back door.

And, perhaps most iconic of all, I get to sleep in my own bed… which is somehow more restful and rejuvenating than another other place I slumber. This is precious for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I don't take sleeping in my own bed for granted. As a purveyor of community—both as a networker and as a process consultant—I'm on the road 60% of the time, and I don't take my bed with me. The 40% at home is further diluted by my steady desire to spend nights with my wife, and she lives three miles away. While I like her bed as well, it's not my bed.

Second of all, I made my bed with my own hands. My first winter at Sandhill I hired out as a gofer for a local logger (Roscoe Blaine—can't you just tell with a name like that that he'd be handy with a chain saw?), and I took part of my payment in fresh-sawn white oak lumber. After air drying it in our barn loft, I turned some of those boards into my bed. I've slept there for 35 years now. Both of my kids were conceived in that particular piece of furniture, and with any luck I'll die there. In short, my bed is powerfully imbued with my spirit, with the spirit of my family, with the spirit of my community, and with the spirit of my place. Strong juju.

Bed Check
With no more trips planned for the next fortnight, I've been able to close out my 2010 accounting for how many beds I'd slept in. It turns out that my nest at Sandhill was one of 52 where I laid down my head—one for every card in the deck. (Does that make me the joker?) And that doesn't count the 29 times I slept on overnight trains. All of which is to say that there's substantial truth to the claim that I sleep around.

Fortunately, only three of those beds were in motels. Almost always I'm able to find a bedroom (or at least a couch) in the homes of clients or friends, and that works well for me—blurring the line between work and play, and sidestepping the antiseptic, faceless ambience of motel rooms.

People ask me all the time if the traveling wears me down. Mostly it doesn't. I have a strong constitution and a healthy body. I can sleep anywhere (and do, apparently) and eat anything. I like my work and benefit greatly from the chance to renew and strengthen relationships around the edges of my networking and consulting. The travel (especially by train) protects time for reflection, for letting go of what I just left and for getting ready for what's ahead. This is something that's harder to come by at home, where my To Do List can never fit onto a single page.

So I know why I travel, and have a clear sense of its many benefits in my life. That said, there are nonetheless significant tension points:

o I'm not at home enough to shoulder my share of on-farm responsibilities (meaning that the other members have to do more).

o Ma'ikwe and I love to spend time together, yet it's not simple to figure out how to manifest enough of it. To some extent we can work and travel together (which is great), yet she doesn't enjoy the travel as much as I do, and the pace is too much for her. So there's a limit to how far we can take that. The calculus is further complicated by our not living in the same community, so even when we're both in Scotland County a significant portion of the 40% of my time in Missouri is spent apart.

o I miss home. By doing the work of promoting community, putting out fires in community, and training people to better succeed in community, I'm not so much at home living community. While ironic, to some extent this is inevitable—after all, how much sense would it make if all the work I currently do were done by people who don't live in community? I also miss the steadiness of homesteading: milking the cow, splitting wood, replacing rotten sills, canning salsa, doing childcare shifts with our two-year-old, changing the oil in the car, refilling the pepper mill. I get to do some of that, but not as much as I'd like. Not as much as would fully ground me.

I could whine about my life not being perfect, but where would that get me? My life, after all, is a bed I made. There's no point in complaining that I have to sleep in it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Not for the Faint of Heart

Last Saturday night my wife Ma'ikwe was in the bathroom with me just before going to sleep. Without warning, she sat down suddenly on the edge of the bathtub and keeled over. I caught her head before it hit the floor and pulled her upright. Her eyes were wide open & unseeing; her pupils fully dilated. She was semi-rigid, though not convulsing like an epileptic. She was pale as a ghost. While I was on full alert and hyper aware, I didn't panic because I could tell she was breathing… barely.

It freaked me right out. Fortunately, the color returned to her face within about 10 seconds, and in less than a minute she was responsive (if woozy). Once I got her into bed she had the shakes. Half an hour later she threw up. It was not the most relaxed night we'd ever spent together.

Ma'ikwe had passed out once before, almost a year ago at a spa in northern New Mexico. [See my blog of Dec 14, 2009, Adventures in Hydrotherapy]. That time I wasn't next to her when it happened, and it was easier to understand then how fainting might be precipitated by her having just emerged from soaking in hot water on a cool evening. Last Saturday it was far more mysterious.

She'd had a couple glasses of wine with dinner, but had finished drinking three hours before passing out. Sometimes people will get light-headed right after getting up from a horizontal position, but she'd been standing without incident for a few minutes before the room started spinning. Sometimes fainting is related to low blood sugar, but she'd eaten a good dinner. Sometimes
dizziness is associated with stress, yet the day had gone well, and we'd had an evening with friends that was full of laughter. What the hell happened?

Yesterday, it started to happen again. While Ma'ikwe was sitting in an Amtrak waiting room in Chicago's Union Station—just reading a book—she began to feel faint. I was not with her at the time and was dismayed to hear the story when I returned. Fortunately, she did not pass out this time, but who knows when she might again? She's not felt 100% since blacking out three days previously, and we're both worried. Both times it seemed to come upon her with little provocation, in the most innocuous circumstances—where she hadn't been doing anything unusual and had recently eaten. It's very scary.

As a precaution, we rented a cart and took it slow while boarding our last train home. Fortunately, there were no more incidents between Chicago and her bed back at Dancing Rabbit.

One possibility is that there was some residual damage from her recent bout with Lyme disease. While blood tests last month indicated that the culprit spirochete is in remission, the disease affects people differently and sometimes a person's immune system is compromised permanently—especially when the disease has had months to muck around inside you, as was the case with Ma'ikwe.

All of that said, we really don't know what's going on. While further testing may turn something up, it may not. We may need to sort through how much it makes sense to continue to travel and work together, and even whether it's safe for Ma'ikwe to drive, by feeling our way in the dark of an uncertain future.

The good news is that Ma'ikwe has a strong heart—both physically and psychically. The bad news is that her constitution may not be able to match her heart. My wife's attitude is excellent; we just need her health to be as well.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

This Old Man

Have you ever wondered where middle age begins or where it leaves off? It's always been a vague mystery to me, a large demographic category with fuzzy borders at both ends.

Once I got past high school, I've not been one to dwell much on my age. Mostly I've been happy to be where I was at the time, and I never found any particular birthday to be a profound marker of how much sand had slipped into the bottom of my hourglass; of how little remained above.

Still, every now and again I've been brought up short by how I'm seen by those around me. one of those moment occurred shortly after my 21st birthday. I was in Chicago at the time, on break from college, and decided to buy a bottle of bourbon in a liquor store. While buying bourbon was not a new experience for me, doing so legally was, and I suppose I was partly motivated by the chance to exercise a right of my freshly-minted majority.

When the middle-aged clerk (think 50s) carded me, I was ready. I casually handed over my driver's license, and paused while he scrutinized it. Imagine my shock when, after doing the math, he concluded that he wouldn't sell me the bourbon because it was too close to my 21st birthday. Too close? What the hell did that mean? I was outraged. But I got no further explanation, and was ushered out the door sans bourbon. That was perhaps the last time I clearly remember feeling that I was too young.

• • •
Living in community for 36 years, I've tended to relate to all my fellow members and even the prospective members as peers. Sure, some of our ages don't match up too well, and some have life experiences that others don't (if you're paying attention, this inevitably runs both ways, independent of age), yet it always takes me by surprise when it turns out that a member's mother is the same age as me. (How can that be? Mothers are always of another generation One that dresses for dinner, wears lipstick and girdles, and does volunteer work for the Girl Scouts.)

Community has sustained me in my non-generational bubble, and I've stretched the boundaries further by leading a vigorous life. At 61 I haven't slowed down much, suffer no significant health maladies, and still work long hours. Middle age for me has meant my hair has gotten thinner and whiter, my middle has thickened, the hearing in my left ear is deteriorating, and I don't always portage the canoe any more (though I still paddle stern).

Three years ago, I married a woman 20 years my junior. While I was worried at the time about what the age gap might mean for the prospects of a partnership where we matched energy, it's turned out not to matter that much that she can't keep up. We love each other anyway.
• • •
Early last week I spent two days visiting Alpha Farm in Deadwood OR. I was there mainly to visit with with my dear friend, Caroline Estes, which I did. Around the edges, I met many of the new, young faces among the 16 or so residents. While Caroline and her husband Jim are both in their 80s, most of the other residents are in their 20s and 30s, with one or two north of 40. It seemed a typical mix and I thought no more about it.

When my friends Peg & Paul drove out to Alpha Wed morning to collect me for an overnight visit in Eugene, they were coming to Alpha for the first time and didn't know their way around. When they got out of their car, they inquired of the first person they bumped into where Laird was. The reply came back: "You mean the old guy?"

I guess I'm no longer middle aged.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Not Seeing the Reality Forest for the Process Trees

I was working with a group recently where the members were wrestling with how to handle a request from an upset absent member to revisit a prior agreement on how to view individual financial contributions to the group (his being one among many). We were deep into the weekend when this item came up, and this request was perceived as a relatively minor curveball en route to our wrapping things up.

We'd already spent hours trying to sort out how to understand and deal with this absent member's upset, and part of the backdrop was accumulated fatigue in fielding his requests at all. At the same time, due mainly to a bleak housing market, the group was trying to weather some heavy seas financially and there was solid support for the necessity to re-rig the ship to handle the storm.

So we were in the interesting position of the group being simultaneously leery of supporting the requester, and eager to support the request.

The group's protocol for deciding when to revisit an agreement was that two-thirds of the members needed to support it. (There was some ambiguity about whether that was two-thirds of all members, or two-thirds of the members present at the meeting when the question was raised—but that's not where we got into trouble.)

An added complication was that the disgruntled member had sent along with his request to reconsider, a proposal for revising how investments in the group would be treated. That is, he sent both: a) a process request about bringing the topic to plenary; and b) a substantive proposal about how he'd like the agreement to be altered.

As the process request (whether the matter would be taken up in the plenary or not) was, I thought, a relatively straight forward up-and-down vote, I proposed dealing with it promptly with a quick show of hands. (I was, after all, a math major in college, and relatively confident of my ability to rapidly count hands and do percentages in my head.)

Well, it didn't go that simply. There was a flurry of concerns while people satisfied themselves that I was only asking for hands on the process question. I backed up and explained that if the request was rejected, we'd be done. If the request was approved, then the topic would be discussed at a later date. That is, regardless of the outcome of the request to reconsider, we'd not be discussing the proposal about what to do differently, and a vote to talk about it said nothing whatsoever about people's view on the unhappy dude's proposal. What a mess! People were afraid that I might be pulling a parliamentary fast one (or inadvertently abetting Mr. Dissatisfied in doing so). Sigh.

Sometimes, it just takes too long to go fast.

• • •
There are all manner of spectra that cooperative groups must navigate on the road to harmony. One of the most intriguing is the product/process continuum. At one end are the folks who in caricature are portrayed as navel gazers, perfectly willing to endlessly talk about how to talk about things... and never cross the finish line. On the other end are people who are hyperbolically described as ruthless in the pursuit of decisions, willing to run roughshod over the congenitally confused to get there, and disdainful of "how" as the refuge of the timid.

Not surprisingly, I think both process and product need to be attended to, and healthy groups should not dwell at either end of this spectrum. The point of good process is that it sets the table for solid product—decisions that are both respectful and that will be implemented with enthusiasm (or at least a distinct absence of foot dragging). Groups that neglect good process tend to experience product that has been rammed down their throats in the name of efficiency (or under the banner of "healthy" competition), and then are surprised at the resulting heartburn from being asked to swallow food that's been inadequately chewed.

Attending to process protects values that are core to cooperative groups:
o Consistency (or a lack of arbitrariness)
o Fairness (issues will be dealt with in an even-handed manner)
o Access (everyone knows how things will be considered, and what opportunity they'll have for their views to be in play)

These are all the more important because most cooperative groups also embrace diversity as a core value and must constantly deal with the reality that diverse folks will take in, digest, and display information in a bewildering array of styles and speeds. Good process is intended to level the playing field. It is not, however, intended to level the players.

Process is meant to show the way; it's not meant to get in the way. Thus, it should always be OK for a group to ask the question, "Is this process serving us?" If you don't have a good answer, think about changing what you're doing. (Hint: this could be understanding the process better; or it could be understanding that you need a better process.)
• • •
I toyed with labeling this blog "Parliamentary Obfuscation" but I was chary of obscuring my intent by pandering to erudition.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tough Love and Vigilantes

I recently worked with a group that was wrestling with how to handle a couple who were prospective members and had become increasingly difficult to deal with.

Initial impressions of the couple were quite positive when they first appeared on the scene, yet relations deteriorated sharply after the group experienced a financial crisis in connection with the bottom falling out of the housing market, and the viability of the project was in question. The prospective couple had already contributed $15,000 to the community as earnest money and were trying to protect a non-refundable investment. Because they lived in another time zone, the couple was mainly participating electronically. They were not satisfied with how the community was handling the crisis, and asked a lot of pointed questions. Tempers flared. After months of struggling with the couple's harsh statements—which escalated into accusations of ill intent—the group was exhausted by the dynamics and ready to be rid of this cantankerous couple. Yet they were overwhelmed by how complicated things had become and were unsure how handle the whole mess.

While I doubt anyone would think this was an easy situation, I want to walk through the minefield that the group had to navigate, illuminating many of the elements that made this so hard. Let me count the ways...

1. The group was not used to openly discussing negative feelings, or working through conflicts. (In this respect, the group was typical.) They didn't have any agreement about how to handle emotional distress, and simply did the best they could, situation by situation. This yielded indifferent results. Sometimes the protagonists would work their way through their tensions and sometimes not. While the group had gone so far as to lay out the expectation that members were expected to try to work through tensions, and had established that their Process Team was available to help members who needed assistance, as a practical matter the Process Team was seldom asked to help, and many tensions festered. They knew they needed to do better, yet were unsure how to accomplish that.

2. It's extremely difficult to successfully work through distress electronically. While I've seen individuals who are otherwise well connected make this work, it's nearly impossible without a solid friendship to sustain you. There are too many ways to misinterpret the tone and emphasis of electronic communications. While phone is markedly better than email, neither is as good as face-to-face dialog when distress is high. Thus, geography was working against them.

3. Once someone is seriously worked up—as this couple demonstrably was—it's been my experience that you must first make a connection to their experience before you attempt any dialog about their behavior. The reason this is powerful is that a person's behavior often erodes when their distress escalates ("I" statements become "you" statements, and upset comes out in the form of an attack). It can be hard to reach out in a caring way to the other person when the thing that's most up for you is their outrageous behavior. You want your outrage to be the starting point, and the other person wants their upset to be where the conversation starts. If neither side makes a move toward the other, gridlock ensues.

4. Often, when two parties get stuck, each side has the impression that other party first crossed the line into unacceptable behavior, and each is waiting for their reality to be acknowledged as a precondition for seriously working on how to repair the damage. With these different perspectives, it's easy to see why there's no movement. [For more about this dynamic, see my blog of July 22, But They Started It.] In this case, the couple probably feels that the community wasn't acting in good faith when pitching a unit to them (not disclosing the full financial risk). Going the other way, the group maintains that they told the couple the same thing everyone else was told and no one else is claiming foul play; why are you slinging mud and assuming bad intent?

Community is about intentionally trying to create a more cooperative and kinder culture. Part of that is an attempt to be less judgmental, and yet it's the very devil to not have a judgment about people you perceive are judging you. A number of members expressed guilt and dismay at their own negative responses to the situation and this can lead to paralysis: people are reluctant to stand up to outrageous behavior because they fear that in the process of doing so they may become the thing they're objecting to. Unless this fear is faced and resolved, people with this pattern may do nothing, even though there is a clear assessment that the dynamic is intolerable. This can lead to considerable internal hemorrhaging.

6. How much do you need
responsiveness to critical feedback as a baseline requirement for healthy member relations? In this instance, several community members had attempted on multiple occasions to have direct conversations with the couple about how upsetting it was the way they were expressing their upset (independent of the merits of their complaints), and this did not lead to any measurable shift in behavior—they just kept up the stream of toxic emails. When have you tried enough?

7. This last point generalizes to a consideration of the limits of what the community can embrace. As much as you desire diversity and an openness to all, the truth is that you cannot take on all comers, and how do you have an accurate, yet compassionate conversation about when that limit has been reached. (Hint: members will vary, perhaps dramatically, in their answers here.) On top of the challenge to define clearly the boundaries of acceptable behavior, the group further has to tackle the question of what constitutes due process regarding notifying the person of: a) what's not working; b) what specific behavior changes, if any, are required to be in compliance; and c) how long the person has to effect the changes.

One the wicked aspects of this dynamic is that it's hard to be motivated to have the conversation before you're in it (whose got time to discuss theoretical problems, and why give juice to negative thoughts?), and yet it's nearly impossible to have this examination dispassionately once you're in a dynamic where you're seriously contemplating its application.

8. There is a dangerous tendency in this dynamic for the majority to develop a group mentality whereby the community sees itself as long-suffering and stops looking at their side of what's not working and lays the blame for the bad dynamics solely on the outliers. This is the vigilante dynamic, where the group exaggerates what the couple has done wrong for the purpose of steeling itself to be firm and relieving itself of the need for self-examination—which is often painful, and odious in that it may lead to a sense that the outrage of the outliers was, at least in some sense, justified.

9. If you decide to end the relationship, how do you do that with integrity? To what extent does fear of retaliation by the upset couple enter the equation?
How much should you labor to specify what behaviors are objectionable when you hold little hope of reconciliation, or that your communication will be heard constructively? Why bother? How important is it that you communicate in a way that is consistent with your values (treating others as you want to be treated yourself)? These can be hard to balance.

• • •
The group I was working with devoted an entire day to this examination, finally emerging from the swamp after six hours with a consensus agreement about how to proceed. I was proud of them. (And they were ready for a glass of wine at dinner.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lack of Consensus on the Meaning of "Consensus"

I had a dialog this past week with a dude who's put together a book on group dynamics, and one of the main thrusts of his writing is an attempt to redefine "consensus" as a process that fosters inclusivity and collaboration, yet does not say anything about how groups ultimately make decisions. Shoot me now.

While I can sympathize with the frustrations that many groups experience when first trying to work with consensus (it takes so long; stubborn minorities can hold the group hostage; there are too many meetings), you can't convince me that if a group ends a log jam by resorting to a majority vote that it will feel the same as a decision made by consensus, just because you were careful to use a collaborative and inclusive process in the discussion phase, and take time to listen compassionately to the upset of those who got outvoted.

The interesting case is when there's an issue that does not resolve easily, and there's a division in the group about how to proceed. If you're using consensus, the group needs to labor together until you can find a course of action that no one has objections to. If you're voting, you only need to find a course of action that most of the people support, and once it's clear which way the wind is blowing, the majority can start to coast (they're going to prevail) and the minority only has a narrow window in which to change people's minds, or live with not getting their way. The minority has a strategic choice to make: is it better to cut bait ,or to risk political capital by continuing the conversation in the hopes that they can pull it out after being down in the bottom on the ninth.

The good thing that this author is trying to address is that our culture sorely needs more cooperative processes, and he's wanting to preserve the good that's been learned about how to do that, while at the same time relieving groups of the frustration that's often experienced in trying to cross the finish line with no objections. He reported to me that his range of work is broad: with nonprofits, small businesses, local government, public meetings, and families. (Short of large corporations, it's hard to think of anything he doesn't work with.) Mostly groups are open to trying something that's more inclusive, yet they have no training in consensus and are not likely to get great results using it right out of the box. Knowing this, the author has reached for a paint-by-number approach that is relatively easy to follow, and doesn't require unanimity (actually, consensus doesn't require unanimity either; it requires that there be no principled objections, but that's the subject for a future blog).

I can see how he got there, and I'm fully supportive of highly collaborative and inclusive processes—I'm just objecting to labeling that "consensus," which is a specific decision-making process that has arisen out of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and been adapted to secular groups through vigorous work pioneered in the anti-nuclear protest groups of the '60s and continues today. I am not happy about his attempt to water down a concept that so many have worked so hard to refine and develop as a specific antidote to competitive democracy.

Further, the author and I disagree over tactics. While we're both interested in promoting a more cooperative world, he's offering "consensus lite" and I'm aiming higher. I want to get as many people as I can excited about learning how to disagree about something that really matters and yet create responses that everyone can live with and brings people closer. Where the author's strategy is to give as many people as possible an early taste of something better, my strategy is to train as many facilitators as possible, so that more groups get an early experience of something great.

At least were playing in the same league, if not on the same team.