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.

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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.)
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I toyed with labeling this blog "Parliamentary Obfuscation" but I was chary of obscuring my intent by pandering to erudition.

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