Thursday, February 23, 2012

Virtual Consensus

I just received this inquiry from a friend, Mike Graff, whom I first met two years ago in the context of doing facilitation training at his then community, Heathcote (Freeland MD). Since that time he and his family have moved to East Lake Commons, an established cohousing community in Atlanta where I had done some consulting in 2008 and 2010. Mike wrote:

I see you are continuing your work to teach people how to get along. You've had a huge impact at ELC. The meetings are efficient, relatively friendly, and end with a decision on how to proceed. I'm sure you've heard stories from BL [Author's note: it took me a few minutes to puzzle out that that stood for Before Laird]. Suffice it to say, I'm glad I wasn't around in those days.

The reason for my email is to see if you have experience with web-based forum software (organized discussion boards). Are any communities using them successfully? Also, is there any web-based consensus software? I know that there is web-based voting software that looks like it could be functional.

I replied:

Unfortunately, this is not an area I have much exposure to. While I can understand the motivation to develop such tools, I'm concerned that crucial input may be stripped out when attempting consensus electronically (I'm thinking of non-verbal cues, body language, tone, pacing, volume, etc.). Of course, we're also on the cusp of high functioning video conferencing, which will address some of those concerns.

As far as straight-forward discussion goes, there's increasing popularity with Goggle docs as a way to corral all the comments on a certain subject. I'm sure there's more in this realm that I don't know about, but that's what I can give you.

Our dialog continued:

There are folks around here—including me—who agree. That said, a tool could be used wisely, couldn't it? Also, not all decisions need such intimate group involvement, and often, it would be a fair trade-off to have more participation, and less intimacy, eh?

Certainly some decisions are sufficiently uncomplicated that electronic means will work fine. The trick is knowing both which not to attempt that way, and when to stop trying because it's breaking down.


One such tool that I found today is a free forum hosting software which is feature rich. It's called My Bulletin Board.

Keep in mind that the idea is to consolidate information, opinions, links, stats, etc in one thread that anyone can review to come up to speed when they have time. Groups can still talk, but with easy access to the accumulated knowledge. I believe that this would be better for topics than minutes, which usually get accumulated by meeting, rather than by topic.

Would you be interested in working through the technology/humanity barrier and putting together some ground rules on this subject?

It's an intriguing project. I have such a monograph about email usage, and much of the principles would be the same.

• • •
I've been thinking about what Mike requested, and while I consider myself to have had minimal exposure to the exploding variety of web-based discussion formats, I still have general thoughts on the topic.

Increasingly, we live in a world dominated by electronic communication. There are many things that are good about that:
o It greatly shortens the time between transmission and receipt of a communication, making it possible to speed things up as fast as people can read (or hear) and reply. When people are in a chat room together, on a conference call, skyping, or instant messaging they're communicating in real time and it's just as quick as being in the same room, but with no travel time.

o The same message can be sent simultaneously to many people, greatly reducing (or eliminating) the tedious labor of photocopying, plus addressing and licking multiple envelopes.

o Once you've invested in the equipment and internet access, the marginal cost of each transmission is zero.

o Physical distance between parties becomes irrelevant, as it's just as simple and inexpensive to send an email from Washington DC to Bethesda MD as it is to send it to Sydney, Australia.

o Transmissions are easily archived for future reference.

o It's harder to regulate and control, which is a democratizing feature—allowing for the rapid dissemination of information and opinions. If you're unsure what I mean by this, just ask deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who never got the license plate number on the virtual truck of public protest that ran him over a year ago.

Having said all that, the trend toward more reliance on electronic communication is not altogether an unalloyed good. There are ripples in the Force. Witness:

—I can still recall the amazement I felt (in the summer of 1997) the first time I received an email query from someone who composed and transmitted it while sitting in the same room with me. Huh? Would it have been that hard to have just turned around and asked?

—It has become increasingly difficult to get a response from my son, even though I try both email and phone. His day-to-day communication world revolves around a smart phone and texting, which is technology I haven't embraced. Our exchanges have become limited by the paucity of intersection among our preferred media, rather than because there's been any shift in our caring about each other. Isn't this the tail wagging the dog? I've been uneasy for years about the trend toward responding preferentially to messages by virtue of the mode of transmission, rather than based on the urgency or importance of the content—and now it's hitting pretty close to the bone.

—My nephew Ryan's son, Jaxson, was born Jan 5. Everyone in the extended family knew that this blessed event was imminent, but I waited in vain for the happy email announcement. I only learned about the birth because Ma'ikwe saw pictures of the new baby on Facebook. Seven weeks later, I still haven't received an email communication from Ryan about the birth. Yikes! Facebook has become an alternate universe, and some people don't play in both. This is an enhancement?

—One of my favorite lines from satirist Tom Lehrer is, "If people don't have anything to say, the very least they can do is to shut up." Unfortunately, one byproduct of the Information Age is that it has become depressingly easy for people with little to say to indulge in expressing themselves at length. In the vast ocean of information floating out there on the internet, it has become a mind-numbing task sorting the wheat from the chaff; the signal from the noise. An amazing number of people mistakenly confuse the ability to broadcast to the world with discernment about whether they have anything useful for the world to hear. For centuries, it used to be that the time and cost of publishing hard copy served as a useful brake on such nonsense, now, sadly, we are in full diarrheal flow.
• • •
Having gotten those general observations off my chest, let's move onto the topic of electronic consensus.

At its best, consensus involves working with the whole person. Where the predominant Western model of effective meeting culture depends almost exclusively on thinking, and working with ideation, that's a perversion of who we are as human beings—which includes feelings, intuition, body knowing, and spiritual insight. We are much more than our thoughts, and it's rather a foolish notion that we can do solid work by reducing everything to a single language and then expecting it all to come out well when it's time for implementation and everyone translates the idea captured in the agreement back into their complex realities. Frankly, I'm surprised the wheels don't fall of the wagon more often than they do.

When people are in the same room together, communication is far more complex than the ideas captured in words. As I cautioned Mike above, we rely on a host of clues—many of which are non-verbal—to create the parallax needed to ensure a more accurate reading of what someone is fully intends (mind you, I'm in no way guaranteeing that physical proximity equates with acuity; I'm only saying it predictably helps). When we shift to electronic media, there is danger of misinterpreting meaning because there are far fewer clues to work with. In fact, it's been my observation that people will tend to fill in the blanks when they don't have direct observations to work with, imputing meaning that was never there in an effort to create context for what they're receiving.

Thus, when it comes to email—which is far and away the electronic medium with which I am most familiar—it is relatively common for people to guess that someone is upset by virtue of their word choice (or careless use of capitalization) and completely get it wrong. If both parties were in the same room, it would have been a relatively simple matter for tone, volume, pacing, and facial expressions to have placed the words into a more accurate context (or at the least to have quickly alerted the recipient to a possible misperception in progress). With email it can take days or even weeks before the mistake can be identified, and you can put the car into reverse.

When a group has a deep understanding of consensus, it knows that some of the time it will be working emotionally (or at least energetically), and it is this core aspect of the process that I fear is most at risk when engagement is attempted electronically. Discussion groups are fine for tracking input and creating summaries—which is a real benefit—they are not, however, well suited to identifying and working sensitively with feelings and energy.

Thus, if you are attempting consensus work using electronic media, there are dangers in two respects:
a) Not being in a good position to engage emotionally when that's what's called for.
b) Not even catching that such a moment has come until one or more people are well past the point where such work should have begun while others remain oblivious. This can get really messy.

So how do I feel about virtual consensus? So long as there's clarity about how you're sacrificing data points (reality checks?) for expediency, and you're aware of the dangers of swimming too far from the shore of emotional groundedness, I think it's OK to test the waters. (To be on the safe side, I recommend having the number of a virtual life guard on speed dial in the unhoped for event that mouth-to-mouth is needed.)

In general, I think electronic media work great for logistics, disseminating reports, crafting summaries, and archiving information. It gets a little dicier when you attempt discussion and the resolution of disparate viewpoints. It's dangerous (unless the stakeholders have a preexisting strong bond and a history of working through hard stuff together) to attempt processing emotional distress via electronic media, and it's down right foolish to attempt to use electronic means for expressing upset and distress.

I tell clients that if they ever feel the urge to vent at another person electronically, they'd be well served to unplug their keyboard or go for a walk until the moment passes. If you want to work on an upset (as distinct from dumping on a person you're upset with), my advice is to do whatever you can to get into the same room together, or at least pick up the phone. Virtually being in the same room is not the same as being in the same room.

No comments: