Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Consensus Interruptus

I was at the national cohousing conference last weekend (held in the downtown Oakland CA Marriott) and had a great time. There were 350 souls who attended at least a part of the four days of offerings. Susan Frank and I ran the conference bookstore, I helped put together the benefit auction, and I got the chance to handle seven workshop slots—four as the presenter and another three as the facilitator. Good thing I like to be busy.

This was my eighth national cohousing conference (I haven't missed any since my first one back in 2001, which happened to be held just a few miles north of this year's venue, on the UC-Berkeley campus). Like most conferences focused on community, this one had plenty of group process workshops in the program (in fact, I ran six of them). One thing that stood out though was that there wasn't a single workshop specifically focused on consensus training or how to use consensus to make decisions.

That's odd because it's far and away the most common form of decision making among all intentional communities, including cohousing.

To be clear, there were two well-attended sessions at the conference on consensus adaptations—ways to think about operating differently if you're struggling with consensus. There just weren't any offerings on how to do consensus well—or even any trying to make the case in support of the attempt.

As a consensus trainer and consensus advocate that left me uneasy.

There were workshops on sociocracy—now often styled Dynamic Governance—which was originally developed in The Netherlands as a consensus adaption for businesses) and then imported into this country (principally through the work of John Buck) and promoted as a superior governance structure for intentional communities.

There was also a workshop promoting the idea of trying to cultivate the inclusivity of consensus as an atmosphere, while keeping open the possibility of using something other than consensus to make decisions.

As far as I can tell, the motivation for these approaches is to address the frustrations that groups develop around working effectively with soft values, obstinate minority viewpoints, and challenging personalities.

While these are real issues and deserve attention, I'm not sold on either approach as improvements to consensus. It appears to me that there is a tension about whether it's a better strategy to train facilitators to be good enough that you can consistently get solid results with consensus, or give up on that and attempt to manage dissent through structure (featuring lots and lots of Go Rounds and super-majority voting).

In consensus, it's crucial that groups get clear about their common values and align membership selection to be congruent with those values. This understanding is the bedrock upon which groups build agreements. The alternative approaches showcased in Oakland are intended as work arounds for groups that are fuzzy about their common values, casual about membership selection, and/or unsure of their footing with challenging personalities.

While I don't doubt that the alternative approaches will work well for some people, I know of no format that is universally liked or is equally accessible to all.

If you adopt a fast-paced process that's committed to expeditious Go Rounds to gather opinions, it favors the quick-tongued over the contemplative. It has not been my experience that wisdom resides solely with the nimble, or that pearls aren't at least occasionally found in mouths that are clammed up during whole group conversations. I believe groups function best when they offer a variety of formats—not just the same one over and over.

The heavy lifting is done when people have clearly different viewpoints and the stakes are high. What we most desperately need (as groups striving to create viable cooperative culture) are ways to handle those moments with authenticity, thoroughness, and compassion. I am deeply skeptical that there is a structural solution to what is essentially an energetic challenge.


William J Croft said...

Laird, thanks for the mention of Sociocracy, just now checking out John Buck's book, "We The People".

Tedd-I-Dread said...

I couldn't figure out how to leave a comment for Laird, so I'm leaving one here.
Hi Laird, Ted Ex-Twin Oaks here. Some of your comments about sociocracy make me think you don't really understand it.
A lot of sociocrats call 'consent' (as defined by sociocracy) 'consensus' as well. They're pretty similar. One difference is that 'consent' has pretty strict rules - no "minus one" or two, etc. I've seen consensus practiced in almost as many ways as there are groups using it. Also, there can be a difference in people's limits as to what they'll "agree" to versus what they are "willing to live with." I say "can be" and consensus certainly can be the second. Consent is always encouraged to be closer to the second.
Consent deals with "obstinate minority viewpoints" by airing them. It deals with "challenging personalities" by requiring a reason for an objection. Although I suppose it could happen, I've never heard of either of these things you mentioned causing any lingering problems. There are only as many go-rounds as needed and there is never any super-majority voting. Consent is ALWAYS unanimous.
So, let's just assume now that consent and consensus used by a group will have the same results: everyone feels heard, issues that might cause problems are brought up and used to amend proposals, and good decisions are made. As far as I know there is no more to consensus. Sociocracy has the structure for the rest of the organization with the goal of maintaining equivalent power between participants, which results in better functioning. Also, that structure allows for smaller meetings of the group that runs the organization. For instance, I've seen restaurants where everybody (25-30 people) meets to run the restaurant. Sociocratic structure allows for that group to have two cooks, two wait people, two admin, etc. for a total of maybe ten people running the restaurant, yet everyone feels like their voice will be heard if they so desire. This, I believe, is a huge advantage sociocracy has over consensus.
It's frustrating to see virtually all worker/owners using consensus, but maintaining a structure that is authoritarian. Sociocracy presents the minimum amount of rules for an organization to maintain that equivalence. It presents a process that allows for the participants to mold it to their liking.
So, consensus and sociocracy's decision-making process of consent are virtually the same. As for the rest of the structure of an organization consensus leaves the participants out to the wolves, whereas sociocracy provides the minimum structure for maintaining the egalitarian qualities that make life more enjoyable and provides better functioning.
I'd love to read any feedback you have on this Laird. Be well. Ted.

John Schinnerer said...

A couple pieces of information on sociocracy relevant to statements in the above post:

1) sociocracy is not a "consensus adaptation" or even a "consensus adaptation for business" - it is a holistic, full-featured organizational design and governance system. Decision making based on equivalence, transparency and effectiveness is one element of sociocrcacy.

2) a primary motivation for contemporary development of sociocracy has to do with creating greater harmony in organizations. This may also address frustration with less thoroughly defined approaches such as consensus.

3) sociocracy is not about "managing dissent through structure" - it is about offering structure and process that enables collaborative and collective leadership, rather than relying on one or a few well-trained facilitators being "good enough" to control everyone else.

4) there is no voting at all in sociocracy, including no super-majority voting. Sociocracy takes a design approach to producing consent rather than a win-lose approach.

5) in sociocracy, it is also "crucial that groups get clear about their common values..." and in fact determining common aim is fundamental to working sociocratically, as it is to successful consensus process.

6) sociocracy does not favor quick wit or quick tongue over contemplation - as a design process, it seeks to create and maintain equivalence among these different ways of working with issues.

7) sociocracy does not inherently limit processes or formats - it offers a few primary ones as "meta-formats" and is also amenable to including most any kind of format that the group consents to using. What it does restrict is the ability of one or a few people to impose a particular process or format on the rest.

8) sociocracy does not claim to be a structural solution to an energetic challenge. We all know there is no system that by itself is proof against human behavior. What sociocracy offers is a well-designed container for processing energetic challenges. How well the container is used is, as with consensus, ultimately up to the humans using it.

John Schinnerer