Sunday, July 29, 2012

Consensus Challenges: When to Be Formal

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is When to Be Formal.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
I'm not talking about tuxedos and evening gowns—I'm talking about how much to rely on structure and protocol. When to be firm, and when to be loose. How much formality should a group use in conducting business? It depends.

First of all, you need to have protocols (agreements about how you will conduct business) in order to invoke them. At the outset, all groups doing anything serious in the world (for example, the Every Other Thursday Beer Swilling Club may not need to take this admonition to heart) are well advised to establish process agreements and norms. 

If you're confused about why this is needed (won't love and good intentions see us through?) imagine the dynamic where two people strongly disagree about how to handle an issue, and one of the two attempts to invoke a point of process that the other doesn't acknowledge is an agreement. It can be an absolute bitch to try to sort out tensions around how when there is already tension in play around what. In most cases, the second person will suspect that the first is trying to control the outcome through parliamentary maneuvering—which they may or may not be doing—and it can be exhausting extricating the issue from the muck. The point of establishing guidelines ahead is so that you've already defined what's a "fair and reasonable" way to tackle an issue before tensions arise.

Here's a checklist (not exhaustive, but suggestive) of the kinds of agreements I mean by the above:
o  How you make decisions
o  How you record decisions, including how you notify members of them, and how you archive them
o  How the plenary can proceed when members miss meetings
o  What you want from plenary minutes, and how they will be indexed and archived
o  What's appropriate for plenary consideration; how plenary agendas will be drafted
o  To what extent do process concerns trump content concerns
o  How will the group work emotionally 
o  How will the group handle conflict among members
o  What authority do facilitators have to run meetings 
o  To what extent are committees expected to operate under the same process guidelines as the plenary; to what extent are they permitted to be self-governing
o  How one becomes a member
o  Rights & responsibilities of members
o  What avenues of feedback are members expected to provide one another about their behavior as a member of the group
 o  Under what conditions could a member suffer an involuntary loss of rights, and by what process will the group examine the claim that such conditions obtain

OK, let's suppose you're in good shape on all this. There still remains a question about how much to be stickler for structure. Partly this is a matter of taste. In a typical group, members can map themselves onto an illuminating spectrum when asked where they stand on the question of how much structure they prefer: at one end will be those who find it relaxing and reassuring; at the other will be those who find it constricting and coldly impersonal. 

Thus, how much structure a group uses is a balancing act. If the group has a preponderance of low-structure folks then it makes sense that they'll tend to conduct business with less formality, and vice versa.

Beyond that there are additional other nuances to take into account when determining how formal to be in meetings. I'll give you half a dozen.

1. Size
This is mainly a question of how many are involved in the conversation. In my experience, you seldom need high structure when a group is six or fewer, and it rarely works well to be loosey-goosey when the group is 10 or more.

2. Trust
When the flow among participants is good and people are not being reactive or triggered by each others' comments, then the need for formality diminishes. When tensions run high, it's often better to be more deliberate.

3. Weight
If the impact of the topics being discussed is limited or minor, this usually translates into less need for formality.

4. Discipline
If the group is fairly comfortable with and accomplished at operating within the desired meeting culture, then members will be self-disciplined about using time appropriately and keeping their contributions appropriate without the need to be externally constrained by structure. In essence, if members have internalized the structure it obviates the need to invoke it formally.

5. Management
Sometimes you use formality to control difficult or threatening behavior, as in the case where you have members who tend to hog air time, or speak in a voice and style that is intimidating to others.

6. Need for a Record
To the extent to which it's important that the results of the meeting be shared widely and accurately, it's often a superior idea to be more formal, so that the foundation upon which the summaries are built is solid.
• • •
In conclusion, I offer the following three guiding principles when considering how formally to proceed:

A. What degree of formality will most effectively and efficiently elicit the viewpoints of the participants?

B. How much do we need to proceed formally in order to protect the integrity and solidity of the results we obtain in this meeting?

C. What degree of formality will most honor or enhance the relationships among participants?
• • •
Once, about 15 years ago, on a hot summer day in Virginia I participated in a semi-annual network meeting where it happened I was the only man in a group of eight and all the women spontaneously decided that they'd be more comfortable taking their clothes off. Oh boy. Though I'm someone who has attended an untold number of meetings, this was a unique experience for me, calling for a high degree of self-discipline in a most informal context. Somehow I made it through. Though today I haven't the foggiest idea what we were discussing, I still retain a vivid recollection of the setting.

In any event, if you're inspired to wear a tux (or your birthday suit) to the next plenary, you have my support. While I'm not guaranteeing that it won't be disruptive, I've always had a soft spot for whimsy and I think as a culture we have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Working with Challenging Personalities

I recently got the following email inquiry from a friend who is part of forming community [note that I've lightly edited this correspondence and modified the names to obscure the identity of the group]:

We are at a juncture that is both exciting and extremely challenging. We have identified and made an offer on two adjacent properties that are in the target area we have been looking at and are affordable. Together, there will be eight units available for members, plus a common space, which will suit well our desire for a compact, urban community. But even if these properties fall through, our challenge will not go away.

As you know, our group has a multi-year history with bumps in the road, and we have shrunk to three active members—Dale, Chris, and myself (Lee). We also have two long-term members, Adrian and Evan, who are not currently active in the group yet are seriously considering stepping back in and are willing to invest money in this particular property.

Here's our dilemma. We have lost a lot of money over the years, and now have very little in the bank. While most of us have some additional money we can invest in this project, it won't be possible unless Evan contributes $120k, which can be used as a down payment. While Evan is willing to do this, here's the bomb: For various reasons, Evan does not feel she can live in a community this small with Chris living there as well.

Without Evan we cannot buy this property, and it is unlikely we can buy any property, especially one that Chris can afford to live in—as smaller properties will cost more per unit to rent.

We are at wits end. I know I do not feel I can last much longer in trying to create a successful group. I think we all feel the same, and have begun to discuss the possibility of dissolving the group at year's end if nothing is created before then. We care about Chris, enjoy him, and respect his contributions throughout the years. But it's looking like we can't have a successful community that includes Chris given our financial situation, Evan's discomfort at having Chris as a member of such a small community, and some feedback/concerns we've had from other potential partners in the past.

These are notes from a recent meeting of Dale, Chris and myself:  

"Chris is the designated big personality right now. New people are scared about committing, mentioning concerns about Chris. We're scared we can't recruit anyone new. It's putting the group and Chris into a weird situation. We want neutral, positive ways to shift whatever is putting people off, and to maintain good relationships with each other, without screwing over the group as a whole (if we can't recruit new members, this project will never work financially)."

Chris wants me to ask: "When other people talk to Dale I think it doesn't only create problems for all three of us, there's an extra unhelpful dynamic of Dale telling me (Lee) about the problem (when she does). I don't think that's working well, because Dale has her own feelings, and we have some problems in our relationship at this point, so the information about what other people are reporting comes across with a particular twist, which I then have my own reaction to. I'm not sure what to do about that, since I also want to know if somebody has a problem. I think they should be talking to me directly as much as possible, yet that's something to ask Laird about." 

So I am. While I think speaking directly with the person concerned makes sense, Chris' question also showcases some strain in Dale and Chris' relationship.

What to do?  We're in a horrible situation, where money is reigning over a long-term, hard working, committed member, and where without that money, we may have no community at all (where, unfortunately, money isn't the only problem).

Here's my response:
This is certainly a tough spot.

o  The three of you (Chris, Dale, and Lee)) are weary of the many years with so little progress toward manifesting a community.

o  You now have found property that you like and can afford, but only if Evan invests.

o  Evan will not invest if Chris is in the community.

o  Chris has been involved for a long time, and has demonstrated a significant dedication to the project, yet a number of others have also found it difficult to work with her.

So the situation presents as a choice between:

Option A: Sticking with Chris and trying to either: a) figure out a way to replace Evan's money; or b) look for a different property that is either more affordable or one that is large enough that Evan would consider living with Chris.

Option B: Proceeding with the current opportunity, and asking Chris to step out.

Let's walk through each option.

Analysis of Option A
I know virtually nothing about what you've attempted to identify potential sources of money that could replace Evan's $120k. While I think it's possible that you could solve this problem, it likely comes with (at least) two price tags: 
—You'd have to spend time and energy locating the money, and it may come with strings that will be more complicated than simply assigning equity to Evan. 
—You'd lose Evan as a member.

Passing on this attractive property and continuing the search is unattractive. Your group is tired and there's a sense of either this is it or it's time to fold your tent and let go. That is, you may not have sufficient reserves (in terms of energy and motivation, as well as money) to keep searching. Further, there is probably the sense that you'll still need to deal with the tensions for which Chris is a lightning rod, so it may as well be now.

Analysis of Option B
What's the analysis of Evan as a potential member? In particular, I'm wondering about Evan's willingness to work through tensions with others. Has Evan made a good faith attempt at understanding Chris and resolving tensions with him? This is relevant in that if you agree to Chris' terms, what will happen the next time Evan is in tension with someone?

Taking this another step, have you seriously labored with Evan about the basis for having drawn a line in the sand about Chris? Do you respect how Evan got to that conclusion?

If you ask Chris to leave the group, Dale & you will need to be able to live with that decision. While everyone is not meant to live together, and there are definite limits to how far groups can stretch to include everyone, you two need to feel that you've made enough of an effort to work through tensions with Chris and are convinced that the effort is too great relative to the benefits to continue. If you're not at peace with that, you'll feel guilty and it will undercut the joy you had meant to get out of starting a community. The community will become a poisoned apple. 

• • •
Whichever way you go, you'll want to feel that you're being realistic and that you're proceeding in a way that strengthens the resolve and capacity of the remaining group to work on tensions as they arise—with or without Chris.

Apropos Chris' question about how critical feedback is handled in the group, you'll want to proceed in such a way that you've done your best to handle any challenges about living with Chris (as a specific example of issues that might come up about living with anyone) as compassionately and authentically as possible—since that's your highest intention for how your community will function. If you don't feel you're handling that well, then I urge you to address that first.

I am not making a recommendation about whether Chris should be part of the group. Rather, I am making a recommendation that you look hard at how you deal with tensions and identify the limits of when you've tried hard enough and it's time to let go. These are not easy questions, but you have to face them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jo!

Today is the silver anniversary of my daughter's nativity. Happy birthday, Jo!

A quarter century after the exhausting and joyous bonding that culminated in Jo's dramatic appearance via cesarean delivery on this day at St Mary's Hospital in Quincy IL, our primary biological family is now scattered, living in three different time zones. Jo is in Las Vegas, where she and her partner, Peter, are in the process of buying a house. Elke, Jo's mother, is in New York City, where she happily teaches ESL to immigrants and lives with long-time partner, Harry. Though I'm still in northeast Missouri, my wife (Ma'ikwe) is not Jo's mother. Despite this familial diaspora and reconfiguration of relationships, I'm confident today will be an occasion for all three of us principals to pause and reflect on the attainment of this milestone warmly (which process will be helped, of course, by the weather forecast).

I'm typing this as I chug across southern Iowa on the eastbound California Zephyr, inbound after a week of consulting in Colorado. While the night time temperatures at Grand Lake CO (nestled into the Rocky Mountains, just west of the Continental Divide at 8500 feet) reliably dipped into the 50s this past week—actually requiring a sheet to be comfortable—today I return to the flatlands and nights that may or may not get below 80. Ufda.

Interestingly, the 100-degree forecast that greets my homecoming this afternoon is an exact echo of the weather the day that Jo was born, which was equally brutal. I still recall the sharp contrast of the super-chilled hospital room and the wall of heat and humidity I experienced whenever I'd step outside. We're talking about a 35-degree swing (from south of 70 degrees in the maternity ward to north of 100 in the parking lot).

For all of that, today is a happy day. Though living separately, we three enjoy a number of positive parallels in our lives that are worthy of celebrating (though I prefer toasting with a cold adult beverage than with my body):

o  We are all in stable partnerships—even if not with each other.

o  We all have work we enjoy (though Jo would appreciate being promoted to Chipotle management a little quicker).

o  We all like seeing each other and make a consistent effort to do so despite the challenge presented by our non-trivial spatial separation.

o  We all enjoy reasonably good health.

o  We all have a major association with intentional community (totally perhaps 70 years among the three of us). Though only I currently reside in one, Elke and I met as fellow delegates to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities in 1985 (she from Twin Oaks and I from Sandhill), we were both living at Sandhill when Jo was born, and Jo enjoyed a city mouse/country mouse upbringing with time split between Elke at Ganas (a row-house urban community on Staten Island) and me at Sandhill (located in a rural county without a stoplight).

Last night, before boarding my train in Denver, I bought tickets for my next visit to Las Vegas, coming up right after Labor Day. While I'll call Jo when I get off the train to offer felicitations on the day, I'm already looking forward to my September visit, and the opportunity to express my paternal affection three-dimensionally—when I can hold her in my arms again, just like I did 25 years ago.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Harvesting Partial Product

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Harvesting Partial Product.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability
• • •
Much of the time, when people anticipate a topic that's coming up on a plenary agenda, their fondest hope is to reach a clear conclusion about how to dispose of it, so it won't come back and the issue will be resolved. In reality, much of the time it doesn't work that way.

Maybe the agenda planners underestimated how long it would take to discuss; maybe there were unexpected icebergs to dispose of, requiring much more time than what was allotted; maybe there was emotional distress that bogged things down; perhaps one or more key players missed the meeting; maybe an essential piece of research was missing; perhaps someone forgot to photocopy the handouts ahead of time or you don't have the right adapter for the digital projector; possibly the facilitation was weak and/or the group strayed into ancillary topics that dissipated progress on the main issue; maybe the moon was in the wrong phase and the group was simply not productive. In short, there are many reasons why a group may not be able to complete a topic.

What I want to focus on today is how to best manage this situation. 

1. Time Management
If you're paying attention, you should be able to tell when you're falling behind and it's unlikely that you'll be able to complete the issue at hand in the time allotted. In those situations you have a choice to make: give it more time, or lay it down and move on. 

There is not one right answer about how to handle this. Factors include:
o  How close you think you are to the finish line. If you're only 5-10 minutes away, it's often the right call to extend the time.
o  How badly the group needs to experience completion—if you've had a meeting that's a series of uncompleted topics, the group may be starving for the satisfaction of crossing something off the To Resolve List.
o  What are the prospects for picking up time on agenda items yet to come? Perhaps a less important later item can be deferred; perhaps the group can move more expeditiously through a subsequent topic.
o  How badly the group needs to end on time. Just as there's a cost to stopping part-way through a topic, there's can be a cost to ending late—especially if it's a chronic issue. Which cost is greater?
o  Are you at a natural stopping place, where it will be relatively easy to pick back up again with minimal backtracking, or where the break can be used productively to conduct additional research or to develop proposals? For example, it's convenient to stop work once you've identified everything that a good response needs to take into account (the Discussion phase) and before you launch into Problem Solving mode.

Note that if you decide to lay the topic down unfinished, that you'll need to protect enough time to wrap up where you are, note the progress made, and lay out what will happen next. That is, you cannot start to do these things at the end of the allotted time without borrowing time from the next agenda topic.

2. Bookmarking Your Progress
Whenever you stop working an issue before it's complete, you want to be diligent about capturing what you got done. 

Among other things, this means a thorough summary of the sense of the meeting—this is more than just good minutes; it entails discernment about which direction things were headed and major themes from the conversation. It may even include explicit mention of what was not talked about and where the group seemed unclear.

If you equate success solely with completion, it's a trap. There are many milestones on the trail to completion, and each provides a chance to: a) reset your base camp on your assault of the summit (resolution of the issue) so that you won't be compelled to cover the same ground twice when you take this topic up again next; and b) celebrate what you've accomplished so far.

Suppose you're tackling a complex issue and begin the conversation with no clarity about where to start. Further suppose that after an hour of work you're not done and you don't even know how many more meetings it will take to get there. That can be very discouraging. 

Partial product can include:
o  Clearing the air of tensions related to the issue. (Note: if significant tensions are in play, this step is probably necessary as a prelude to productive problem solving.)
o  Clearing up misunderstandings about what the issue is and how people are affected by it.
o  Identification of subtopics to be discussed and resolved (think of them as the individual threads of the knotted ball of yarn that you're trying to unravel). Because each subtopic should take less time to complete than the whole topic, it's easier to see progress and to maintain heart.
o  Surfacing the factors that a good response to a given thread needs to take into account.

o  A plan for how to tackle each thread, including a preferred sequence for doing so.
o  Resolution of one or more threads.
o  A plan for how to work unfinished threads. Progress in this sense may be assigning work to a subgroup to: a) research how other groups have handled the same issue; b) investigate costs associated with a proposed solution; or c) convene a joint meeting of affected committees to develop a joint proposal.
o  Identification of aspects of the issue that have not yet been discussed (providing a punch list for what remains).

3. Road Mapping the Continuation
Whenever an issue is left unfinished, it's important to see that some elementary questions are addressed before moving on:
o  If the plenary will continue with this issue, who is the shepherd (the person or committee responsible for seeing that it comes back to plenary)?
o  If there is work expected to be completed before the topic comes back to plenary, what precisely is that, are there any deadlines, who has been assigned to do it, and with what authority and/or resources?
o  If there are interim reporting expectations, what are they?

4. Being Realistic
The better your agenda planners and facilitators are at reading the tea leaves, the better you can map out the likely course of how the group will tackle a topic. Many times you'll know at the outset that completion is not likely, or even desired (perhaps to protect time for digestion of information, exploration of feelings, incorporation of views from people who miss the meeting, or development of proposals based on the full group's input). When that's the case, make it clear to the group up front that the expected outcome on that topic is partial product, so that that can be experienced fully as success.

5. Seeing the Glass Half Full
Left to themselves, group members will tend to focus on what's not finished rather than on what is. Thus, if a topic is unresolved, they will tend to lament that further work remains, rather than celebrate what got accomplished. This dynamic is debilitating for the group and undercuts enthusiasm for meetings in general (why bother if we're not really going to finish stuff?). 

Worse, if a group is sloppy about identifying what it got out of a discussion, that product will tend to erode over time and have to be recreated at the next meeting—further contributing to the sense meetings are a waste of time if issues don't get completed.

Thus, it's important on many levels to pin down and make explicit whatever partial product was achieved when you're putting a trap over the easel of an unfinished canvas. This helps honor the time spent in the consideration, rewards the group for its effort, and keeps the colors fresh for when you're ready to paint next.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rebuilding Cities with Community in Mind

I'm in Colorado this week, working with a half a dozen people under the direction of Bob Berkebile and his Kansas City architectural firm, BNIM, to conceptualize how best to use decommissioned schools in Kansas City as an opportunity to enhance the quality of urban life. It's a big project.

While other team members are architects, designers, and developers, I've been invited to participate because Bob wants community to be an intentional part of each development. The overall context is sustainability—making our cities more livable and less fragmented, and the team is targeting unused facilities in marginal neighborhoods.

One the key challenges is coming up with a viable financial model for how the properties can be purchased, rehabbed, and kept affordable (so that the overhauled schools don't inadvertently become engines for neighborhood gentrification that drives out the diversity the team means to protect and support). Tricky.

Add to that the sure knowledge that community is not built by architects—it's built (in the social sense) by the residents. To be sure, good design can make a positive contribution; it's just not determinant. Thus, if part of the goal is to build vibrant communities, then the team has to anticipate the need for resident input and having control of their own destiny. Community is not something done to you; it's something done by you—with a little help from your friends. 

That translates, I think, into not going too far down the road of project design until some thorough spade work has been done to discern where the juice is among the putative residents. "Build it and they will come" is not quite right with community; it's more the case that they will come if you build what they want.

Because of the focus on sustainability, the team is striving to create a model for how to retrofit existing, underused facilities that will promote local resilience—where employment, education, food, health care, recreation, and artistic expression are all happening within biking distance.

While it's way too early to tell how far these plans will get, isn't it great that someone is trying? 

I'll keep you posted on developments.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

It Droppeth as the Gentle Rain

It rained yesterday, and boy did we need it.

I doubt there's any natural phenomenon that encapsulates the essence of pure beneficence as much as a soaking rain to a farmer when you're dry. Though we only had a 20-30% chance of precipitation according to the US Weather Service, we hit the lottery late Friday afternoon when a couple of small storm cells wandered into northeast Missouri, dropping 1.3 inches of liquid salvation. Yeehah! 

It was the first significant rain we'd had in four weeks, which included a brutal stretch of record-breaking days of with triple-digit temperatures.

While the quality of mercy may or may not have been strained at Sandhill Farm the last month, our crops and our resilience sure were. When we are blessed by a good soaking in mid-July, several good things happen:

o  The temperature drops, and every living thing breathes easier.
o  It settles the interminable dust.
o  All the folks signed up to irrigate garden crops get a holiday.
o  The plants thirstily uptake the water and then transpire it back into the atmosphere, providing significant evaporative cooling for the next several days. (Yes, the humidity shoots up, but it's a good trade-off.)
o  In a few days we'll be able to effectively weed between the rows (with hoes) of our field crops; it's hard to kill weeds when you can't easily penetrate to the root layer in dry conditions.
o  The sorghum and soybeans will come out of stress and experience a growth spurt based on the water. (While we are committed to irrigating our gardens, the field crops are on their own and this rain will make a huge difference in crop yields come September.)

In short, we're way more than twice blessed.

People fret about how US culture will cope with diminishing oil supplies and I appreciate that it's a worry. But it's nothing compared with the challenge of living with uncertain water supplies. In our part of the Midwest the long-range global warming forecast is for hotter and drier conditions. There's absolutely no question that it's getting warmer (we've already been assigned a different agricultural zone based on steadily warmer temperatures the past few decades). As a working farm, our critical concern is whether we'll have enough water to grow food—first for ourselves, and then for our neighbors.

Historically our average annual rainfall is about 35 inches, which is plenty for good crops. What if we have to make do with half of that? Observing the trend toward less predictable weather, my community is questioning the extent to which we can count on "normal" weather. Recognizing how dependent we are on access to water, we're converting the roofs of all our major buildings to metal and planning to build large cisterns next to all of them. Over the course of the next decade we'll gradually increase our ability to impound potable water by 20,000 gallons or more—which may or may not be enough.

For all of the increased security that represents, however, I don't expect it to lessen by a single drop the joy I derive from a July rainstorm.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why I'm So-so About Sociocracy

A couple days I ago Ted posted this note in response to my June 20 blog, Consensus Interruptus. As an advocate of sociocracy, he objected to my critique of it, and has offered this rejoinder for why it's the best thing since sliced bread. Ted's comments are in italics.

• • •
Some of your comments about sociocracy make me think you don't really understand it.

Fair enough. I admit that my exposure to sociocracy is limited. I've read We the People (even offering a critique of some passages while it was in draft), once had an animated dinner conversation with John Buck, watched a few committee meetings operate under sociocractic agreements, and talked with a handful of trainers who have offered socicracy workshops. Taken all together I agree that that doesn't add up to my being an expert on the process. That said, I do consider myself to be an expert about cooperative group process, an expert in the theory and use of secular consensus, and a sophisticated observer of group dynamics. So my comments are from that perspective.

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.

I've read this paragraph five times and I'm not sure what Ted is trying to get at here. My best guess is that he feels sociocracy does just as good a job as consensus in discerning what agreement is in the room.

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.

Oh boy. There's a world of hurt imbedded in "airing obstinate minority viewpoints" and "dealing with challenging personalities by requiring a reason for an objection." One of my greatest concerns with sociocracy is that there is a baseline commitment to a single format (rounds) for working topics, and experience has taught me that all format slants things a certain way. Rounds protects air time for all participants, yet at the cost of time. If you speed things up to save time (as I understand is often done with sociocracy), then it favors the quick-thinking and articulate.

Further, when we enter the field of "obstinate minority viewpoints" and "challenging personalities" it is flat-out naive to claim that these are easily navigated without blowback by guaranteeing air time, or requiring a rational grounding. It just doesn't work that way. 

That said, I want to add a word of caution. I have not yet witnessed sociocracy operate in live conflicted dynamics. In the examples I've seen, there was no particular gravitas to the issues being discussed, and my deep reservations will not be addressed by theoretical conversations about how it functions in heavy traffic. I want to see it attempted when the stakes are high and people strongly disagree. That's where the money is. I'm especially interested in how sociocracy addresses emotional distress relative to group issues.

There are only as many go-rounds as needed and there is never any super-majority voting. Consent is ALWAYS unanimous.

Ted is objecting to my having earlier written with disdain about processes that rely on super-majority voting to outmaneuver obstinacy. While Ted claims that with sociocracy there is never any voting—and that may technically be true—there is nuance here that is being glossed over. I have spoken with multiple people who have found it hard with sociocracy to know whether the thing on their minds is worthy of saying (does it pass the test of being of "paramount" importance?), and it takes a strong person to voice a concern when the group is building momentum toward a conclusion and you know that what you have to say will slow things down. These two dynamics play out like super-majority voting in that they tend to quash dissent—even when there was never any actual vote.

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. 

I've seen consensus used to refer solely to a decision-making process, solely to refer to the attitude of inclusivity desired for group functioning, and to both. However, let's not quibble. There is an important body of work extant on cooperative group organizational structures and regardless of how much of that flies under the banner of "consensus," it is wrong to think that the structural suggestions of sociocracy exist in a vacuum, or that it is the only thing going.

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.

Reading this makes me wonder about Ted's understanding of consensus. As far as I'm concerned, learning the art of delegating is a crucial aspect of effective consensus (if a group is larger than 6-8), yet Ted has written as if sociocracy invented the concept.

It's frustrating to see virtually all worker/owners using consensus, but maintaining a structure that is authoritarian. 

I'm not clear what Ted means here. My guess is that he's making the case that groups that don't delegate meaningful authority to committees, work teams, or managers maintain a top down authoritarian style. If so, the problem is not with consensus, but with how it's practiced. And I'm certainly not claiming that all groups using consensus know what they're doing.

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.

I don't agree. Sociocracy's reliance on rounds to accomplish everything in plenary seems deeply flawed to me. Further, I have yet to see what sociocracy's response is to working constructively with distress. (My concerns in this regard are heightened by the fact that We the People does not address distress at all—which is itself distressing.)

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.

As I understand it, sociocracy relies on the concept of double linked responsibility between rings (such as the relationship between the plenary and a standing committee), whereby a representative member of the plenary will attend committee meetings primarily as a communication conduit, and a representative member of the committee will similarly attend planeries for the same reason in the other direction. While that sounds good, it is neither elegant nor effective.

It happens that FIC experimented seriously with this concept in the late '90s (before the term "sociocracy" had been coined) and it just didn't work. It depended too heavily on a high level of motivation and availability among the liaisons—and this was with a high functioning consensus group. While it's certainly dangerous to generalize from a single failure, and I can imagine the double link concept working in some circumstances, I am highly skeptical that this is an excellent generic solution. There are just too many ways for it to break down.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

From the FIC Mailbag

One of the illuminating and entertaining things about being in the information business is that you get the chance to see what people are interested in. One day recently, our FIC Office received the following three communications within the same 24-hour period…

[Note that grammar and spelling have been preserved from the original.]

Inquiry #1
It sounds like you have a "social" support group. I feel there is a need and a place for social support groups. I facilitate a Recovery Support group. The members of our group would be terrorized by a face to face social support group, but may be able to participate in an online group.
Here in we have grief groups, educational groups (classroom type), social groups and Recovery support groups. What is your percentage of recovery?

At first it was amusing to think about the need to "recover" from community, as if it were a disease. I reckon I know alarmed parents and ex-partners of happy communitarians who hold that view, and that's the basic premise of deprogramming groups such as the Cult Awareness Network.

Then I thought of the Gandhi quote, when he was asked what he thought about Western civilization: "I think it would be a very good idea." 

In that vein we can think of intentional communities as support groups for recovery from materialism and the desire to reassert the primacy of healthy relationships as the fundamental building block of a vibrant society. 

Maybe we are recovery groups. Viewed that way, I, too, wonder what our percentage of recovery is. Often the flesh is weaker than the spirit and that's not a bad question to ponder.

Inquiry #2
Looking at the kind of ministry you guys are operating, I will like to represent your interest in Africa. I am a pastor of a small group church in Nigeria and want you people to extend your ministry to Africa where by I can represent you over here.

While I understand the inclination to try to extend one's influence if you're successful and feel spiritually called, I'm scratching my head over the phrase "the kind of ministry you guys are operating." Huh?

I suspect that this fisher of souls got no further than the word "Fellowship" in a very broad casting of the (inter)net. Electrons are cheap, and volume had probably been selected as a strategic substitute for discernment. Our office, for example, periodically gets unsolicited direct mail catalogs from companies that are purveyors of church supplies, which I think is a consequence of the same bad guess.

While it saddens me that we receive communications feigning a personal touch when it is so clear there hasn't even been the first attempt to understand who they are approaching, I suppose spam is a unavoidable nuisance in the Information Age.

Inquiry #3
At first, I was excited to join others in development of good clean and holsome living. Then reality set in. I contacted everyone applicable. It so became clear, this is redicules. To be more exact, most were looking for a sugar daddy or so above us that we need to be concerded. I've attended university for more than 12 yrs, grew up in a farming community, and I can build a community from the ground up cheeper than all the costs given by every community in your groups.

Someone has failed…    

No one will take responsibility…
How is that any different than the socity at large…

At least this dude appeared to know that we were a clearinghouse for information about intentional communities—a simple test that the first two correspondents failed. 

My first reaction to this note was to snarkishly wonder how a person could attend university for 12 years and still be so weakly accomplished at spelling and grammar. Then I realized the snobbishness in me that that represents. The Communities Movement is overwhelmingly well-educated and middle class, yet the desire for community in one's life is not limited to people of that class or educational accomplishment. Everyone needs community.

Further, there is real anguish in this person's note. The author touches on challenges that many groups wrestle with: distribution of power; the lack of healthy models of leadership in cooperative settings; accountability; how to resolve differences constructively; how we tend to undervalue practical knowledge relative to theoretical knowledge. These are all real issues, and no less valid because the person communicating them is unlikely to win a spelling bee. 

Think about the courage it took to post that note.
• • •
I was motivated to share these inquiries both because they're illustrative of the breadth of communications that flow to us, and because of their potential to amuse. Yet there is also a poignant side to these and I want end this blog by underlining that aspect. 

While I know nothing further about any of these correspondents than what I've shared above, it's not hard to see in each a genuine desire to connect and explore the possibility that FIC might be able to enhance something that is precious to them. There's nothing wrong with that. Further, none of the three let the possibility of misunderstanding, uncertainty about receptivity on our part, or lack of erudition on their part get in the way of their reaching out. I find that impressive, and hopeful. 

Reflecting on that puts a different kind of smile on my face than the smirk I started with, and I hope it does for you as well.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Bridging Disparate Views

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Bridging Disparate Views.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability
• • •
One of the principal challenges that groups face is resolving non-trivial differences that arise in how to respond to issues. Often, especially if the stakes are high, it can be hard distinguishing between one's knee-jerk reaction to being disagreed with and one's thoughtful reflection on the merit's of different viewpoints. Just because we don't want to be seen as reactive doesn't mean we don't do it. (And, because being reactive is not how we're supposed to be and not how we mean to be, we'll often go to some lengths to hide evidence of our reactivity, making it that much messier to sort out what's happening.)

Being disagreed with manifest in a variety of ways. First, there is the potential blow to our ego. For most of us, we desire is to be seen as brilliant when contributing to a group conversation—even if we don't say it out loud, that's what we secretly wish for. And I'm not talking about achieving victory through sleight of hand or silver-tongued oral manipulation, I mean actual, substantive brilliance. Where that desire is in play, it can be threatening that someone is not awed by the pearls dribbling from your lips and advises going in another direction. To the extent that you identify with your contribution, you can feel personally rejected, even cheated out of your chance to be a hero. 

Another variant on ego trap is when a person is feeling shaky about their position in the group (uncertain how much people are interested in or open to their views). There can be a tendency for that person to see disagreement with their contributions as evidence of a prejudicial pattern—to the point where it's hard for someone to figure out how to safely express simple disagreement.

Second, you may be attached to what your position represents, and feel that your core values are being undermined when others disagree with you. In this instance, it's not so much that you'll look bad (or at least not brilliant) as it is that something foundational for you feels threatened. When this something is also a group value (or something you fervently believe should be a group value), then the conversation can turn into defending the Alamo. Not pretty.

Regardless of which version we're talking about, reactivity has a significant emotional component, and experience has taught me that if that's in play then groups are well advised to get it out in the open at their earliest convenience. To be clear, I am not advocating that you try to pull someone's pants down on the occasion of their having an emotional reaction ("Is that your ego talking, Kyle?"). Rather, you can recognize what's happening in a neutral, yet caring and accurate way: "I have the sense, Kyle, that you care a lot about this issue because of how central fairness is to you on the issue of access to group resources. Do I have that right?"

If done well you can simultaneously recognize (validate) an emotional response and establish its legitimacy relative to the topic (it's not likely to be controversial that fairness is an explicit factor in how the group proceeds). Of course, this doesn't mean that others will agree that fairness should be given the same weight or the same interpretation that Kyle has given it; we've only established that Kyle is not coming from another planet.

The key here is creating a container of acceptance and curiosity when exploring differences, rather than allowing the consideration to become brittle and fractional. The fact that people have an emotional stake in their viewpoints can be seen as a strength (we're talking about stuff that matters) instead of as dangerous (uh oh, here's where sarcasm starts to poison the air, or the arrows come out).

Let's go back to Kyle and walk this through. Suppose that Kyle is a member of a 10-person multicultural group house that has a clear preference for minimal rules. In this year's budget, as an experiment, there is $1000 earmarked for house members to do fun things, up to $100 at a time. Recording money spent is done on the honor system, but members are not expected to record who spent the money; only how much

Suppose now that it's September and the recreational budget has all been spent. There won't be more until the new budget cycle in January. Some house members haven't used the fund at all and are bummed to learn that their hopes of using it to participate in a huge Halloween bash won't work.

Kyle is pissed about how unequally the money was used—seeing it as a race and class issue. Kyle suspects that the whites in the house, the people raised in privilege, have had no problem accessing the rec fund whenever they were inspired, while the people of color have been more cautious about doing so, for fear of coming across as irresponsible, or taking more than their share.

Now let's add Adrian to the mix, a white member who has used the fund more than once and has a defensive reaction to Kyle's outburst.

For simplicity sake, let's assume that no one has accused anyone of using the fund for inappropriate purposes, or of failing to report what they did with fund money. Even so, it's not hard to imagine how a conversation about how the money was used could veer off the rails and be anything but recreational.

Kyle was upset with the obliviousness of whites, claiming that the group had done poorly in living up to its values around fairness and non-discrimination. Adrian, in turn, felt blindsided after being careful to stay within bounds when using of the fund, and upset at being held to a standard of behavior that was never spelled out. What about the group's preference for minimal rules?

While not all differences of view have elements of strong emotional reactivity in play (whew!), it's nice to have a plan for when they do. I've already suggested what holding Kyle might look like; with Adrian it might be, "You're feeling hurt that you've been scrupulous about coloring inside the lines when using the rec fund and now you're being lambasted for not being sufficiently sensitive to a standard that was never articulated before. It's not fair! If we're going to have a group with minimal rules, don't turn around and jump down my chimney for violating an unarticulated expectation. Do I have that right?"

See how my proffered responses to Kyle & Adrian neither dodge the upset, nor take sides (note: being able to accurately reflect back the upset is not the same as siding with the upset)? The responses were geared to validate the feelings and establish how the concerns are linked to group values (fairness, non-discrimination, multiculturalism, low structure, and high trust among members). If strong feelings are not part of the equation, then that part can be skipped. 

Either way (with or without significant reactivity), it's important to establish the legitimacy of the range of viewpoints, both because it deflects the tendency to think that people are disagreeing for the purpose of launching a personal attack and because it brings into play a constructive framework for the heavy work that needs to come next: bridging the differences.

It works like this: suppose Kyle wants an agreement that next year no one will use more than 10% of the rec fund without running the idea by the rest of the group. On the face of it, Adrian could feel that such a proposal undercuts trust among members, and is discriminatory against those who take initiative. If Adrian counters with a proposal to access the fund the same way next year as last, Kyle could spin that as insensitivity to issues of race and class. Interestingly, both Kyle & Adrian could feel that what the other is proposing is not fair.

That's why it's important to make clear at the outset the legitimate group interests upon which individual positions rest, so that all parties understand why it's reasonable to engage in bridge building. In our example, Kyle needs to understand that Adrian wants the standards for acceptable behavior to be established beforehand, not revealed after the fact. Adrian needs to appreciate that Kyle cares deeply about race and class equality and wants group policies that take into account the nuances of unconscious privilege. These are not diametrically opposed views.

For this to go well—for problem solving to proceed constructively—it's imperative that all the players feel that their concerns about what needs to be taken into account have been acknowledged. Now, finally, you've set the stage for bridging, where people are encouraged to advance their ideas about how best to balance the various factors that bear on the issue.

The work of the facilitator in such moments is to remind participants to set advocacy aside, and concentrate instead on suggestions for how to best combine the factors—for drawing a circle large enough that all viewpoints can fit comfortably inside it. In my experience there is almost always sufficient wisdom in the group for members to solve the problems that come along—if only they can succeed in creating and maintaining the right container for the conversation.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Dancing to a Different Drumbeat

A fortnight ago I participated in the national conference of the Cohousing Association of the US, held July 15-17 at the downtown Marriott in Oakland CA. It marked only the second time that this mostly annual event has been hosted at a commercial hotel. Prior to 2011 it had typically been held on university campuses, which are often eager to rent out their facilities in June when the bulk of their student body is elsewhere.

While I've always enjoyed the feel of off-season college campuses, with their casual ambiance, funky decor, and no long lines at the cafeteria, I have to admit that I've appreciated the greater professionalism of a venue that's primarily dedicated to hosting events. When it's a sideline—as it necessarily is at universities—it's always a little hit or miss whether they have their shit together around equipment, security, or even finding the person who knows stuff when you need them.

Last year, for instance, I loved that it was possible to simply pull up to the hotel entrance and unload countless boxes of books onto a stable cart that could be easily wheeled into the lobby, onto a convenient elevator, and from there directly into the room where I'd be setting up the conference bookstore. (This in contrast with our bivouacking on the main floor of the student union at UNC Chapel Hill in 2006, where we had to schlep every box by hand more than 100 yards just to get to the building entrance. Ufda.)

This year, while the Marriott support staff was front and center doing what they could to make our stay memorable, we encountered a vexing venue variable I hadn't encountered before: noise pollution. 

When you're paying a premium for a premium venue, you expect premium treatment. We didn't get it. To be sure, a major facility such as the Marriott can accommodate multiple clients at a time, and the exhibit areas are cleverly designed so that sections can be partitioned off and used simultaneously in a bewildering variety of configurations. So, while Coho/US was hoping for attendance near 400 (we got 349), that wasn't anywhere near Marriott's capacity and they gladly accepted an Herbalife promotional event concurrent with ours when the opportunity came up.

While there was plenty of room in the lobby and elevators for both groups to maneuver between sessions, it turned out that it's Herbalife's habit to pump up new recruits with a steady, pervasive bass drumbeat that they intermittently call upon from morning to evening for 30-60 minutes at a time—which is apparently an essential element in eliciting the proper entrepreneurial frenzy. This company is a big time distributor of nutritional and dietary supplements that has successfully recruited 2.3 million individuals worldwide to be independent distributors of their goodies. Thus, even though Coho/US had contracted with Marriott first, Herbalife was a big fish and we were a small one, creating delicacy for the Marriott staff in how they responded: they owed us, yet wanted repeat business from Herbalife.

The Marriott folks could instantly appreciate the problem when Herbalife's bass line (it evoked for me the mines of Moria in Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, as the main characters gathered around Balin's tomb) easily penetrated the thin folding walls that separated our portion of the East Exhibit Hall from theirs (causing the Friday night plenary speaker to pause in his delivery to let the unusual Bay Area thunderstorm pass over—only to discover that the atmospheric disturbance was emanating from inside the building, and not likely to end during his talk).

When approaching Herbalife with the request that they tone it down proved ineffectual (hey, we've been doing this for 30 years and know what works), the Marriott staff went to Plan B: more acoustical separation. Overnight—and at no cost—they moved all of Coho/US's stuff from the ill-fated kettle drum of the East Exhibit Hall into the Main Ballroom, which was a nicer venue anyway (think Academy Awards, in contrast with the airplane hangar that was the East Exhibit Hall). While that shift didn't eliminate the boom booms altogether, they were more contained—excepting in some of the breakout sessions, where rooms were too close to the pulsing vibrato, causing some participants to give up in frustration.

In short, it was tense coexisting with the 500-pound Herbalife gorillas who couldn't keep their hands off the djembes.

• • •
The energetic highlight of the Coho Conference was the Saturday night banquet, which included an up-tempo benefit auction and the honoring of Katie McCamant & Chuck Durrett for a lifetime of work developing and promoting the concept of cohousing. Part of the ceremony was a string of testimonials from people who know Katie & Chuck well and it was touching that the final speaker was their daughter, Jessie, who secretly flew in from college to be the frosting on the cake. Both surprised parents were in tears—and nearly speechless. It was a lovely moment.

After the banquet ended, most of us (including me) went to bed—there was still Sunday to go and I needed to recharge my battery. The hard core however, repaired to Katie & Chuck's hotel suite where an impromptu gathering continued the celebration of their achievements, friendships, and inspirations into the wee hours. 

The party didn't break up until hotel staff knocked on the door and asked them to quiet down. There were guests in nearby rooms who were having trouble sleeping through the racket, and they should be more considerate—those Herbalife folks down the hall needed their rest for Sunday's big finale.

[May I have a drum roll please… ] 
• • •
OK, so I've had my fun with the delicious irony of people who make a lot of noise being intolerant of others who make noise.

There is another side of this that is not so funny. The Coho/US crowd was overwhelmingly white and middle class. It happened that the Herbalife crowd was overwhelmingly Latino. (I say it this way because I'm sure that there are other Herbalife conventions where the racial and ethnic mix is completely different.) Where we were a jeans and shorts crowd, they were dressed sharp—women in heels and makeup; men in ties with pomaded hair.

We were pretty different from each other as a group and that made it far easier for us cohousers to see the Herbalifers as "other." This is all the more interesting when you take into account that in community we're expressly trying to learn to see and work constructively with differences. In Oakland that weekend, we didn't do so well. 

If you take a step back, the Herbalife bass intrusion wasn't that big a deal. It only rarely actually interfered with hearing. Sure, it wasn't considerate, but who wants to go through life angry because everything isn't perfect? Coho/US had a great conference—they had good attendance, they raised a lot of money, and people had a terrific time. Why give so much energy to an irritant?

How hard would it have been to have imagined the positive reasons for the steady bass beat? Music is a good fit with Latin culture, and camaraderie is something to be purposefully cultivated in managing a successful event. What Coho/US did with a gourmet appetizer buffet and easy access to alcohol, Herbalife did with bass percussion. What's so different? 

As I was packing up the books Sunday afternoon, I spent a lot of time passing through the lobby where the Herbalife folks were congregating for charter buses back home. Observing all the laughter, hugs, and group photos, it was clear that they'd had a good time as well. It was just a different good time than ours.

I think we still have some serious work to do in being OK with different. And that's not a joke.