Monday, June 10, 2013

Delegation That's Finger Lickin' Good

I just completed the eighth and final weekend of a two-year facilitation training in northern California. The host group was Kingfisher, a retrofit cohousing community in the upper Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland.

The community jokingly refers to itself as KFC (as in KingFisher Cohousing). Of course, "KFC" is more commonly understood as a reference to Kentucky Fired Chicken, an icon in the fast food industry, and the community has been anything but fast moving (they've been trying to buy a suitable East Bay property since 2006) and because intentional communities are efforts to create a let's-slow-down-and-smell-the-roses values-based authentic life that is the very antithesis of mass marketed squat and gobble all-you-can-overeat buckets of cage-raised deep fried artificially hormone-plumped chicken breasts.

Kingfisher bought their property last December: two rows of modest bungalows that face each other across a driveway—four on one side and five on the other. Because of Oakland rental law, the community inherited nine renters who have the right to remain there as long as they're law abiding and continue to pay rent. That is, the community can only convert units into residences for community members as the current renters voluntarily leave. To date, two units have been converted and there are decent prospects for one or two more becoming available in the coming months. 

Since the community is small, this delay in the availability of the housing stock is working out fine (that is, the demand for community-occupied units is pretty well matching the pace of availability). However, buying a multi-unit rental property has had the unintended consequence of Kingfisher being in the business of property management until the inherited renters leave all nine units, and that could take a while.

One of the most productive—and instructive—moments of the weekend came when the class was working with Kingfisher on the challenges of property management. Two members (the ones living in the two units that the community now controls) were doing most of the work and there was uncertaintly about when they could act on their own judgment and when they needed to consult with the whole group before proceeding. It was a classic delegation issue. All agreed that the job should be handled by the two on-site members as a team, but what were the limits of their authority?

After brainstorming all the tasks involved, the group had a better understanding of what the Property Management Team (PMT) was coping with, but were no closer to defining the limits of authority. To get there we needed to develop a different list: not what things needed to get done, but what parameters did the whole community want to set, within which the PMT could operate without further approval—so long as they weren't coloring outside the lines.

That list looked like this:

How much could the PMT spend on their own to cover:
—repairs and replacements
—hiring for estimates, consultation, and installation
—legal fees 

Imbedded here might be expectations for quality and kind (for example, how green or how durable) of materials and work in effecting repairs or upgrades.

Work priorities
The community may want to have a broad brush say in how the PMT prioritizes its work. (Or maybe they don't.)

Standards for how the PMT relates to renters 
The community probably wants these interactions to be similar to that standards for members interacting with each other—that is, not adversarial. This might include expectations about timeliness in response to renter initiated inquiries, requests, or complaints.

Standards for due diligence around ascertaining renter culpability with respect to damage to units 
What should be the owner's responsibility and what should be the renter's, and how will differences be navigated?

Reporting expectations
What information (and what level of detail) does the community want about PMT activity, and how frequently should that be posted?

Right to self-organize
Is it acceptable that the PMT makes its own decisions about how it divides work between the two members, so long as they gets the work done to the community's established standards?

Emergency Powers
In what conditions can the PMT exceed its normal authority to act on behalf of the group (in the case of imminent threat to life or property?) because it deems that delay to consult is unacceptable; by what mechanism will those powers be invoked; what are the PMT's obligations to inform the community that this has happened; what will be the expectations of review afterwards to make sure everyone's OK with what went down. 

• • •
In plenary, Kingfisher members tended to get lost in the conversation. On the one hand they knew they wanted to delegate authority to the PMT. On the other, they found it hard to stay out of the details of what the PMT had been embroiled in and started second guessing some of the decisions.

It's no fair (not to mention spectacularly ineffective) asking a subgroup to act on behalf of the whole and then not giving clear guidance about the parameters under which they're supposed to operate. Dont' make managers ans committees guess; spell it out!

In the end, even though we didn't have time to answer all the questions posted above, we had illuminated the pathway and that was the breakthrough: we'd identified the questions to ask. 

It's interesting how often that that's the harder part: knowing the right questions, rather than knowing the answers. Now pointed in the right direction, I'm confident that those KFCers will be lickin' their fingers before you know it.

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