Sunday, September 22, 2013

Leverage Points in Consensus

I've got nearly 40 years under my belt making decisions with consensus in cooperative groups. In addition, I've been a consensus trainer for more than 25 years, and I've been writing about it for more than 15.

In preparation for an all-day consensus training with a forming community in Boston this weekend, I spent time distilling what I've learned into a double handful of key places where there's persistent misunderstanding or confusion about consensus. I offer them here (in no particular order), with the idea that handling these well will almost certainly lead to consistently good results.

1. Committing to creating cooperative culture
The mainstream culture is competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial. You can't just transplant consensus into the competitive culture that we've spent all our lives being steeped in and expect good results. That's just unanimous voting, and it's damn hard to get anything done.

The litmus test is how people respond when encountering strongly viewpoints different than their own about nontrivial matters. Do they respond with tension, combativeness, or capitulation; or do they respond with curiosity, and openness to having their opinion shift?

An ancillary aspect of this shows up in the way people recreationally bash meetings, expecting them to go poorly. Expectations have a profound impact on results, and we need to develop more hope and a positive attitude about expecting productive, unifying meetings if we're going start having them.

2. Staying on topic
One the principal ways that groups squander meeting time and dissipate energy is through participants lacking sufficient discipline to stay on topic. The corollary concern is facilitators who are not crisp about defining the topic (which complicates participants knowing whether they're coloring outside the lines).

To be fair, sometimes this is more a lack of sophistication about how to usefully section a complex topic into digestible chunks, the end result of which is the miasma of everyone being on topic, but the topic being too large for the group to be able to work with the all-over-the-place input.

3. Minimizing repetition
The companion nightmare to off-topic comments are those that are repeated. Mostly people repeat because they were unsure they were heard the first time.

Sometimes this is due to the speaker failing to distinguish being heard and being agreed with. Sometimes it's traceable to weak facilitation (it's awkward interrupting someone) or to facilitators who are unsure of their mandate. Sometimes it's because people cannot resist the temptation to say in their own words what someone else has already contributed‚ much of which is ego management.

Hint #1: If facilitators are diligent about summarizing input as the conversation progresses, it can help cut down wonderfully on people inspired to repeat themselves.

4. Dealing solely with plenary worthy topics in plenary
Most groups never discuss what things are an appropriate use of time in meetings of the whole (plenaries). When there is no clear boundary about what's an acceptable way to focus plenaries, the consequence is that almost anyone (or any committee) can suggest a topic and it's hard to draw the line The default is that any topic is allowed, which is an invitation to trail by minutia.

This problem is compounded by facilitators who are unwilling to step in and hold the group's feet to the fire when they drift below plenary level (perhaps to extend the pleasure of making decisions and clearing up ambiguity once they gather momentum on questions that started out as plenary worthy).

Hint #2: In addressing Points #2-4 above, you need to bless facilitators with clear authority to step in when the group strays.

Hint #3: It will be hard to enforce Point #4 unless you have a clear sense of how to delegate cleanly and effectively.

5. Working purposefully with emotions
Even though the baseline assumption is that groups will conduct business by using their best thinking, people know, process, and transmit information in far richer ways, including emotionally, intuitively, and kinesthetically. It's especially important to understand the need for how to work with emotional input. 

While it can be a wild card that many are afraid of (mainly because most of us were raised without good models for how to do it well), emotions are an important source of energy and information, and it can be huge for groups to develop the capacity to recognize and work constructively with feelings relevant to the topics at hand.

Hint #4: You can welcome feelings and object to aggression.

6. Sequencing work such that proposals follow discussion; not the other way around
If you take to heart Point #4, then it's important to not develop proposals until the whole group has had a decent chance to identify the factors that a good response to an issue needs to address. If you start with proposals, committees and managers get invested in their answers and it skews the consideration of the issue unhelpfully.

If a topic is worthy of whole group consideration, don't start working on answers until you've agreed on what factors need to be balanced—then you can turn it over to committees to draft solutions.

7. Resolving issues by balancing interests; not by compromising positions
Often enough, groups get hung up on debating the relative merits of conflicting solutions. Will there be a winner and a loser? Should you pick a middle position (perhaps cutting the baby in half)?

In resolving the question of how best to respond to an issue in the dynamic where there are multiple ideas about how best to proceed, it generally works much better if you probe potential solutions for the interests from which they were derived, and then try to do your problem solving at that level. Positions can be diametrically opposed when underlying values are not. The gold is found by balancing values, while eschewing a battle of positions. 

8. Knowing when (and how) to close the deal
There is an art to knowing when there is little or no new information forthcoming, and it's time to move toward problem solving. 

While the discussion phase of the examination is expansive and might be characterized by impassioned advocacy, when you shift to problem solving you enter a contractive phase where it's time to lay down advocacy and think about bridging. It's important both to steer clear of problem solving until the discussion phase has been completed, and then to shift the energy of the problem solving phase so that the group comes together.

9. Understanding blocks and stand asides
In consensus it's possible for a single individual to stop the group from accepting a proposal. While that's a powerful right, it's paired with a powerful responsibility to use that right only thoughtfully and with compassion. 

While blocks should be rare (because they come at the end of the consideration, and healthy consensus groups rarely test for approval of a proposal for which it is know that there are unresolved concerns), it is essential that consensus groups define the legitimate basis for blocks and the process by which the legitimacy of blocks will be examined. Woe betide the group that postpones defining the norms for blocks until they are in the dynamic they want to apply them to. Talk about a train wreck!

10. Knowing when to get help
While it's well and good that groups aspire to handle all that comes their way, occasionally you'll find yourself in over your head, where there is not sufficient neutrality or skill among the membership to safely navigate the issue(s) at hand. Groups are well advised to prepare ahead for that possibility, both by investing in training (to enhance the skills of the group), and by identifying talented facilitators among other cooperative groups in the area who can be asked to help out in time of need (perhaps in exchange for your returning the favor when they get stuck).

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