Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Consensus Is Contraindicated

Let's suppose you're part of group that's seriously considering (or questioning) whether to make decisions by consensus. In today's essay I'm going to explore the limits of consensus in two ways: a) why it may be a poor choice for the general way that the group makes decisions,; and b) why there may be times when the group is better served to make specific decisions by a method other than consensus, even though that's what the group generally uses.

I've been living the last 39 years at Sandhill Farm—a group that's always made decisions by consensus—and have been an active participant for more than three decades in community network organizations that have used consensus (the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, 1980-2001; and the Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1987-present), and I'm an unabashed advocate of consensus for making decisions in cooperative groups. At the same time though, I've been a process consultant for the last 26 years and have witnessed plenty of groups struggle with consensus.

Thus, when a facilitation student asked me recently when it might be appropriate to not use consensus (in a cooperative group), I realized I had a lot to say…

A. Why a cooperative group may want to think twice about adopting consensus
Despite my overall enthusiasm for consensus, it's not an easy process to learn, and you're not likely to enjoy what you get unless you're willing to make a number of commitments. Here is a laundry list of ways you can get in trouble:

o  Vague common values
The bedrock of consensus is the group's common values, because that's the well you drink from when trying to sort out how to proceed when the group is pulled in two or more directions. Your primary navigational tool in safely negotiating a passage through these choppy waters is keeping focused on how best to balance common values in relation to the presenting issue(s)—and you can't very well be guided by that pole star if you're sailing in a fog.

o  Weak communication skills
If the group's members are not particular skilled at clear articulation, accurate listening, giving and receiving feedback, and shifting perspectives to see things through others' eyes, meetings can be a real slog.

o  No (or minimal) training in the process
Consensus is antithetical to the way most people have been conditioned. In recognition of that it's naive to think that the group will be any good at it unless the whole group has gone through training. Hint: Having read a book or watched others do it is not enough.

o  Failure to understand the need to make a cultural shift
Community living, almost by definition, is a conscious effort to live more cooperatively. Given that the mainstream US culture is competitive and adversarial—which is the sociological opposite of cooperation—it requires real work to turn that around. The key challenge is the moment when people disagree over something that's close to the bone. Will they respond as if threatened, or with curiosity? If you don't grok that effective use of consensus necessitates a culture shift and a willingness to do personal work, then you're in for a world of hurt.

o  Minimal care in membership selection
To protect your investment in a cooperative culture, you need to purposefully screen prospective members for those who have done or are willing and able to do the personal work described above. If you're careless about this, you're sowing the whirlwind. Membership selection has to be more than whether they claim to have read your vision statement and their first check clears. At Sandhill, assessing prospective members for social maturity is our number one screen after values match. (We figure we can always teach a person how to drive a tractor, but it's damn hard to teach someone how to listen.)

o  No major commitment to integrating/training new members
Even if you do adequate initial training in consensus and carefully screen prospectives for social suitability, you still need to invest in the integration of newbies into the group. And that means orientation in how things are done in your cooperative group. Hint: it is not enough to simply give them an owner's manual and tell them to read it; in many cases new members will not even know the right questions to ask, and the veterans need to be pro-active in making this happen. Don't wait for the new folks to figure it out on their own.

o  Sloppy minutes 
One of the key ways that groups can bring new members up to current is by introducing them to the archive of plenary minutes (and how to search them by topic). Fortunately, in this age of sophisticated word processing programs, it doesn't have to be that heroic to have decent, accessible records. Key here is solid guidance and follow-through on how minutes will be taken, what will be included, how they will be reviewed for accuracy and completeness, how they will be stored, how they will be indexed, and how they can be accessed. If you fail to do a good job of this be prepared to handle the tension that results from new people wanting to revisit old decisions, while the veterans roll their eyes. It's a train wreck.

o  Poor record of agreements
It's no fair telling new members that they have to get up to speed on past agreements if that material is not laid out plainly for them, indexed by topic. If you're not doing any better than pointing them in the direction of multiple notebooks of handwritten plenary minutes, it's hopeless. What this leads to is reliance on oral tradition and the long-term memory of long-time members to guide you through. Good luck with that.

o  No agreement (or understanding) about how to work emotionally
Even though all groups experience emotional responses in the context of examining issues (not on every issue, but often enough), few groups discuss it as a process dynamic and make deliberate decisions about how they'd like to proceed when strong feelings emerge. Absent any agreements about it, the group proceeds by the seat of its pants—with predictably awkward and haphazard results. Yuck!

o  Not defining blocks well, or understanding how to handle them
One of the biggest challenges for most groups struggling with consensus is the concept of "blocks"—by which a single individual can stop the group from making a decision. It's imperative that consensus groups have a clear understanding of: 1) the point at which blocks can occur (Answer: only when the group is poised to make a decision; anything before that is a concern); 2) the legitimate grounds for a block; 3) the process by which blocks will be tested for legitimacy; and 4) the process by which a validated block will be examined, and a clear statement of everyone's role in that effort.

o  Lack of skilled (or authorized) facilitation
Facilitation is much more than deciding who will talk next. In fact, when a group is trying to make a successful transition to cooperative culture, skilled facilitation can often make a night-and-day difference in the likelihood of the group having productive, energizing meetings. In general, you want your most process-savvy people running the meetings, because of their greater ability to steer things constructively. To get the most of this potential, it's important that the group give the facilitator authority to step in things get off the rails.

Hint: In most groups the four most common elements of meeting fatigue are: 1) repetitive comments; 2) people speaking off topic; 3) working at detail below plenary level; and 4) inability to hold off proposals until after the group has identified what the proposal needs to address. You need facilitators who understand how to manage all four of these challenges and have the authority from the group to step in and redirect whenever they surface. Otherwise, you're blowing in the wind. Answer: If your facilitators don't have the capacity to handle this, get them trained.

o  Vague understanding about what kinds of topics are appropriate for plenary
Not everything can or should be done in plenary (whew). Some topics shouldn't even be attempted in plenary—because they are a matter of personal discretion, already fall within the bailiwick of a committee or manager, or are outside the scope of the group's mission to tackle. In addition, it's important to know when the group has reached the end of plenary level concerns and it's time to hand it over to a subgroup (or manager) for completion or implementation. If you don't know where that line is, it's damn hard to know when you've crossed it.

B. Why a consensus group may want to make certain decisions another way
Here's a news flash: just because your group has an agreement to make decisions by consensus doesn't mean you are forced to make all decisions by consensus. There are cases where it makes good sense to decide by consensus that you'll make a specific decision by another method (which is typically voting, but could be throwing darts, drawing lots, pin the tail on the agreement, or relying on the inspiration derived from a Ouija board or chicken entrails).

Why would you do this? 
o  The stakes are low (perhaps the matter falls entirely within a committee's or manager's purview)
o  It's mainly a matter of aesthetics
o  All major concerns have been addressed in plenary and the remaining details are considered minor

Examples include:
—naming questions (which could be as trivial as what you call the pet turtle in the community pond, or as serious as what you call the community
—when to schedule a group event
—what palette of colors to allow for exterior paint 
—the menu for Thanksgiving dinner

Most often groups get in trouble in this regard for one of two reasons: a) failure to understand that it's OK to make minor decisions other than by consensus; and b) lack of clarity and/or discipline about not taking up plenary time with issues that are below the level of whole group attention.

Caution: I am not suggesting going to another decision-making rule as a work-around for a block. I refer to this as club-in-the-closet consensus—where the group commits to honoring dissent only if everyone "behaves." The concept of if-you-push-too-hard-we'll-shove-back-harder is not consensus; it's majority rule dressed up to look pretty.


Anonymous said...

Have you considered writing a book on consensus

Beatrice Briggs said...

I have written a book on consensus and I think this is a brilliant list!