Thursday, June 19, 2014

Baseline Decisions for Groups Using Consensus

Debby Sugarman (Brandywine MD) is one of the more accomplished students who has taken my two-year facilitation training. She recently conducted a half-day introduction to consensus and facilitation for a forming group in Maryland, and—as all good students will do—came up with some handouts of her own, including a list of 10 process decisions that consensus groups should make, preferably before they need to apply the answers.

With Debby's permission I'm showcasing her list here, accompanied by my annotations.

1.  Who is eligible to participate in consensus? Who can block consensus? 
First of all, note that these are two separate questions and may have different answers. The first could be as restrictive as everyone who's a member of the group, or as relaxed as everyone in the room. However, the second question should be answered much more deliberately and will probably be restricted to full members. (It generally doesn't make sense to give apprentices full use of the power tools until after some training and vetting.)

Note that embedded in these questions is clarity about other questions, including: a) how members are selected; b) how many categories of membership your group has and how decision-making rights vary by category; and c) the group's openness to new people in the room (which may be selective, depending on what you're discussing).

Also, you might be more open to non-member participation if you believe you've done a thorough job of spelling out what kind of behavior is appropriate from non-members. How interested are you in giving them a chance to add their two cents on the topics, either because they might have useful perspectives, or because it's a clever way to screen them for membership?

2.  Do you want a formal call for consensus? If so how?

It may seem a trivial matter how you know where everyone stands at the point of testing for approval, yet it can get tricky. Does silence equal assent? Or is it better that everyone is expected to give some definitive indication (thumbs up, displaying a green card, vocalizing "yes" or "aye"—I knew an artist collective once that relied on a pirate "argh" to indicate assent)?

The point is that it's better to have something deliberate and definitive as a guard against someone saying later that their opinion was never solicited, or that they didn't realize that there had been a call for consensus.

3.  How many stand asides are OK?

This is a fairly nuanced question. The way most people conceive of it, with consensus you have three options for how you respond when asked for your position about a proposal at the point of decision: agree, stand aside, or block.

You might think of it as green light, yellow light, and red. This question, essentially, is how many yellow lights can you tolerate and still feel safe proceeding. In consensus theory there is no definitive answer and that's why Debby is posing the question.

Some groups have a rule of thumb that says so many stand asides is equivalent to a block, but I prefer something more situational. First, I think you want a norm where the group is sure that it knows what the stand aside is based on (which gives you the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings, or to see if minor tweaks can resolve the concerns). Second, I think you need to assess the number of stand asides relative to:

o  Group size (three stand asides has a different meaning in a group of 60 than in a group of eight).
o  The importance or centrality of the person standing aside in relation to implementation of the agreement (agreeing to a new financial reporting system may not be so prudent if the stand aside is the group accountant).
o  Whether the reasons for standing aside are different or the same (if they're all the same it's probably less problematic than if the reasons are all different—which suggests improperly chewed input: if you swallow prematurely it may lead to indigestion).

Let me walk you through an illustrative example of this last point. Suppose the proposal under consideration is serving locally raised, organic turkeys (bought from Farmer Jones down the road) as one of the main dishes for the annual Thanksgiving feast. Long-time member Dale stands aside as a vegan, as he's done every year. He objects to eating meat personally, yet knows that the group has no agreements about diet and that some members eat meat. 

Now suppose there are two new members in the group, Chris and Adrian. 

Variation #1: Suppose Chris and Adrian are also vegans and stand aside for the same reason as Dale. This is essentially the same situation as last year, excepting that there are three vegans now instead of one. The vegans will not be asked to cook the turkey, carve the turkey, or serve the turkey, and they knew when they joined the group that meat eating was allowed at group functions.

Variation #2: Suppose instead that Chris stands aside because she questions the way Farmer Jones raises turkeys. Yes, they're local but they're confined to a small caged area and always on concrete. The turkeys rarely see the light of day, and Chris is queasy about eating "sweat shop" turkey. Suppose further that Adrian is uneasy because Farmer Jones has been raising poultry for 25 years and has always been conventional until last year, when he suddenly claimed to be organic. Farmer Jones has a local reputation for being a shrewd trader always on the lookout for an advantage and Adrian wonders about taking his word for not using growth hormones, medicated feed, or corn that's been grown with the aid of anhydrous ammonia.

See how stand asides for three different reasons feels more substantive than three stand asides for the same reason?

4.  Is there a group responsibility to a person who stands aside? If so, what?

This pairs with the implied question, "What are the responsibilities of the person standing aside to help the group resolve their concerns?"

—For the person standing aside in relation to the group
They should articulate to the group the basis for their choice, which may include why it's a stand aside instead of a block. In general, stand asides fall into one of two types: a) the person has personal objections that are not linked to group values (and thus, it's inappropriate to block); or b) they're not sure what they think, yet don't want to hold the group up to sort it out (probably because they had a known opportunity to do their homework yet didn't complete it).

They also have a more subtle responsibility to truly let it go if the group proceeds to make a decision. If they hector the group later with I-told-you-so energy, it will not go well.

—For the group in relation to the person standing aside
o  To slow things down to make sure they understand the basis for the stand aside.
o  To consider carefully whether they want to proceed with a decision despite the stand aside.
o  To make clear what responsibilities the people standing aside will have in implementing or abiding by the agreement if it is made.

5.  What are your group's values? (to be used in case of a block)

It's certainly important and valuable to have explicit group values—and not just so that you can dust them off when you encounter blocks (which should happen rarely).

Knowing group values is important both for group identity (who are you and what do you stand for; why would someone want to join you?) and because it should be the well you drink from on a regular basis when determining what needs to be taken into account when responding to an issue or an opportunity. Hint: In a healthy consensus group at least half of plenary time should be taken up with questions of how to sensitively apply group values to the topics at hand.

What underlays Debby's question is that it's important that consensus groups define: a) the grounds for a legitimate block; b) the process by which the group will validate a block; and c) the process by which it will constructively respond to a validated block. On the question of legitimacy, I strongly recommend that the test be that the proposal contradicts or runs afoul of an existing group agreement or violates a common value—and you have to know what those values are in order to use them as a screen.

6.  Are there any individual concerns that are appropriate to be considered as part of a block (for example in the case of a group who lives together whose decisions affect the personal lives of the members)

I believe what is meant here is whether the group has any obligation to validate personal concerns that are not also group concerns when it comes to blocking. If personal concerns (of any stripe) are congruent with group values then there is no question. The interesting case is when a proposal that is otherwise deemed good for the group adversely affects one or more members of the group on a personal level. 

My intuition on this is to develop a norm that you'll determine of how much to take that into account on a case-by-case basis, trying your best to accommodate individual needs as they arise, but not promising to do so.

7.  What are the responsibilities of the blocker to the rest of the process?

This one is paired with "What are the responsibilities of the group in the event of a block?" and is analogous to Question 4, so I'll respond in like manner:

—For the blocker in relation to the group
o  To explain to plenary the basis for their block and why that's legitimate (see my comments under Question 5).
o  To show up for a good faith effort to resolve the concerns so the proposal can move forward (perhaps in a modified form). Hint: The blocker should recognize that their right to block and have their concerns treated respectfully is paired with the responsibility to listen to the needs and thinking of others in the group (if you're pounding your shoe on the table insisting that you be heard while not showing the slightest interest in the views of others, it will be a train wreck).

—For the group in relation to the blocker
o  To listen with patience and grace to the blocker's concerns.
o  To expeditiously, yet sensitively determine whether the block is valid.
o  To work with the blocker in good faith in an effort to resolve the concerns to everyone satisfaction, recognizing that the proposal may need to be laid down if the block is validated and not resolved.

8.  How will you deal with personal conflict or strong emotion in a meeting?
Conflict almost always contains a non-trivial emotional component, but the reverse does not obtain. So I'll start with the strong feelings.

This is huge, and far more commonly encountered than blocks. For the most part we (cooperative groups in Western society) have an unconscious model of meetings being an arena where matters are examined and responses developed based on rational discourse. While I believe thinking to be an excellent tool, it ain't the only one in the drawer and it's not necessarily every member's sharpest tool. What about emotional or intuitive knowing (for that matter, what about spiritual or kinesthetic knowing)?

For this question I'll limit my response to feelings. Not only do they contain energy (a good thing if harnessed—there's no rule that says meetings have to be dispassionate or emotionally flat) and information (some people "know" a thing more surely emotionally than rationally; why not take advantage of that?), but you can't keep them out of the room anyway. You might as well come to an understanding about how to work with them constructively, rather than hold your breath and hope they'll mostly leave you alone.  

Hint: Condescension and eye rolling in the presence of emotional outbursts are seldom effective responses. I suggest leaning into the feelings to understand their meaning. Not only will it help you keep the emotive person in the conversation, but you might learn something relevant to the topic at hand.

Similarly, groups stand to benefit mightily from an agreement about how to work constructively with conflict (which I define as at least two points of view with at least one person experiencing non-trivial emotional reaction). Caution: It is not enough to have an agreement on the books, you need to have the in-house skill to be able facilitate conflict in the dynamic moment (by whatever menu of choices you agree to), and you need to have an agreement about the conditions under which you'll work a conflict in plenary (instead of outside of plenary). 

Plenary time is expensive and you want to use it wisely. That said, there are times when working a conflict in the whole group is the right choice and it will serve you well to identify what those times might be ahead of need. 

9.  What does your group want out of the minutes?
While the obvious minimal answer is a clear record of decisions (indexed for reasonable access), it's more than that. For instance, minutes can be an invaluable aid when deciding whether to reconsider an old topic. If you don't have a record of the points considered when the policy was originally made—which is much more than just the conclusion—it's damn hard to know whether someone has enough new thinking to justify a reexamination.

When work is lost we are often condemned to repeat it, and that's a drag. Further, how can you expect new members to get up to speed about why you do what you do, when there are no accessible records of how you got there?

That said, you don't need court transcripts. Verbatim records are almost certainly overkill, not to mention exhausting to take and tiring to read. You want a cogent summary of relevant points, with tasks and decisions clearly marked. Hint: It's almost always helpful to organize comments by topic rather than by chronology. Two years from now you may want to know how Evan responded to Jesse's point about affordability, but you won't give a shit which was stated first or that there was a break in between. Your prime directive as a notetaker is what is the group likely to want to know down the road.

Caution: A nuance here is whether (or under what circumstances) you want minutes to include attribution. Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world knowing who said a thing and you don't want to arbitrarily wipe that out with a no attribution rule.

10. Where should minutes be kept?

The point here is knowing where they are (in a three-ring binder, on Mikey's laptop, under Aunt Ruth's bed, on a bulletin board in the common house, in the cloud?) so that there's easy access and everyone can reasonably be held to a standard of having read them. Fortunately, in this electronic age, minutes have never been easier to take, correct, disseminate, archive, and index. You just have to be disciplined enough to take advantage of the tools.

Hint: If your group struggles to find quality notetakers, consider asking facilitators in training to take a turn in the barrel. Quickly and accurately distilling the essence of what people say is a facilitative skill as well as a notetaking skill. While the the former offers summaries orally and the latter in writing, it's the same skill.

• • •
Thanks, Debby. That was fun!

No comments: