Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why Starting with a Proposal is Usually a Bad Idea

As a process consultant for cooperative groups one of the most common things I'm asked to address is why it's such a slog to solve problems in plenary. While there are number of things that may be in play, I want to focus here on one particular culprit that's a frequent contributor: expecting that topics come to plenary in the form of a proposal.

It's not too hard to figure out why groups think this is a good idea. Plenary time is precious and you want to make the best use of it. If someone has identified a problem worthy of group attention, it's likely to be more clearly defined and better thought through if the presenter is asked to come up with a suggested response. It's not so much that the group expects the proposal to sail through whole-group scrutiny without modification, as that the plenary will be able to dispose of items more expeditiously if the group can respond to a draft solution rather than build an answer from scratch. 

At least that's the theory. The reality is that it often doesn't work that way. Let's suppose that a committee is bringing an issue to plenary (it might be an individual, but I think the more interesting dynamic is when a subgroup does this). Here are the main pitfalls when a committee introduces an issue to plenary accompanied by a proposed solution:

1. Skewing the Conversation
If you start with a proposed answer, you will have a different conversation than if you start with a presentation of the issue. The developers of the proposal will tend to defend their work, and it will be predictably awkward surfacing factors that non-committee members feel ought to be taken into account.

Worse, some members may be intimidated by a proposal into not naming concerns that they feel the proposal doesn't address (or doesn't address well enough), because the train has already left the station and they don't want to irritate the committee members, or they may feel too much has been invested in the draft solution and they don't want to be labeled a saboteur. That means the group's best thinking is not being brought to bear. Yuck. Even though the group ostensibly supports a full airing of relevant views, starting with proposals unwittingly short circuits that goal.

2. Demoralizing Committees
If the presenter inadvertently misses some key factors (or weights them poorly) when crafting a solution, their work is susceptible to getting undressed in plenary, and that's demoralizing (and perhaps embarrassing).

This is actually a double whammy in that you not only have discouraged the people who have invested in creating the solution for that issue, but, if this is a pattern, it undercuts interest in serving on committees at all—because people will cynically expect to have their work redone (or trashed) once it gets to plenary, and therefore they'll be less inclined to make the attempt.

Note that it's no good blaming the members not on the committee because they will be surfacing their concerns or objections at the earliest opportunity that's been given to them.

While it may be true that the draft proposal helps the plenary identify the factors it wants to have addressed, is the time savings achieved (we;'re talking mere minutes here) worth the cost of discouraged committees? I don't think so. An enervated committee leads to mediocre work with the consequence that more work collapses on the plenary—the very thing you were hoping to avoid by asking for proposals up front!

[To be fair, sometimes committees get it right, and on those occasions having the proposal up front does save time, but it's a helluva a gamble.]

3. Cart Before the Horse
If you think about it, it's relatively silly to expect a few members of the group to either: a) anticipate accurately the sum of full group input about what needs to be taken into account when responding to an issue; or b) have no ego attachment to the work they put into developing a proposal. If the topic is appropriate to be handled at the plenary level, then why not start by hearing what the plenary thinks needs to be address (and the relative weight that should be given to the factors) before crafting solutions?

If the committee develops a proposal based on plenary-blessed factors, then they should be on solid footing when they come back to plenary and they're much more likely to have their work honored.

Are Proposals Up Front Always a Bad Idea?
No. If someone comes up with an idea for how to enhance their life (or the group's) that isn't driven by a group problem, I feel better about starting with a proposal. While there's still no guarantee that someone else in the group won't have an unexpected concern, this will be less likely in the case of initiatives, or at least less likely to be difficult to resolve.

Let me give you an example:

Case A: Community gardens are being devastated by wild rabbits, and the Garden Team comes to the community with a proposal to let dogs off leash at night to scare off rabbits invading gardens at night. (One member of the Garden Team has an uncle living on a farm and that's how they handle this problem, and it works with deer as well.) While this is a low-cost solution (hurray!), a number of members don't like it because: a) dogs tend to pack and engage in bad behavior when running loose together; b) loose dogs may be a safety issue for children after dark; c) dogs tend to bark more when loose outdoors and it will keep people up at night; and d) increased deposits of dog shit on the pedestrian pathways.

If the community had discussed this issue before the Garden Team drafted a proposal, they would never have suggested letting the dogs run loose. Now they have to start over.

Case B: Member Jones wants to raise rabbits for meat and comes to the plenary with a proposal to set up rabbit hutches in their backyard. In general, the community is OK with this plan so long as the community is notified when butchering is going to happen (so that the squeamish can avoid the Jones abattoir on those days) and that there's an understanding that the rabbits will have to go if they turn out to host any diseases that affect humans or other animals. Jones is OK with these conditions.

In addition, next door neighbor Smythe, is concerned that the rabbits may escape and devour her pride and joy lettuce patch, so she asks Jones to put a fence around his yard in addition to building the cages—just in case rabbits get loose. 

While Jones doesn't think a perimeter fence is necessary, Smythe is willing to pay for half the cost, and they agree to this solution.

In Case A it would have worked better if the Garden Team had simply brought the issue to the plenary and collected factors that need to be taken into account before drafting a solution. (They could have avoided going down the rabbit hole.) In Case B, starting with the proposal worked well, and no hares were split.


Jasen said...

I personally find this challenging to hear (thank you), as I'm a proponent of crafting the proposal prior to bringing a topic for discussion to plenary. As you state, plenary time is precious so I definitely agree that some topics should be discussed openly in plenary well before a proposal is crafted by an individual or subcommittee. The challenge is in determining what constitutes a good "proposal" agenda item vs. a good "discussion" agenda item. Because of the abundance of potential topics that could come to plenary, a certain amount of delegation must be done to subcommittees/individuals in order for plenary time to be effective. My instinct likely is to lean on the proposal, all too often. Your post is a good reminder of this.

Re: skewing the conversation: agreed that this happens but personally believe this to be a net positive for the following reasons:
- the proposal helps define or frame the "problem" or "issue". It gives members a lump of clay to mold.
- the proposal preparation allows for research to be done prior to plenary such that knowledge/expertise can be gathered for distribution at plenary. If this is not done beforehand, the plenary is not in an informed position to make the best decision.
-finally, in many (most?) cases, the plenary faces a number of relatively trivial, non-fatal, and revocable decisions such that even if the proposal were to skew towards an action of some kind, that decision can be evaluated and changed at a later date based on objective desired outcomes.

Thanks Laird. Always a good read and food for thought.

Barbara M. said...

Having been taught secular as well as spiritual consensus (thank you, Quakers), I am also a STRONG proponent of having each person's "piece of the truth" heard before a proposal is discerned. This is vital because of many (and more) of the concerns that Laird laid out:

- "cart before the horse"
- egos
- skewing of decision

Having committees do work for which they have the empowerment and blessing of the whole group helps avoid having "little" stuff brought before the plenary. This, too, is an art and process. A thorough discussion and decision-making authority of the work of the committee, with written minutes, helps committees and the larger community know what is in bounds and what is not. Even then, refinement almost inevitably happens. C'est la vie.

Still, committees are responsible to the larger community and should report on their work with regularity. Both a summary and detailed report is helpful in informing the community, since some want the high-level picture and the others will dig into the details.

However, responsibility for decisions rests in the end with the entire group. One of the key responsibilities is that each person's piece of the truth is heard. "Cart before horse" gets in the way of hearing each person's vital input. The late, great Caroline Estes spoke of how one person's blocking of a decision, the only blocker, was, in fact, the right decision for the group. It was only as time passed that this was seen and appreciated.

Please, NO Robert's Rules of Order Lite Followed by Attempted Consensus at the Tail End, except in rare circumstances, which is what I consider proposals brought to the plenary to be.