Monday, March 2, 2015

50 Shades of Consensus, Part I

I facilitated the annual retreat for Heartwood, a cohousing community in Bayfield CO this past weekend, and Saturday night they had a no-talent show after dinner. In listening to some of the ideas for skits, I was inspired to write today's essay, as a take-off of the current box office hit, 50 Shades of Grey—only I'm going to focus on the dysfunctional nuances of consensus instead of the hidden eroticism of a successful businessman. (If you think this is amusing, you should have seen the group play Cards Against Community.)

I'm presenting this in two chunks of 25. Here is Part I.

1. Decisions Made by the Clock
It's late and everyone is tired and ready to go home. Out of exhaustion, you agree to the last proposal.

2. The Person with the Strongest Bladder Wins
With time running out and a decision needed, sometimes the views of the person most able to maintain focus (read least distracted by the need for a bio-break) prevails.

3. Conversations Derailed by Reactivity
When a group is unclear or lacks confidence in its ability to work constructively with strong feelings, they learn to steer clear of them—effectively allowing the person in reaction to control what gets considered.

4. Lukewarm Decisions
When groups are unsure of their footing in working with passion, or bridging between strongly held disparate views, the resulting agreements may lack pizzazz, decisiveness, or unifying energy. This is often the result when the overriding strategy is to minimize reactivity rather than maximizing excitement.

5. Arm Twisting Outliers
Sometimes groups put considerable social pressure on reluctant minorities to allow what the majority favors to prevail. Rather than trying to find a workable bridge between the majority and outliers, the majority gets impatient and starts leaning on the minority to cave in. While this may get you across the finish line, the cost in trust and indifferent implementation may be high.

6. Paint by Numbers Process
In any group there is a normal spectrum of those favoring less structure and those favoring more. If the high structure folks are ascendent, the process can be very formulaic. While this can provide a known pathway (read reduced confusion about what to do in any given moment), it can come at the expense of nuance and or the flexibility to adapt to emerging energetic needs. At its worst, the primacy of adherence to the process can become the enemy of the product—even though no one had that in mind.

7. Competitive Behavior Poisoning the Well
You don't tend to get good results from consensus unless you grok that it's based on a commitment to cooperative culture and that that's a fundamental shift from the way most of us have been raised. If people inadvertently bring competitive dynamics to the process, they'll battle over differences instead of being curious. Not only will the magic be lost, but the engagement can be draining and discouraging.

8. All Decisions Made in Plenary
When groups fail to delegate authority to committees and managers, all work has to come back to the plenary for review and approval. In addition to bloated plenary agendas, this often leads to the committee's work being second-guessed, which is very demoralizing. Subsequently, it's hard to get members to serve on committees (why bother?).

9. Separating Heart Work from Business Meetings
When groups are uncomfortable working with feelings, there can be an impulse to shunt emotions into special meetings (heart circles?) that are distinct from business meetings—where members are expected to participate rationally. This practice doesn't help the group navigate business topics that trigger strong feelings.

10. Hobbling Progress through Strategic Absence—Version I
If the group is not clear how to work a topic while still protecting the rights of members who miss the meeting to have input, it can lead to postponing engagement when key members are absent. Worse, members who miss early meetings on a topic may be allowed to monkey wrench progress with 11th hour objections. These disagreeable dynamics are fallout from the group not being clear about the rights and responsibilities of members who miss meetings.

11. Hobbling Progress through Strategic Absence—Version II
Sometimes a person who gets crosswise with the group will purposefully miss a meeting at which the challenging dynamics involving them are scheduled to be discussed, hoping to avoid the hot seat. While not easy to do well, it's important that there's a way to have that conversation even when the person in the spotlight tries to duck it. You don't want agendas held hostage to individual attendance.

12. Skipping the Opening
When groups are not in alignment about how to work with energy, it's not unusual for some portion of the membership to be uncomfortable with ritual or openings that are an attempt to align energy and provide a clear marker between informal social space and meeting space—where there are different standards of behavior. Voting with their feet, those ill at ease may develop the habit of arriving late to meetings, to purposefully avoid the woo-woo part. In consequence, the energy of the group is not aligned and there can frustration all around.

13. No Clarity about the Facilitator's Authority
When groups are vague about defining the facilitator's role, it's much harder for that person to interrupt repetition or to redirect people speaking off topic. The facilitator needs explicit license from the group to hold participants to its operating agreements. Absent clear authority, the facilitator's role tends to devolve into the impoverished position of simply deciding who will speak next.

14. Weak Minutes
Groups that do not do a decent job of capturing and archiving decisions regularly get in trouble recalling accurately what their agreements are. However, even if agreements are well-recorded, if the minutes do not also include a sense of what factors went into the decision, it can be hard knowing when requests to revisit a decision are warranted.

15. Block Paralysis, Version I
There are three essential process agreements for a consensus group to be able to work with blocks effectively: a) defining the grounds for a legitimate block; b) defining the process by which the block can be validated (does it meet the standard for legitimacy?); and c) defining the process by which the group will try to resolve blocking concerns, and being clear about the rights and responsibilities of all members in that process. When any of these three are absent and the group is unsure of its footing, there can be high anxiety about how to work with a block, resulting in a heavy overlay of fear when it appears that might be where the group is headed.

16. Block Paralysis, Version II
A different version occurs when members take advantage of the group's uncertainty and anxiety about blocks to threaten one when they don't like someone's proposed initiative or viewpoint. This can derail a conversation at the front end, long before it gets to the proposal phase and is a misuse of the concept. When you have a negative response to a suggestion or an approach it means there's something to work out—it indicates a need for more talking, not less.

17. Tyranny of Time
Meetings can take up a fair amount of a person's vital life energy, and it makes sense that people want that time used effectively. They want meetings to be efficient and productive. So far, so good. Unfortunately, some topics don't fit easily into the boxes into which they've been placed. Despite the best efforts of agenda planners to estimate the time a topic will take, sometimes they get it wrong and you have to choose between running long, tabling the topic as unfinished, or trying to push for a conclusion before its fully ripe. These are not necessarily great choices, and there are times when people will demand a decision based on the clock rather than because you've reached a unifying conclusion.

18. Starting with Proposals 
Some groups ask that items come to the plenary in the form of a proposal (at once identifying an issue and offering a solution). The motivation for this is to save time (in case the proposal works) and to force the people bringing the issue forward to have thought it through. The problem is that it asks presenters to invest in a solution before the group has had a chance to identify everything that the solution needs to address, and this can be a train wreck.

19. Commingling Discussion with Proposal Generation
In general, the two most important phases of tackling an issue in plenary are Discussion (where you identify and prioritize what factors a good response to the issue needs to take into account) and Proposal Generation (where you do your best to manifest a response that balances that factors that have emerged from the Discussion phase). They need to be done in the that order, and groups tend to be more productive if they're diligent about completing Discussion phase (which is expansive and can invite advocacy and passion) before moving into Proposal Generation (which is contractive, and features bridging and compassion). If groups are sloppy about this, the identification of a factor can be immediately followed by someone's well-intentioned offer of a solution. This often leads to considerable confusion about where the group is at in the conversation—not only are you jumping between phases, but it's damn hard to be expansive and contractive simultaneously (try it).

20. Facilitator Roulette
Some groups assign plenary facilitators well ahead of time, which helps settle people's individual calendars (think vacation planning, for instance). The problem is that it's crucial that the facilitator have sufficient neutrality and appropriate skill to be able to handle the proposed agenda and you can't assess that ahead of knowing the agenda.

21. Consensus Versus Unanimous Voting
When groups get it that consensus only thrives in cooperative culture they will nurture an attitude of collaboration (looking for ways ideas can work for everyone) and curiosity (in the face of different viewpoints on non-trivial matters). People are oriented toward saying "yes." This is completely different from problem solving in competitive culture where the model is that the best idea will be the one that emerges after being tested through vigorous debate. If you try to use consensus in competitive culture, you're really talking about unanimous voting, which is a very high bar.

22. Not Screening for What's Plenary Worthy
When groups fail to be clear about what kinds of topics are appropriate for whole group attention (with the assumption that lesser matters can be handled on the committee level) there tends to be quite a bit of topic material that wanders into plenary that doesn't belong there, which contributes significantly to the phenomenon of meeting fatigue. If you haven't clearly defined the boundary of what's appropriate it's damn hard for the facilitator (or anyone else) to know when you've crossed it and are working on a level of minutia that should be handed over to a manager or committee.

23. Working Complex Topics as a Whole
Some portion of the topics that plenaries address are multifaceted. Not only can it be hard to figure out where to start, but you can end up chasing your tail when a member is reluctant to agree to a proposal about one facet until they know what the group is going to do with another. Groups need a protocol for how to handle hair ball topics in a piecemeal approach. Lacking that there's a tendency for the plenary's energy to be exhausted on the shoals of complexity (because it's too hard to find a unified field theory with everything on the table at once).

24. Blowing by Distress to Get to Problem Solving
When groups are paralyzed (or at least lack confidence) in their ability to work constructively with emotions and reactivity, there's a tendency to try working around it and hope for the best. While you can sympathize with where that comes from, it may be a false economy. If the emotions are directly related to the topic at hand, you're better off getting those out in the open and worked with at the start, rather than trying to cope with their leaking into the considerations, distorting and distracting how information and viewpoints are being understood.

25. The Identified Problem
It's not unusual for groups to struggle in a patterned way with particular members. Perhaps the person in question has an aggressive style, a fearful nature, or a victim attitude. Maybe they rarely follow through on commitments, yet have a self-image of being under-appreciated. Whatever it is, if the group does not meet with early success in laboring with the person about their challenging behavior(s), there's a marked tendency for the group to label the person as an Official Problem, which leads to marginalizing them as a member of the group. The ugly side of this is the potential that the group can then get smug in its analysis and stop looking at how it's actively contributing to trapping the outlier with a pejorative label. By failing to see the aspects of the dynamic that are a system failure—where everyone is playing a role in sustaining the dysfunctional dynamic—no movement is possible yet the group blithely lays full responsibility at the feet of the Identified Problem.

1 comment:

Sara Jones said...

Hi Laird - I just found your blog as I was Googling resources for cohousing community creation. Very interesting stuff! I will be going thru the archives. I appreciate the time you have spent working in the field and the experience you freely share. Best of luck as you figure out where you will end up next. Regards, Sara