Tuesday, March 17, 2015

50 Shades of Consensus, Part II

The first 25 shades of dysfunctional consensus were posted March 2. This is the conclusion.

26. Putting a 20-Pound Meeting in a 10-Pound Sack
If groups are not disciplined about matching the amount of time truly needed to work topics with the amount of meeting time available, there's a tendency to try to get it all done by shoehorning, which leads to blisters. If you have five topics ready to go and you expect each to take 40 minutes, don't try to do all five in a two-hour meeting. Better to handle well the most pressing three, and set the other two aside for another time. Pressuring people to swallow food that has been inadequately chewed leads to indigestion and is a poor bargain.

27. Always Having Plenaries at the Same Time
While there's something to be said for regularity (if it's 2 pm Sunday do you know where your meeting is?), there may be no time of the week that works well for everyone. If you're struggling with some people frequently missing meetings and you miss their voice, consider mixing up your meeting times. Some people work hard and long and can only attend evening sessions; others are exhausted after dinner and unable to contribute well then; others religiously protect Sunday afternoons for family (or football). Offer a choice.

28. Filling Positions with Volunteers
One of the challenges with many consensus groups is that they depend substantially on filling manager and committee slots based on which members puts their hand in the air first. While this may work fine for who oversees the Thursday Night Bowling Club, there are key positions where groups need high trust and discretion from the people in those slots, and a call for volunteers is a chancy proposition. Being more deliberate will pay dividends.

29. Not Specifying the Qualities Wanted from Positions of Responsibility
If you take to heart the previous point, the careful selection of people to fill positions will be much more satisfactory if you can take the additional step of specifying the qualities you want from managers or committee members before you select them—so that you've established some objective screens to use in the assessment of candidates. Otherwise it tends to be a popularity contest.

30. No Term Limits
Sometimes members settle into a certain niche in how they serve the group as a volunteer (it could be accounting; cooking the common meal every Sunday evening; being the in-house IT expert; serving on the Steering Committee). While this is invariably meant well and the person may be fairly good at what they do, without term limits it can become virtually impossible to get that person out of the role to make room for new blood. Better, I think, is the expectation that after so much time (five years?) that the priority be given to new folks to fill roles—which means no change if no one else wants the job, yet otherwise provides for hybrid vigor and deals even-handedly with any tendencies toward entrenchment (where others are reluctant to join a committee because old so-and-so, who's difficult to work with, is on it and has been there forever).

31. No Evaluation—of Managers & Committees
Another way to get traction on managers or committees that are not functioning well is to become diligent about periodically evaluating (every two years?) their performance. I'm talking about all managers and committees—not just those deemed problematic. The last thing you want is for a request to evaluate to be seen as an invitation to a hanging. Evaluations should be a time to celebrate what's working well, not just a chance to poke at the sore spots. For this to work you'll need to establish generic objectives for the process (for example, are they accomplishing their work in a timely manner?; are they playing nice with others?; are they meeting our expectations for reporting on what they're doing?; if it's a committee, is there good morale among members?) and assign someone (Process Committee?) to oversee its administration. Most groups are poor at this.

32. No Evaluation—of Plenaries
Parallel to the last point is developing a culture where the group regularly evaluates plenaries, so that there's a feedback loop on how you're doing your business. Plenary time is expensive (in a group of 30 you're burning an hour of people's time every two minutes) and you want to be mindful about using it well. The point of evaluations (maybe five minutes at the end) is to reflect on how well (or how poorly) the plenary functioned while the experience is still fresh and the data can come from the head and the heart. Then the facilitators (or whatever group is responsible for running the meetings) can take that in and adjust as needed. You don't want to settle for so-so plenaries (that you're able to survive); you want great plenaries—where you're able to thrive!

33. Sloppy Mandates
One the things that undermines (or at least complicates) attempts at evaluation (Point 31 above) is the lack of clarity about what managers and committees are supposed to do. In the interest of effective delegation it's imperative that plenaries craft crisp and comprehensive mandates that spell out such things as duties, authority to act on the plenary's behalf, what values are expected to be reflected in actions and decisions, resources available, and reporting expectations. When mandates are sloppy, the work of managers and committees is often reviewed and second-guessed by the plenary. Not only is this inefficient (contributing mightily to the phenomenon of agenda overload), but it seriously degrades morale.

34. Undefined Leadership
All groups need leadership. While cooperative groups understandably are allergic to autocratic leadership, we still need people who are inspiring, who are wise, who can think strategically, who can organize, who are sensitive to relationships, who are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc. In most cases, cooperative groups (which groups using consensus strive to be) are looking for members who can be leaders in certain roles (such as the person in charge of organizing the winter solstice celebration; or the honcho for constructing a new cistern); they are not looking for someone to be "the leader." It can help enormously if the group actually takes the time to define what it wants from people taking on leadership functions, both so that people putting themselves forward will know what's expected, and so that you have some objective criteria with which to measure people against if there is tension.

35. Hot Potato of Accountability
A lot of cooperative groups struggle with the issue of accountability—holding people's feet to the fire when perceived to be coloring outside the lines. This comes in two flavors: a) behavior that does not align with group agreements (say, being aggressive and belligerent when advocating for their viewpoint); and b) failure to complete a task in a satisfactory way (you're late, went over budget, were disrespectful to co-workers, did the work poorly, etc). As it's inevitable that this dynamic will occur, you need to create an understanding and culture that addresses it, rather than one that allows it to fester and become anaerobic. You need, I believe, a known channel by which any member of the group can approach another about critical feedback they have about how they're functioning as a member of the group—all with an overarching goal of being constructive, rather than punitive or shaming.

36. Failing to Pair Rights with Responsibilities
When someone is upset it's relatively common for them to insist on their right be heard—which is a real thing—while forgetting that this is paired with the responsibility to listen and take into account the viewpoints of others. This dynamic can be further complicated by the person stating their upset in a provocative way (featuring "you" statements instead of "I" statements). On the one hand, listeners may be inspired in the moment to comment on the provocative way that the upset person is expressing themselves. This, however, does not land well for the upset person, who is trying desperately to be heard. Untangling this rats nest often requires that someone be able to set aside their distaste with the upset person's delivery to focus instead on their point and why it matters, with the intention of later—after the upset person reports feeling heard, which invariably leads to deescalation—getting around to giving that person feedback about their delivery and asking them now to extend to others the same respect and attention they demanded for themselves.

37. Defusing the Stalemate of Who Gets Heard First
Often, when someone feels outraged, they'll have a story about how they have been denied a right that has not been addressed (they were disrespected, their input was blown off, someone was allowed to dump on them in public with no consequences, the group responds in a condescending manner when the person reports uneasy feelings or discordant intuition). Because this slight may be unknown to others, it may appear that the upset person is the aggressor, and others will want to start to unpack the dynamic by focusing on how they have been dissed by the upset person. However, to the upset person, the roots of the dynamic start with how they have been dissed, and they naturally prefer that the unpacking begin with a focus on them. Even though, in the end, it doesn't make a whit of difference where you start so long as both sides get air time, it can be the very devil breaking the initial logjam.

38. Learning How to Have Hard Conversations
The trickiest conversations are those where there's non-trivial disagreement and the stakes are high. However, within that class, there is a subset that's even dicier: topics that are known to also touch the third rail of personal integrity or the possibility that you (or a love one) will be voted off the island. Examples include: a) power dynamics (the perception that someone has misused their influence for the benefit of some at the expense of others; b) the limits of diversity (defining when the group is being asked to stretch too far); and c) involuntary loss of rights (the conditions under which a member may have their rights curtailed, perhaps by virtue of persistent non-compliance with group agreements, or an egregious act that endangers life or property). These are thermonuclear topics, about which groups are well advised to think ahead about how they want to handle them pre-need. Hint: ducking doesn't work.

39. Navigating the Boundary Between Public and Private
Consensus groups, almost by definition, are attempts to create a culture where the balance point between public (group business) and private (individual or household business) is intentionally shifted more toward the public end, by which I mean that some level of things that are considered wholly private in the mainstream are seen as group business in cooperative culture. The trick is knowing where the line is. Most delicate of all are those dynamics that are some of both. Take for example the case where two couples split up because the partner in one couple wants to get together with a partner in the other couple, and all of this proceeds against the wishes of the ex-partners. While there is nothing original (or even rare) about this script, it illuminates the issue. On the one hand, everyone will agree that the choice about intimate partners is a private matter, yet the outcome of a switcheroo like this has obvious impact on group dynamics and it can be paralyzing to witness this and have no sense about whether or in what circumstances it's OK to explore the feelings that come up. To be clear, the individuals do not need the group's blessing to proceed, yet the group needs a way to collectively process the shake-up or it undercuts the relationships that are the lifeblood of the group.

40. Failing to Define Emergency Powers… Until There's an Emergency
Groups can go a long time—even decades—without facing an emergency that requires a streamlined response. The problem is that you don't know if and when an emergency will occur and it's too late to establish a process once you're in one. (If the house is on fire you don't call a meeting, you call the fire department.) Thus, it behooves groups using consensus to define the circumstances in which it's prudent to have a small group make decisions on behalf of the whole for the duration of the emergency. This includes: a) the conditions under which emergency powers can be invoked; b) the specific powers granted to the emergency group; c) who will comprise the emergency group; d) the process by which invoking happens; e) the reporting standards by which the whole group is informed what is happening; and f) the assessment afterwards about how well that went. Don't wait for the common house to catch fire!

41. Email from Hell
In this electronic age, a great deal of communication happens via email. While some of that is excellent (making announcements, posting minutes and reports, sending background materials ahead of major discussions) it is not well suited to all forms of communication. In particular, it is an incendiary way to express upset. In the worst cases people will say provocative things in email they would not say face-to-face, which is toxic to relationships. Worse, there is almost unlimited opportunity to misinterpret tone, emphasis, hyperbole, and sarcasm in email—all things that are much more easily corrected when people are communicating in the same room. Thus, groups are well served by developing protocols for the healthy use of email. Leaving it all up to individual discretion is naive.

42. Falling in Love with One Format
While the spirit of consensus is that the input of all members is welcome, meetings are never a level playing field and wise groups take that into account. The default format for most groups is open discussion, where people speak on a topic roughly in the order in which they indicate that they are ready. While that approach is meant to be evenly accessible to all, not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of the whole group, nor does everyone digest information and know their own mind at the same pace. Thus, some people wind up talking a lot more than others, and some may rarely speak. To address this, some groups embrace Go Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to speak, and air space is much more evenly distributed. Unfortunately, Go Rounds are slow and there's a fair amount of repetition. The point is that there is no single format that works best all the time and groups are well served by facilitation that mixes things up. Do your facilitators have the latitude to do this? Do they have a sufficiently large toolkit and understanding of the tools to pair formats with what's needed?

43. Creating Constructive Containers
One of the most important skills of the consensus facilitator is setting things up to succeed by establishing the right stage (narrowing the focus of the conversation to something small enough to be digestible, yet large enough to be interesting); establishing the right tone (constructive, creative, and compassionate; rather than critical, combative, or compromising); and then getting out of the way, letting the wisdom of the group bubble up in that favorable environment.

44. Bloodless Facilitators
For some reason, a lot of people think that being a neutral facilitator means a neutered facilitator. No! You can be passionate without having a dog in the fight, or letting your ego get in the way of progress. You can care deeply that we're getting to the heart of the matter and that no one is being run over, without taking sides or trying to peddle a solution. You can empathize when people are contributing heartfelt feelings, and cheer when a bridge is discovered between seemingly intractable positions. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, I believe the facilitator's mantra should be: If I can't dance it isn't my meeting.

45. Everyone Has a Role
I figure that for all topics that the plenary tackles, every member will have one of two relationships to each: either they'll give a damn, or they won't. If they do it's relatively obvious why that should be engaged—they care about the outcome and would like to influence it. More subtle is why to be engaged if the outcome matters little. The way I see it, you are perfectly positioned to safeguard the process, to help people bridge to each other and not get bogged down in the trenches of their positions. You can help people hear each other and remember to think about what's best for the group—not with judgment, but with compassion. It's not just the facilitator's responsibility to safeguard process; it's everyone's responsibility.

46. Failure to Invoke Common Values
The lode star for plenary agreements is how to sensitively balance the applicable group values to the issue at hand. Obviously, the first step is knowing what your common values are. The second, more nuanced step, is inviting them into the conversation at the earliest opportunity so that they can be on the table as active elements when crafting a response. It is not enough that your values exist etched on a stone tablet that rests in a trophy case gathering dust in the living of the common house (next to the portraits of dead founders). They need to be alive and in the room guiding your work and being adapted to emerging shifts in who the group is and intends to be. Lacking a rudder, there is a lot of drift and decisions influenced by force of personality.

47. Welcoming Emotions
Many groups are uncertain what to do with emotional input. Mostly they hope it goes away and doesn't cause too much damage on the way through town. There's a lot of holding one's breath and hoping for the best. We can do better. Emotions can be volatile, sure, and people can undoubtedly be hurt by their raw expression. Yet emotions are also a source of information (people can know things more deeply through their heart than their mind) and a source of energy. (Who says meetings have to be energetically flat?) If you think of emotions as the flow of water through a fire hose, I suggest preparing for those moments when the flow is high by learning to hold the hose, not by reaching for the valve to shut down the water.

48. Expecting New Members to Pick it Up By Osmosis
Consensus is an unnatural act—at least for those of us raised in the competitive, adversarial overculture, which is just about everyone. Thus, it's not particularly smart to assume that new members are going to take to consensus like ducks to water. They need help. Having new people watch plenaries and absorb it through observation is a start but you need more. Have an experienced member sit with the new folks afterwards and walk through what happened. Take the time to train new members in the culture shift needed for consensus to thrive; it will be time well spent.

49. Disinviting Don Rickles
One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is knowing how to work with the two-edged sword of humor. While it can provide a much-needed leavening and ease, it can also be overdone (pulling people prematurely out of a tender moment), strained (forced humor tends to be worse than none), or even divisive (think sarcasm and put-down humor, a la Don Rickles, where someone is isolated as the the butt of the joke). At its nastiest, humor can be used to zing poisoned darts across the room, where criticism is voiced without attribution ("Oh, I was only making a joke; I didn't mean anything."). You want your facilitators to root this out, rather than unwittingly enabling it by letting it slide.

50. Faithless Consensus
Finally, a word about the power of expectations. Mostly people recreationally bash meetings like they complain about the weather, perhaps not understanding how outcomes are influenced by projections of dismal meetings (where the group will be inefficient, people will listen poorly, little will get accomplished, you'll get a headache, etc). For the most part your reality will be profoundly guided by your expectations. If you expect a poor meeting, you are already 90% of the way toward having one—even before the meeting has started! The good news is that this can be turned around. Fifty years ago the Lovin' Spoonful released their pop hit, Do You Believe in Magic? That question is completely contemporary when applied to consensus. There will be no magic unless you believe.

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