Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Challenge of Hybrid Governance

On a number of occasions throughout my career as a process consultant, I've encountered situations where there are two impulses regarding governance that run in opposite directions in the same group. In general, there is a sense that the community should self-govern via cooperative principles (often this means consensus in some form). On the other there is a sense that there are important matters that are best managed by a hierarchy comprised of a subset of the community.

This generally incarnates in one of three forms:

a) Development Partners
It is common among larger scale projects (such as cohousing) for there to be a group of early adopters who form a development partnership who are at risk financially by serving as loan guarantors (pledging their assets to back the loans). Often this group selects a management team that is authorized to make large scale, short-fused decisions during development.

The people who join later are typically not in this partnership (and are therefore less at risk). Thus, the partners comprise a subset of the community and often feel compelled to protect their exposure by keeping the power closely held and in the hands of a few trusted individuals so that the group can respond to surprises and late-breaking news with alacrity.

In general, this is a temporary phase that exists only until the community is built and the units are sold, at which point the development partners are able to pay off the loans, and dissolve. Sometimes circumstances (such as the sub-prime mortgage debacle of 2008) lead to development taking far longer than imagined with the result that the development partnership persists for far longer than anticipated. In consequence, there may be two governments operating simultaneously: the community and the partnership.

b) Owners as Distinct form Renters
Many communities (though by no means all) allow renters to live in the community, not just owners. When this occurs the community needs to make a decision about whether renters are welcome as full members, or are they second-class citizens with limited rights. There are examples of both. If renters are embraced as community members, then it is often with the proviso that they cannot block proposals with long-term financial consequences; otherwise they can participate in community decisions with full privileges.

Where the group determines that it wants a larger barrier, it generally plays out in one of two ways: i) renters are invited to participate in community decision-making strictly as observers (where they there are openings to add their voice, but their agreement is not necessary to make binding decisions); or ii) there develops a parallel government: one that is only open to HOA members (owners) and one open to all community members (including renters).

c) Spiritual as Distinct form Secular
In the case where a group has alignment with a spiritual path as a primary screen for membership, it may be compelling to consider the spiritual life as something separate from the secular life. When this happens (some spiritual groups operate this way and others do not), there can also develop two governments: i) a group (or even a single inspirational leader) that oversees spiritual matters (such as how we will deepen our spiritual practice); and ii) a community governing body that has authority over secular matters (such as how we will build our housing and the degree to which we are committed to ecological practices).

• • •
In all cases delineated above, when there are two governing bodies it generally happens that they do not operate the same way. That is, there may be restrictions on the opportunities for input from community members in the governance structure that is not about the community. There may be a hierarchy in this governance structure that is expressly rejected in the community's structure.

It is hard enough to do one governance structure well. Operating two well is a higher bar still, and all the more so when they are not particularly congruent.

I am focusing on this not because there is a right and wrong to it. Rather, I want to illuminate that it can be highly delicate navigating the difference in cultures when two separate governance structures attempt to play in the same sandbox.

Here are four of the pitfalls:

o  Confusion about domain
As clear as the separation may be in the minds of the creators, reality has an annoying habit of muddying the waters—crafting situations that were not anticipated that beg the question of which body should handle which aspect of an issue. (If there were a single governance structure, the question of domain would be moot.)

Suppose you're a cohousing group that is contemplating an expansion of the common house that will include two aspects: 1) an ADA-compliant apartment expressly to provide end-of-life accommodations for members who desire to age in place as long as possible; and 2) a short-term living apartment that can enhance options for accommodating visiting family members or short-term visitors.

Given that the community will be borrowing money to finance the construction of this addition (read increased HOA fees) how much say should renters have in the design and approval of this proposal? It gets messy. If the proposal is handled strictly as an HOA matter then renters may not be consulted. If it's discussed at the community level (where renters have a say) then it's another kettle of fish.

On the one hand, it can be argued that this is a capital improvement and therefore clearly in the domain of the owners. On the other, it can be argued that the changes will demonstrably impact how the common house is viewed and used, which is the hub of community social life—therefore it's a community issue. Ugh.

o  Confusion about voice
If your group has two governance structures and the community has a core value of inclusivity (which is highly common), then there is a baseline commitment to protecting an opportunity for every member to have a chance for their input on community matters be taken into account. In situations where a member is not among the management group of the other governance structure (say, they are a renter and have no voice in HOA meetings; are a member but not part of the development partnership; or are a devotee but not part of the spiritual hierarchy) it can be hard to feel fully welcome in one governance setting, and disenfranchised in the other.

Making this even more nuanced, it does not have to be all or nothing (by which I mean either a fully enfranchised stakeholder or gagged). It's possible to genuinely reach out and listen to members who are not authorized to make decisions, making a good faith effort to work with their input even when you're not obliged to. When done effectively, this can go a long ways toward diffusing tension. It does not promise that everyone will get their way; only that everyone's views will be taken into account and an effort will be made to show how that was done.

o  Confusion about standards of transparency and feedback
In cooperative culture there is a high value placed on sharing information broadly. Not in the sense of exposé or gossip, but in the sense of letting everyone know what's going on and where there are opportunities for input on a given topic. If the community standard is high in this regard and it is markedly different in the culture of the other governance structure, there is sure to be tension. (Why am I being kept in the dark? Why aren't the leaders more interested in my views?)

Nowhere is this two-way flow of information more precious than when it comes to feedback and evaluation. At its best, cooperative groups have two things going in this regard: 

i) Members know how to appreciate leaders and at the same time how to sensitively call them to task when they're coloring outside the lines (perceived to be exceeding their authority or acting preemptively without consulting the group).

ii) Leaders know how to regularly make themselves available to members to hear how they're doing. The main challenge here is to be open to receiving critical feedback without getting defensive; to be genuinely interested in how you, as a leader, are being perceived. 

Now let's dig a little deeper to illuminate the complexity of a member criticizing a leader. The member offering the criticism may not be privy to information that places the leader's actions (the thing being criticized) in a substantially different context, and it may not be appropriate (because of the sensitivity of the information) to share that with the member. In such a situation, the temptation may be to dismiss the feedback as ill-founded, or to assert that there is hidden information that negates the feedback which cannot be shared, but either of those responses will land poorly and is likely to degrade trust between the member and the leader. The wise leader will be able to see how important it is to have a clear channel of communication with members and the importance of knowing how they are perceived even if the member is misinformed—because the irritation is real, even if the foundation upon which it is based is shaky.

o  Confusion about leadership and leadership succession
Many cooperative groups neglect to define what they want from their leaders: the qualities they want to engender and those they to move away from (perhaps because they arise from the competitive culture that the group is expressly trying to be an alternative to). Lacking clarity about what's wanted, it's easy to see how the ambiguity can bite you in the butt, because members may be operating from personal standards that are not explicit and are potentially inconsistent.

Let me give you a single example. Suppose everyone thinks that leaders ought to be respectful of members—which is a fairly mom and apple pie kind of statement. (Who, after all, would advocate that leaders be disrespectful?) But it's actually a trap unless the group discusses what it means to be respectful. For some it means never raising one's voice, or breaking into another's comment mid-sentence. For others it means speaking authentically, with passion when that's present. What's respectful to one may be the very opposite to another, and the leader is caught in the middle.

But let's suppose your group has discussed what it wants from its leaders. When you have two governance structures and the cultures are different, this can easily mean that the leadership style favored in one governance structure is different than the one favored in the other. Think of what a nightmare this can be when a person simultaneously serves in a leadership capacity in both governance structures!

For cooperative groups, I suggest looking at my blog of Sept 27, 2011, 20 Qualities of Effective Cooperative Leaders. You can note, as you go over my suggestions, how more hierarchic structures may cultivate different forms of leadership. I'm not saying you can't do it; I'm only pointing out the ways that it can be tricky to navigate such that both forms can coexist and be effective.

In addition to what is wanted from leaders, there may be divergence (in the two governance structures) about the best model for leadership succession. In cooperative culture, it behooves groups to develop the leadership capacity of all members and to have a wide pool to choose from when selecting someone to fill a leadership role. In general, it makes sense to regularly rotate people in leadership so that people can get "on the job" training (there is an important difference between watching others lead and doing it yourself). Healthy cooperative groups are constantly investing in developing the leadership capacity of their members. While there are likely to always be some who have a better feel for leadership than others and it's not required that everyone lead, you definitely want a large pool.

In the other governance structure, there may be a tendency to keep quality individuals in leadership roles as long as possible, with minimum turnover. This definitely cuts down on fools tax (the mistakes that newbies make as they learn leadercraft) and can provide stability over time (you know what you're going to get, and the continued investment in that leader means, hopefully, that they get better over time). That said, there may also be vulnerability (what will we do if the leader gets hit by a truck?) and you are at risk of losing members who do not respond well to the leader's style (because there are no short-term prospects of a different leader).

In my experience when you have someone in a leadership role for a long time, the key questions are how open they are to hearing critical feedback about their performance (see the previous point); how open are they to new ideas that are not their own; and how open are they the developing the leadership capacity of others—preparing for the day when they'll step down (or be carried out).

No comments: