The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, gang aft agley.
—Robert Burns, 1785
"Fubar" is an old World War II term, an acronym equating to "fucked up beyond all recognition." Over the decades it has escaped exclusive use in the military to enter the lexicon of administrators everywhere. Even if you don't know the term, you know the concept.
I had a fubar experience this weekend while attending the annual North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) Institute in Ann Arbor MI, and I want to describe it this Halloween, both because it's frightening how badly things went, and because this calamity was achieved all without anyone being incompetent or malicious.
Setting the Table
I've been on the faculty for NASCO Institute for the past 20 years and it's one of the most fun things on my calendar. It happens every year late in the fall (carefully avoiding a home football game of the University of Michigan, during which Saturday parking is impossible), and I get to offer workshops to college students who are having a positive first experience of cooperative living. They come to Institute to learn more and I get the privilege of being one the people to provide it. Somewhere in the vicinity of 350-400 students attend.
In addition to offering workshops, I also bring Community Bookstore, one of the FIC's resource arms, offering DVDs and books focused on cooperative living, right livelihood, sustainability, and group dynamics. With few exceptions, we have collaborated with another entity in running the conference bookstore (in the early years it was Rainbow Bookstore of Madison WI; in more recent years it has been Boxcar Books in Bloomington IN). Both have been a pleasure to work with.
For the past decade we have been collaborating with Boxcar. They have been capturing sales for both of us, and then we pay them a processing fee in exchange for running all the credit cards. We have a simple way to track when one of our titles sells and we reconcile accounts before going home on Sunday. It's been a great arrangement.
Based on the steadiness of this relationship with Boxcar, I told our Bookstore Manager that we didn't need to pack sales materials for this event—because Boxcar would be handling all that. That meant less things to put into boxes and to schlep around.
One of the variables each year is when we're allowed to start setting up the bookstore on Friday. For a variety of reasons it's an advantage to set up as early as possible and thus I had asked NASCO staff Oct 19 when I could have access to the bookstore area. The answer was 11 am. That sounded good to me and I proceeded to subsequently schedule a client conference call for 4 pm that afternoon.
As is my wont, I arrived in Ann Arbor late Wednesday and had an easy day on Thursday, catching up on email and visiting with friends. When I returned to my quarters Thursday evening and checked email, things started to get weird.
I got an email from NASCO staff informing me that they'd just heard from Boxcar that they weren't coming to Institute, and I'd be running the conference bookstore alone. Uh oh.
In addition, there was a revision on when I could get into the room: it had been changed to 4 pm. This was not happy news. Right off the top this meant that I wouldn't be able to participate in the conference call I'd agree to, and I felt jerked around.
I wrote NASCO staff back right away asking: a) where the bookstore would be located (in the course of 20 years we've been in five different rooms of the Michigan Union), to see whether the space was lockable; b) whether I could get any help from NASCO staff to cover the bookstore while I was teaching my two workshops; c) what hours I was expected to be on duty.
The answers were discouraging. The location (which is generally a good one for bookselling) was going to be in the same room as the conference hang out space and where there'd be free tea and coffee. As such, the room needed to be open:
Friday, 4-10 pm
Saturday, 8 am - 10 pm
Sunday, 8 am - 4 pm
They offered me a space where I could move the books into a lockable room temporarily, but I'd be totally on my own to do that as they had no staff to spare to help with that chore. With a compromised back, the prospect of moving the bookstore inventory multiple times was a nonstarter. I was going to have to figure out how to operate the store on my own nonstop, perhaps covering up inventory with table cloths during my workshops.
Operating as a lone wolf, I was going to have to last all day and eat after 10 pm on Friday and Saturday. As I've done crazier things, I figured I could suck it up in order to protect FIC's potential book sales.
Late Thursday night, NASCO staff discovered yet another problem. They are renting rooms in the Michigan Union for this event (where Institute has been hosted for longer than the 20 years that I've been attending) and the decor of the rooms is up to the Union. In general, this has never been a problem, but the staff discovered that the rotating art collection in the proposed lounge/bookstore area featured an anti-abortion theme (while I have no idea what kind of art that is, I took their word for it). As NASCO is deeply committed to women's rights and anti-oppression, this unexpected turn of events was highly offensive and there were scrambling to figure out what could be done to manifest a different configuration of rooms.
I was told to stand by relative to what would happen. I told them I'd plan on arriving Friday at 4 pm with the books unless I heard from them otherwise. Because I needed to scramble to buy a receipt book and stop by a bank to get 1's and 5s with which to make change for cash sales (in my experience, everyone has 20s), I checked my email right before leaving my guest accommodations. There was nothing new from NASCO so off I went.
I completed my errands and hired a couple of young men to help me unload my books (for $20) just outside the door of the proposed bookstore area. Feeling good about getting that accomplished I parked the car and walked back to the Union to discuss matters with NASCO staff.
The first thing they told me upon arrival was that they were not able to resolve the art work snafu and the Union was not able to provide an alternate room at the 11th hour. They were sorry, but there would be no bookstore this year. It was a unilateral decision and a done deal.
I didn't not smile when I heard that. I vented for a couple of minutes, took a deep breath, and then made plans to get the books back into my car. Fortunately, I got help in this regard from Michigan Union staff and I didn't have to cough up another $20.
While this sequence led to the silver lining of my having a much more relaxed schedule Saturday and Sunday (all I have to do is teach two workshops), I am out the cost of driving round trip to Ann Arbor (about $250: car rental and gas), because if I'd known that I couldn't sell books I'd have taken a train to Ann Arbor and then continued east to Maryland for next week's FIC fall meetings. In addition, the Fellowship is out the chance to sell books.
The Post Mortem
In all, I was buffeted around by a number of things outside my control—all within the span of about 20 hours:
a) Boxcar decided not to come at the last minute, after it was too late for me to secure help to staff the bookstore or to pack the sales materials we'd ordinarily need if operating alone.
b) NASCO staff neglected to pass along to me correct information about when I'd be able to access the bookstore, which scotched my plans for participating in a client conference call.
c) The Michigan Union had chosen artwork for one of its rooms for rent that was offensive to a longstanding client yet was unwilling to make adjustments.
d) Though FIC (represented by me) was a stakeholder in whether or not to operate the bookstore (we were the ones, after all, going to lose money on non-sales, not NASCO), the decision was made without my input.
While this did not represent a good sequence for me, it's instructive to look at all of the above a second time:
a) While I don't know what happened in Bloomington, Boxcar folks have been very reliable over the years and I have to think think that someone got sick at the last minute or some other emergency occurred that forced them to cancel. While it put me in an awkward spot, and it would have been much easier to cope with it if we had been informed before I left Missouri Wed morning, I'd have handled it. I have considerable experience running conference bookstores by myself.
b) I found out Friday that NASCO wasn't told of the switch in access time to the bookstore area (by the Michigan Union folks) until right before the event and the staff person I had been working with simply forgot that I was depending on that information. While that was awkward for me, it's easy to understand how a busy person could drop a ball without being a bad person.
c) I'm not sure how things look to the Michigan Union. Undoubtedly they have a policy about equal access to the range of artwork that's placed on display in their rooms (which has an interesting parallel to NASCO's stand about equal rights), yet it's also interesting that they insist on clients coping with whatever they put on display. How hard would it have been to simply have taken down the artwork for the weekend?
I can see how the Union wanted to protect freedom of speech, and at the same how NASCO didn't want offensive art overlooking their hang out space. Stalemate.
d) NASCO staff was put into a tough place. They very much wanted the hang out space (they'd been using that room successfully in recent years, and the alternative was out in the hall), yet they felt they had to stand up for their strong position on women's reproductive rights. It's no fair criticizing them for not anticipating the possibility of being confronted with anti-abortion art—who would think of that? Besides, NASCO had been using the Michigan Union for decades and never encountered a problem like this before.
While I'm scratching my head over NASCO being an umbrella organization for cooperatives and they didn't include me, an obvious stakeholder, in reaching a cooperative decision, I also understand that they were operating under pressure of time and needed to make a decision.
All of which is to say, I can see how all of this happened without anyone being mean-spirited or non compos mentis. And I still felt like I got run over by a garbage truck.
Sometimes you're caught in a perfect storm without an umbrella and it's really no one's fault.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, gang aft agley.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Smart phones, as a symbol of advanced technology and modern communication savvy, have been around since 1999. Blackberries hit the US market in 2003. Apple released the iPhone in 2007, and the open-source Androids followed a year later.
While most people I know have one, I don't.
On the one hand, this is frustrating for friends and clients who want me more readily available. And it's a problem on long-distance trains (which I ride a lot) where I don't have access to wifi and thus can't read or work on cloud-based documents en route (think Google Drive and Drop Box). It can also be awkward coordinating pick-ups and deliveries from late-arriving choo choos.
But all of that said, I have a very active life via email, phone calls, live conversations, and even blogging. And I'm scratching my head trying to figure out why my life would be better with a smart phone. I watch friends get them and suddenly join the cell phone obsessed who move through life more or less as zombies tracking the information flow running across their handheld devices. (Have you gone into a Starbucks lately and scanned the patrons? Most are looking at devices; not each other.) It's hard to tell who's running whom, and there is nothing about that culture that's appealing.
To be sure, owning a smart phone does not require that you be sucked in, but most are. People preferentially respond to messages based on the medium of their transmission, rather than by the urgency or weightiness of the information. How often are live conversations interrupted by the compelling ding (or clever jingle) announcing an incoming text? It's appalling when you think about it.
Is it the right mix? I'm not sure. Mine works for me, but I think a lot of different choices can work for others. Without doubt, smart phones are potent—they're essentially mini-computers—but people don't own smart phones instead of a computer; they own one in addition to a computer.
I worry when people shift their lives and habits based more on what they can get clever apps for than what they need. Technology does not teach discernment or ethics, and I'm concerned about how hard it is not use a thing once you own it and are aware of its capabilities. In short I'm concerned about the marketplace driving use, rather than the other way around, and then hearing the free-market defense of an unfettered, anything goes market. It's scary. This culture's thirst for the latest gizmo is pretty much unquenchable.
Maybe the cornucopia of choices in front of us is not Xmas every day, but a Trojan horse. If some things were a little harder to do, maybe they wouldn't be chosen quite so much. Life would be slower, and maybe a little saner. Maybe fewer smart phones would result in fewer stupid choices. It's a thought.
Sunday, October 25, 2015
As a group
process consultant who works principally with intentional communities, I
am aware that the skill set needed to facilitate community meetings is
significantly different than what's asked of facilitators in the wider
culture. So much so, in fact, that the field is legend with stories of
"name" facilitators who are successful in the corporate world and find
themselves in over their heads when attempting to ply their craft in
Why? In broad strokes, the model for how we work in the wider world is restricted to the rational plane (what's your best thinking?). In community, however, that's not good enough. To be sure, thought still counts, but so does a smörgåsbord of other ways of knowing: emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and spiritual. While groups may be uneven in their capacity to work well in these other languages, you can count on intentional communities expecting that openings be made for more exotic ways of knowing—ways that are rarely given a seat at the table in corporate settings or, for that matter, in the world of righteous nonprofits (ones doing real work as change agents).
One of the themes of this blog is that intentional communities operate at the cutting edge of social sustainability, by which I mean developing working models of how to reach decisions in a sustainable way. (While what gets decided also matters, I'm shining the light expressly on how in this blog.)
o To accomplish this the group needs to operate inclusively, which necessarily means working sure-footedly with multiple modes of information exchange and being able to bridge nimbly among them. Insisting that everyone translates their input into the rational mode as a pre-condition to getting people's attention just doesn't cut it. There are simply too many people for whom rational articulation (in front of a group, no less) is not their long suit.
o Savvy communities know that when you create an opening for people to share their input or concerns on a topic, that you need to do more than simply collect concepts—you need to know what that input means to the speaker. How close to the bone is that input being held, and how does that relate to group values (as distinct from personal preferences)? Healthy groups learn how to ride the tiger of passionate statements without turning meetings into theatrical performances, or recapitulations of the British House of Commons.
o When crafting proposals it's important that architects are able to show their work—what they've done to balance the input that's been collected. Simply handing down decisions from management may work in corporate boardrooms, but it won't work in community. People need to see how their contribution has been duly considered.
o Community facilitators need to be able to do more than track what people are saying; they need to be able to read when there's a "disturbance in the Force," requiring a facile shift in focus from content to energy (and then back again once the riffles have been calmed).
o While there are limits on who can live together cooperatively (not everyone has the communication skills that it takes, or has done the necessary personal work to unlearn competitive conditioning), you can tell a lot about a group's maturity by observing how it works with outliers—members with unusual speaking styles or uncommon ways of putting information together. Has the group worked to bridge to those folks, or written them off? In turn, has the challenging individual worked to better understand others and reach toward them? When the stretching happens in both directions there is often a place of meeting in the middle. When only one side is doing the work, it is difficult to sustain. There is considerable skill in knowing which relationships are salvageable and which are not.
The good news is that a small number of effective facilitators can bring a group around fairly quickly. The bad news is that most groups have never experienced truly effective facilitation and they don't understand what to look for or why it's worth investing in training.
In FIC we recently lost a staff member who had the qualifications for the job but who didn't feel the culture of the organization was a good fit. They didn't have the experience that the way they approached their job was respected by peers and it is too much effort to be heard. While it's sad when this happens, it's also a good sign that people are paying attention to the organizational culture and weighing it seriously. I consider it a good thing that we take personnel decisions personally.
Friday, October 23, 2015
I am in the final weeks of serving as the Fellowship for Intentional Community's main administrator. After 28 years behind the wheel I'll be turning it over to my successor, Sky Blue of Twin Oaks in Virginia.
Among other things, this fall I've been conducting a series of evening soirees in which I'm banging the drum for FIC—providing an overview of what we've done since 1987 and making the case for why we are well poised to make a major contribution to calming the waters in the coming chaotic times.
I've already done three of these—in Boulder CO, Sacramento CA, and Berkeley CA—and will do another next week in Kansas City. As there have only been 12-15 folks in the room for each of these presentations, I'm using today's blog entry to extend my message to a wider audience.
This is a presentation in four acts:
I. Original Mission
Here are the main elements of FIC's mission when we got started:
A. Serve as an ecumenical clearinghouse of up-to-date and comprehensive information about intentional communities—especially in the US and Canada
B. Offer technical assistance to communities in need
C. Support media relations and help researchers investigate community living
D. Be an organization that runs cooperatively; not just one that promotes cooperation
E. Articulate why intentional communities matter in the world
II. Overview of FIC History (highlights of what we've accomplished)
1990 published our first Communities Directory as a book (we've done this six times, with plans for a seventh edition now in the works, scheduled for release in the spring)
1992 took over as publisher of Communities magazine (it had been started in 1972, but was dead in the water when we took it over)
1993 held the Celebration of Community (a six-day event that drew 1000 participants in Olympia WA)
1994 launched www.ic.org
1997 pioneered Art of Community weekend events that featured both information about community living and a taste of it
1999 took over Community Bookstore, a bookselling business that features titles on cooperative living, right livelihood, sustainable economics, group process, and sustainable design
2002 launched our online Store (allowing books to be bought through the Web); published Visions of Utopia, vol I (Geoph Kozeny's magnum opus video providing an overview of intentional communities extant in North America)
2004 offered Communities Directory as a free online searchable database
2005 expanded our mission to include Creating Community Where You Are (it was now our business to assist neighborhoods, schools, churches, and businesses that wanted to employ the pioneering lessons of intentional communities to create a greater sense of community in place)
2007 established wiki.ic.org and buzz.ic.org (a compendium of stories about intentional communities in the media)
2009 published Visions of Utopia, vol II; developed a new logo and unified graphic design
2010 debuted on Facebook; we adjusted listings to comply with Fair Housing Laws
2011 obtained North American rights to sell A New We, a video that features 10 examples of sustainable communities in Europe
2013 opened dialog with the Ecovillage Network of Canada and the Ecovillage Network of the Americas to discuss joint development of GENNA (Global Ecovillage Network of North America)—demonstrating our commitment to cooperation among cooperators
2014 created the role of Business Manager and hired Christopher Kindig to fill it; start offering digital downloads and streaming video; Best of Communities is published (compilations of articles from our magazine grouped around a theme—there are 15 booklets)
2015 bought Allium at Dancing Rabbit (Rutledge MO) and moved HQ there (Allium is a strawbale, earthen plaster facility powered by solar panels on the roof, replacing a drafty '70s era house trailer); selected Sky Blue to replace me as Executive Director
III. What We Are Poised to Do
o Host a summit of organizations with a core commitment to supporting community, exploring ways that entities committed to collaboration can better walk our talk (this would expand on the role we've played in the development of GENNA to include more players and expand the scope of the work)
o Turn over our leadership, modeling a sustainable transition
o Overhaul our flagship product, Communities Directory:
-separating Established from Forming groups
-being stricter about verifying the currency of listings or dropping them (pruning dead wood)
-providing user ratings for responsiveness to encourage listed communities to more promptly answer inquiries (or get a poor rating)
o Reach out to the next ring of natural allies to see how the intentional community experience can help (examples include Transition Towns, university sustainability programs, worker cooperatives)
IV. Why Your Support for FIC Today Will Make a Difference
We see sustainability as a three-legged stool. One component is ecological, one is social, and one is economic. While intentional communities work with all three, it is in the arena of social sustainability that intentional communities are at the cutting edge, where we are learning on a practical basis how to get along well with one another.
We anticipate that in the decades immediately ahead that we will be facing a far more chaotic time, where we’ll have to make do with fewer resources and less dependable incomes. While the number of people living in communities has been growing steadily on our watch, the numbers are still small (perhaps 100,000 living in some form of self-identified intentional community today) and we think our main societal impact will not be placing people in intentional communities. Instead, we think it will be exporting the hard-earned lessons of social sustainability to people increasingly hungry for alternatives to an alienating, dog-eat-dog competitive culture.
In particular, intentional communities are able to provide workable models of two huge levers that offer hope for a future that can work for everyone, without hitting a brick wall or relying on government bailouts:
a) Defining quality of life in terms of access to resources instead of ownership.
b) Defining security in terms of relationships instead of savings or insurance policies.
If you make these changes, suddenly you need far less money than you thought you did to lead a high quality life, and that eases everything. However, making these transitions requires leading a life that is more intertwined with others than most of us are used to. That is where the intentional community experience comes into play: we know how to do this. And we think the demand for that knowledge is just about to explode.
Your dollars in support of FIC today means we have a better chance to stay ahead of the choppy waves to come, sharing our knowledge as broadly as possible while there is still time to effect a soft landing for the uncertain times ahead. If you're inspired to partner with FIC to get this done, please donate here.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
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).
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).
Monday, October 19, 2015
This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works,
developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck
represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other
In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.
The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
1. Intention 2. Context 3. Relationship 4. Flow 5. Creativity 6. Perspective 7. Modeling 8. Inquiry & Synthesis 9. Faith
In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The fourth pattern in this category is labeled Divergence and Convergence Rhythm. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
The aspect of group dynamics where this pattern is evoked most strongly for me is the sequence associated with how a group effectively tackles an issue. Based on four decades of group living, I've distilled this into a basic six-step progression:
1. Presentation of the Topic (what are we talking about?)
2. Questions (did everyone understand what was said in the presentation?)
3. Discussion (what factors does a good response to the issue need to take into account?)
4. Proposal (what action steps bets balance the factors identified in Discussion?)
5. Decision (have we talked about this enough?)
6. Implementation (who will do what when, and with what resources?)
I think this should be handled as an expansive, or divergent, phase with plenty of room for exploring the dimensions of the issue, casting a wide net. In order to maintain a creative, open attitude, it can be important to not engage prematurely in evaluation of ideas. Let 'em breathe!
Give everyone a chance to tell you why their concern is the most important thing since night baseball. It's important to make sure that everyone has a chance to say what matters to them on the topic. While this can be done in a variety of ways, here's a relatively straight forward approach that will guide you through it without getting bogged down:
Brainstorms are unedited, which means you capture everyone's thoughts about what the group needs to take into account. You are not looking for evaluative comments at this stage, and you don't need to hear an idea twice. With discipline, it doesn't take that long to run out of new things to capture.
It's at this stage that you welcome people's passionate statements about why the factor that they've named is important to them. Let 'em sell it! The idea here is more than capturing the concepts; it's also to understand what it means to the advocate, so that this depth of understanding is carried forward into the Proposal phase.
In this step, the group pauses to look over the output of brainstorming to determine if everything belongs on a list of group concerns. It's possible that some items were added for levity and were never meant to be taken seriously (say the topic is recruiting new members for the group house and someone suggests targeting seven-footers with purple hair, all the better to form an eye-catching intramural basketball team). Or perhaps there are some personal preferences commingled with group concerns (let's go after people who play brass instruments to bolster the house ensemble).
If the group exercises reasonable discernment when brainstorming, then nothing may need to be winnowed out during vetting.
Sometimes there are factors that are more important than others. If so, this is the time to identify that ranking. Continuing with the example of recruiting new members, the group may decide it that when screening prospectives that it wants to emphasize social skills above people with a better credit rating.
Once the the Discussion phase is complete, then it's time to switch to problem solving.
Discussion should always happen first, and be completed before the group starts entertaining potential solutions. While this may seem obvious (determining everything that the solution needs to cover before you start building it), it is not how groups typically work an issue. All too often these two phases are folded together in one free-for-all conversation: no sooner does someone mention a concern, then another well-meaning member proposes a way to deal with it… and so it goes, with concerns and would-be solutions flying around the room like so many ping pong balls at a lotto convention.
The problem with this is that Discussion is expansive (or divergent) while Proposal is contractive (or convergent), and it can be crazy-making if the group allows members to simultaneously be convergent and divergent. (Try it).
Proposal Phase In contrast, this step has a very different energy from Discussion. The time for advocacy is over; now is the time for thoughtful bridging. It helps the group not a whit to have people say again why their particular concern should drive the conversation—if this came out during Discussion (as it should have) then you have to trust the group to not forget.
So this is a convergent phase where the focus is on stitching together; not a tug-of-war. You want the quality of the Proposal phase to be holding the whole, not a demolition derby where the idea with the best radiator and toughest body wins.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Today's blog is a continuation of my dialog with Vera, on the topic of Bullies and Boundaries. I first posted on this topic Sept 14, and subsequently Sept 20.
Here is my response to your fine post. I really have no issues with the whole first half of what you wrote. Just a reflection how wonderful it is that intentional communities have been able to set such firm boundaries around physical bullying! That is also what I have experienced.
This is essentially a consequence of a firm commitment to nonviolence.
I just want to note that verbal/emotional bullying, especially of the covert kind, inflicts wounds as well, and is harder to spot and to respond to effectively. While it is less of a bludgeon, it can poison the well of good will in the community. So I always appreciate it when communitarians address it, as you have in your blog.
So, I want to respond to the second half [of my blog of Sept 20].
You wrote: "I don't get where developing a thicker skin (becoming less reactive to the bully's irritating behaviors) helps the bully. I'd say it's in everyone's interest to learn to be less reactive." That puts me in mind of the generations of abused women seeking counseling from clergy and psychologists, who were told to grow a thicker skin, and stick it out. It's by no means disappeared, even today.
I am not defending bullying (the attempt to pressure others into doing your bidding, rather than through request, or dint of gentle persuasion). Rather, I am pointing out that it is never in the interest in the victim to see oneself as a victim, and it is always in the interest of the individual to be as open as possible to the input of others, sorting the message from the delivery.
I am not condoning bullying. Instead, I am making three points:
a) At least in the context of intentional community, people who indulge in bullying will tend to be isolated and will thereby lose both respect and influence. That is, they will have less power by virtue of trying to force their views on others. In the extreme they will be completely ostracized.
To be sure, bullying tactics may work in the short run, because people find it odious to call others on bad behavior. Thus, for example, a blustering member may intimidate others from joining the committee that will determine how to landscape the front of the common house, yet the long run effect is that the pushy member will either learn to be more cooperative or will find themselves unwanted on future committees.
b) It is murky territory determining intent, and behavior that is clearly bullying to some may be normal, demonstrative discourse to others. I'm not saying this is very enlightened, nor is it particularly savvy, but the heart of bullying is when people are purposefully trying to power over others (whether in a calculated or heat-of-the-moment way), and it's important to point out this ambiguity.
When we act on the basis of we-know-bullying-when-we-see-it, it generally translates into someone unilaterally imposing their standard of behavior on another, with the result that communication between the two going forward is accomplished only on the basis of recipient's sanctioned channels.
It's my view that it will work better if there is a negotiation between the two parties to discuss what's possible in the way of improving flow between them. There may be room for both to contribute to something better. Given the benefit of the doubt (about intent) the so-called bully may be willing to adjust their style to something less threatening, while the recipient may be able to stretch their comfort zone. (To be clear, I'm talking about increasing one's tolerance of raised voices; not one's tolerance of sexual misconduct.)
If the bully isn't interested in modifying their behavior (what you see is what you get), the recipient is under no obligation to tolerate inappropriate behavior—yet it still may be in their interest to not close the door on the content of the bully's message.
c) It is my experience that once a group labels someone a bully that person is put in the penalty box and may not be allowed out. Once firmly in the majority, groups tend to get stupid about their role in perpetuating a broken link, missing evidence that the bully may be earnestly trying to effect a change. To be sure, the bully does not always experience remorse or is otherwise unwilling to shift, yet I have witnessed vigilante dynamics too many times to not point out the danger.
While a bully's behavior may be irritating, discomfiting, or annoying, the gist of it is that it is abusive; are you advocating that abusive behavior should be tolerated more by the other party?
I'm pointing out that the boundary of what constitutes verbal or psychological abuse is more vague than most suppose and that this ambiguity leaves plenty of room for mischief in both directions. At the end of the day, the only person you have control over is yourself, and there is an opportunity for looking at your part of a tense dynamic regardless of which end of bullying behavior you find yourself on.
You wrote "how different is it from saying that if the form is not acceptable, then I may ignore your content"? I find that once a person resorts to bullying, they are no longer in a cooperative mode, and the content becomes irrelevant. If the other person tries to pursue the content, they open themselves to further abuse. That is why I am a big believer of calling time out for process. Once the process is fixed, then returning to the content will be a pleasure.
I'm fine opening a dialog about the strain (if you feel bullied, by all means talk about it). I'm only pointing out that holding the content hostage to resolution about the delivery may not be a good bargain. Let me be hyperbolic to make my point: Suppose the common house is on fire because a pot was left unattended on the stove and the person who discovers it believes (wrongly) that it was you. Further suppose you enter the common house right as the person is frantically trying to throw baking soda on the flames and screams at you to call the fucking fire department to contain the fire you started. Do you call a meeting to explore this person's outrageous accusations and verbal abuse? No. You call the fucking fire department.
I am not saying we should ignore bullying. I'm saying we need to contextualize how we respond, and I'm noting the danger of treating the bully as sub-human because you feel you've been treated as less than human by them.
You think that my approach "pretends that whether boundaries have been crossed is an objective assessment and it often isn't. Most often it comes down to: "1) I feel that you've crossed my boundary and 2) therefore I will impose restrictions and 3) blame you for there being boundaries."
Huh? 1) Boundaries are *always* personal and subjective (to the individual or the group). If a man is leaning too close for comfort, I *know* that my boundary has been violated, it's not up for discussion or a vote, and it matters not a whit some other person sets their physical space boundary differently. Other boundaries may be softer than this example, and can be negotiated in good faith (as your example about people speaking loudly as a cultural habit).
OK, we agree that boundaries are subjective.
2) I don't know what you are talking about when you say I will impose restrictions. I will defend my boundary, yes. Period. Actions have consequences. Undefended boundaries are not boundaries.
I'm talking about cutting off communication until the boundaries have been respected. Better, I think, is revealing that you're uncomfortable and negotiating from there—with the emphasis on relationship rather than defense of boundaries. While there are dyads that are unsalvageable (not every pair gets along well enough to create a decent relationship, and not everyone has sufficient social skills to navigate problems), I strongly prefer that people in tension start with an issue (I'm uncomfortable with what you're doing) than a conclusion (I will not talk with you until you respect my boundaries). To be sure, if good faith negotiations fail then you can still set boundaries, and I am not talking about situations where a person is in imminent danger and second chances are foolish (when you brandish that knife I feel unsafe).
3) As for the person whose boundaries have been crossed blaming the other, why? This would turn person A into a bully themselves. Blaming is a bullying behavior. If it were me, I would simply say, uh, I feel uncomfortable, would you mind backing up a bit? Or I can back up a bit, modeling where my comfort zone is. There is no blame.
Your attitude sounds good. It's just not the way I see it typically go down. Most often, when people reach the stage of announcing boundaries in a cooperative setting they're pissed. Generally it requires them to act more firmly than they like and they blame the "bully" for their discomfort (I wouldn't be going through this shit it weren't for you're outrageous behavior).
Here is a snippet that I picked up somewhere: "Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. Their presence helps us express ourselves as the unique individuals we are, while we acknowledge the same in others."
I have two reflections about this quote:
a) I like the non-judgmental quality of this statement. I just haven't seen boundaries applied this way very often. Mostly I've seen them as ways to contain the manipulator—which can sometimes be justified (see my recent blog, When the Door Is Closed)—yet are commonly employed as a quid pro quo instead of a decent effort to negotiate an untenable dynamic.
b) Our culture (Western Civilization) is obsessed with a sense of "I," as opposed to a sense of "we." As such we are constantly alert for affirmation of how we are unique, rather than for the ways in which we are similar. Observing this I am not so sure it's healthy for us to be looking for yet more ways to distinguish ourselves from others.
I'd say that one of the most profound things I've done in my life from a personal growth standpoint is to learn to see common ground before seeing differences. This is directly related to my skill as a professional facilitator in cooperative settings, and is the result of learning to set as few boundaries as possible—trying my best to accept people where they are. And I am not less clear about who I am.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
I was working this past weekend with Durham Central Park, a newly built intentional community in downtown Durham NC. We ended the first day with a focus on trust. While there was quite a bit of trust that had been built by folks that had gone through the fire of development together (it took about six years of faith and dedication to turn their dream into a beautiful three-dimensional reality), people also noted that there have been some bumps in the road during the first year of living together, and thus there arose the desire to give attention to building (or rebuilding) trust.
We wound up devoting about 30 minutes to going around the room inviting everyone to share what trust meant to them and how they build it with others. (The default is that people assume that others see trust as they do and offer what they'd like to receive—but as a community veteran I knew that it wasn't that simple.)
From 28 people we got this range of responses:
o Developing knowledge of the other person through a wide variety of ways, many of them informal (not just in the context of meetings or working together).
o Assuming good intent.
o Being emotionally authentic.
o Following through on commitments (that you'll do what you say you'll do). [This was the most common response, mentioned by a quarter of the group.]
o If favorable stories about a person match with independent observation.
o If the person accurately shares relevant information (rather than withholds).
o Establishing connection through empathy; feeling heard by the other person.
o Being vague and avoiding engagement undermines trust.
o Going through the fire together (considerable trust was built in the process of developing the community over a period of years).
o Being consistently kind.
o Trust and familiarity are not necessarily related.
o Emphasizing showing up more than performance.
o Willing to honestly share reactions.
o Trust is built through repetition and time.
o Acting with courage.
o Acting for the good of the whole (in contrast with self interest).
o Moving slowly enough to make sure everyone has been heard. Emotional expression needs to be authentic; not calculated or manipulative.
o Trust is built on a wealth of common experience.
o Predictability; deep knowledge of the other person's background.
o Sense of being in it together (fellow travelers).
o Exchanges that are caring.
o Feeling safe; honest and direct communication.
o Being thoughtful and forward looking.
While this list unquestionably contains many similar comments (and probably few surprises), it's noteworthy how rich it is and how varied are people's points of entrée to trust—a concept that everyone immediately identifies as desirable, even though it turns out to come in more flavors than Heintz has pickles. All without anyone being off the wall or inappropriate.
If you reflect on this list you'll be able to see the potential pitfalls. For example, if you highly prize direct, honest communication, you might experience kindness as pussyfooting around. Going the other way, direct feedback might land as an attack—which is not all consistent with caring. In such an exchange, each party may come away with the mistaken notion that the other doesn't want to build trust, when the actual message is that the two parties go about it differently.
That's the gold in this kind of exercise: uncovering that good people can reasonably have a wide range of preferred ways to create and nurture something as universally desirable as trust. Just because we all have belly buttons doesn't mean we all build and sustain close relations the same way. Trust me.
Friday, October 9, 2015
If you are afraid of butter, use cream.
I was in Denver earlier this week, enjoying an all-too-brief 44-hour rendezvous with my partner, Susan. She had flown in from Minneapolis Friday to help celebrate her daughter's birthday, and I joined the party Sunday evening after wrapping up a weekend of consulting in Colorado Springs.
Monday morning Susan and I went out hunting coffee, settling on a local caffeine emporium named Thump that was recommended by her daughter. As I like my coffee strong, the name was promising.
When we ordered our java, Susan reflexively asked the barista to "leave room for cream," into which category of consumer I likewise fall. Sipping my morning cup of courage, (which was satisfyingly thumping) I reflected on Susan's request and determined that it made an intriguing title for a blog, so I made a note.
Susan and I like to cook, both separately and together. While this can take many forms, it has not escaped our notice how often we find that recipes are enhanced by the judicious application of cream, especially soups, sauces, and gravies.
About a month ago Susan paused once during an email exchange we were having about our preferred approaches to preparing mashed potatoes, to express appreciation for the simple fact that we both embraced dairy in our diet—which is no certain thing in this day of increased vigilance about the potential dangers of WMDs: wheat, meat, and dairy.
Cream, to our sensibilities, is de rigueur when it comes to concocting first-rate mashed spuds, and we wouldn't be caught dead frying eggs with margarine, or adulterating coffee with a polysyllabic soy-based non-dairy creamer.
Because many adults don't care for dairy products (with the possible exceptions of ice cream and yogurt—for completely different reasons) we will gracefully accommodate those preferences when cooking for guests. However, left to our own devices not only do Susan and I like to cook with dairy, but we are apt to drink milk with sandwiches or cookies—even though we're both on Medicare. In fact, I am known to enjoy whole milk so much that I am prone to make a couple glasses of it the entirety of my midday meal.
Thus, it turns out that we are afraid of neither butter nor cream, and Susan even has a magnet on her refrigerator festooned with the opening quote from the French kitchen diva herself, Julia Child.
Cow products aside, there is another meaning to the phrase, room for cream, which refers to allowing yourself to excel; not being afraid of excellence. There are those who go through life with an upper limit on achievement for fear of being held accountable for a standard of replication that they are not sure they can meet.
The idea here is that it is safer to not try too hard. Less will be expected of you and you will find yourself less often in moments where you are stretched to capacity (or beyond). In essence, these folks eschew cream because they'd rather minimize performance anxiety and are willing to except a lifetime of blander fare to avoid performing under pressure—when they are working at capacity and the stakes are high. They are willing to forego ecstasy to avoid exposure to agony.
Someone once described flying an airplane as long hours of unremitting boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror. In my experience learning (or personal growth) entails putting yourself in a position where you can be exposed as a fool—often in front of many witnesses—and I have sympathy for those who find that possibility paralyzing. You can limit the moments of terror by being prudent about the chances you take (for example, never flying aircraft), yet this comes at the stultifying price of low exposure to new material.
For better or worse, I always leave room for cream, both because I'm addicted to learning and because I'm dedicated to service, and always think I can make a positive contribution no matter how dire the circumstance. (It was a peak experience for me years ago when a long-term member of a client group came up to me and said, "I hear you're fearless.")
This does not mean I always make good choices or that I am always effective in the work I do, but it does lead to an examined life and plenty of opportunities to get better.
Yes, reaching for the cream can lead to expectations that may not always be possible to meet, yet who wants to go through life settling for the mediocrity of 2% milk?
Thursday, October 8, 2015
As a professional facilitator I often work with conflicted dynamics, where two or more people are stuck in the mud.
While I am generally asked to help the protagonists find the way out of the swamp (without loss of dignity, change of personality, or admission of guilt), occasionally I arrive on the scene too late: where one of the players has reached the end of their rope and is no longer willing to invest in any further attempts at resolution. They've tried as hard as they know, experienced too little relief relative to their investment, and are ready to cut bait.
While it's possible that one or both will leave the group, most frequently they just steer clear of each other. If the group is large enough, their common friends don't overlap significantly, and they don't share the same areas of expertise, this can work OK. Everyone doesn't have to be best buddies for the group to function well, and a robust group can absorb a few broken pipelines without undo consequences.
The equation changes, however, if there are multiple people who have given up working out tensions with a particular person. To be clear, I am not talking about the dynamic where a member irritates others and a lot of people start sitting somewhere else at dinner or refusing to be on committees or work parties with the person they find unpleasant.
This happens on an informal level more than you might think with the result that a group will develop a story about so-and-so being "the problem" without necessarily having tried to address it directly. Once the story gets established, the group tends to stop looking at how they might have unwittingly contributed to a system failure and everyone starts laying the blame for the tension wholly at the feet of "the problem" person. Once this happens, it is almost impossible for the labeled person to make changes that will be recognized by the group and the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
I share this caution because, as a professional working in the field of group dynamics, about 80% of the time I can get different (more cooperative) behavior out of "the problem" person than the story claims is possible within the first 24 hours. I achieve this simply by not believing the story and remaining open to the possibility that the difficult person has the capacity to behave differently once they've been heard and not treated with contempt.
Note though that I didn't say I get different behavior 100% of the time. Sometimes the story holds. Sometimes the group has done due diligence and put in serious effort to try to resolve the tensions, yet no corner has been turned. What do I mean by due diligence?
o Making sure that the difficult person has been heard to their satisfaction, so that their experience is being taken into account.
o A determined effort has been made to inform the difficult person of the specific behaviors and specific incidents that have been problematic.
o The group has worked hard to explain what changes in behavior have been requested.
o The person has been given a reasonable chance to shift their behavior after the above has been spelled out.
o The unacceptable behavior persists in the face of all of the above.
While this dynamic is thankfully rare, it nonetheless occurs. People can be drawn to cooperative living for the right reasons but not have sufficient social skills to be a viable member.
Once the group's good will and grace have been exhausted, it may reach a stage where it asks the difficult person to leave the group. If the person agrees, that ends it. But they might not agree. Situations that would be intolerable for most people may be acceptable to people with difficult behaviors. Maybe they've had a hard time everywhere they've gone, and would rather stay in a situation where people are generally more civil and less vitriolic.
In any event, if they stay, the menu of options for the difficult person is limited to something like the following:
—Change their behavior (even at the 11th hour)
—Withdraw from active involvement—Engage only through a liaison (if there is a mutually acceptable person willing to serve in that capacity)
—Persist despite the tensions
I've seen all of these attempted. The hardest on the group is the last, where the difficult person is unwilling to shift anything, essentially forcing the group's hand with respect to its standards. While the group will need to be careful to operate legally, the ultimate card that it can play is to withdraw community. While its not quite the same as Amish shunning, it's close:
o In group meetings the person will not be recognized to speak; their views will not be taken into account.
o The person will not be invited to participate in common meals.
o The person will be removed from all committees.
o The person will be removed from the group list serve.
While people may still greet the difficult person (not pretend they are dead), the group is purposefully continuing the life of the community without them.
The basis for taking this extreme action may be something like this:
Members have the right to have their views apropos group issues taken into account, yet that right is paired with the responsibility to take into account and work constructively with the viewpoints of others. Where a member repeatedly fails to demonstrate an ability to meet their responsibilities in this regard and the group has made a good faith effort to point this out to the person and a gross imbalance persists, it can be grounds for an involuntary loss of rights.
As you can imagine, this is a heavy choice that requires the group to act in unison, supporting each other in carrying out an odious task—in all probability it is something no one anticipated having to face. It requires a kind of tough love that forces people to pass judgment on a fellow member. Yuck. There are times when voting someone off the island is the only alternative to everyone drowning.
While it's important that this be difficult to do and done only with great care, it has to be possible.