Friday, January 29, 2016

Community Living Boot Camp

I had a conversation this week with a guy on the West Coast who is interested in putting together a loan program for first-time homeowners who want to live as a group. He thinks he can get mortgage rates at least as good as those available to nuclear families, and it can be set up in a way that if anyone leaves or joins the group before the mortgage is paid off, that refinancing can be avoided. 

In general, intentional communities solve this be forming a separate legal entity (probably a limited liability corporation) in whose name the property is held. That way, changes in the group composition can be handled as an internal matter and don't affect the mortgage. The downside of this is that LLCs will typically be viewed as a commercial loan and will therefore encounter higher interest rates. 

Under this new concept, small groups (say, 10 and under) may be able to get much better interest rates, which is especially attractive in urban areas where the housing market is heating back up to pre-2008 levels.

Assuming all this is doable on the financial end, the creator of this program is (rightfully) concerned with making loans to groups that are likely to succeed, which is where FIC and I come into play. His idea is to require that groups applying for loans under this program attend a condensed training in group living, and come through with a "passing grade," whatever that is.

He realizes that this is not his area of expertise and he wondered if FIC would be interested in developing the curriculum, overseeing the teaching, and making the assessments. He guessed that the training might be accomplished in 1-2 days and FIC could earn fees for running them.

When I responded that I thought it might take closer to 5-7 days to provide a decent overview of what it takes to create a successful group, he was shocked. (How could it be that hard—did I mention already that he's fairly new to the complex world of intentional community living?) Because the financial program is so promising, we are both willing to look another level deeper, to see if there's a way to thread the needle. I gave him leads for starting community workshops in the US, from which he'll gather curricula ideas. Simultaneously I agreed to draft an outline of what I think needs to be covered, and we'll see how creative we can get in delivering it economically.

So here's my first pass at the curriculum, in no particular order:

Cultural Context
o  How Cooperative Culture Differs from Mainstream Culture
o  Common values 
o  What interest do you have in modeling for others what you've created?
o  What qualities do you want in those filling leadership roles?
o  Navigating the transition from start-up to established

Process Agreements
o  Decision-making & governance
o  How will you handle conflict?
o  Record of agreements
o  Will you keep minutes of meetings?
o  Will meetings be facilitated?
o  How to handle non-compliance
o  When to get help 
o  Under what circumstances might a member suffer an involuntary loss of rights & by what process will that be examined?

Social Skills
o  How well can you articulate clearly what you think?
o  How well can you articulate clearly what you feel?
o  How accurately do you hear what others say (and are able to communicate that to the speaker such that they feel heard)?
o  How well can you hear critical feedback without walling up or getting defensive?
o  Can you function reasonably well in the presence of non-trivial distress in others?   
o  How well can you shift perspectives to see an issue through another person's lens?  
o  How well can you see potential bridges between two people who are at odds with each other?  
o  Can you see the good intent underneath strident statements?  
o  Can you distinguish clearly between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad"? o  Can you own your own stuff?  
o  Can you reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself?  
o  Are you sensitive to the ways in which you are privileged?

Membership Agreements
o  Member intake process (including Fair Housing Laws)
o  Member exit process
o  Rights and responsibilities 
o  Can sweat equity substitute for dollars? If so, with what limits?
o  Subletting and guests

Defining Level of Engagement
o  How much do you intend living together to mean intertwined lives?
o  Common meals
o  Joint childcare 
o  Limit setting by adults who are not the child's parents
o  Getting the work done
o  The boundaries between public and private
o  What expenses will be shared?
o  What things will be jointly owned? 
o  Acceptable noise levels in common areas
o  Cleanliness standards in common areas
o  Dietary flexibility
o  Pets

Obviously some of these topics won't apply in all cases (for example, when there are no children or pets), but the vast majority are in play. What's more, these are only the headlines. There are subtopics underneath them all and choices to explain. It's hard to imagine covering all of the above in less than five days—especially if we're also to assess how far along the group is in grokking each aspect.

It will be interesting to see where this will lead—whether we're able to cover all (or enough) of the basics to make an appreciable difference in screening out the starry-eyed and the ill-prepared, without making it prohibitively expensive.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Passage into Elderhood

I recently received an interesting invitation, asking if I would write about elderhood, and what it means to make a purposeful transition into that stage of life:

Elderhood is certainly one of the least celebrated and recognized transitions in our culture. I am also struck that when we moved to community last year, my partner was the oldest one there. I felt the lack of elders holding the powerful space, witness, and wisdom.

In many ways, I know that we are re-forging the proper fires of initiation and becoming. I know that those fires were mostly out for my parents and grandparents, though rite of passage happens anyway (just not as consciously, powerfully, or prayerfully).

I am reaching out as younger here, hoping that when I reach this threshold, I'll know a little bit more about it. There will be a little more collective wisdom in the fire. 

I consider you a being who is expressing and embodying your elderhood with beauty and wisdom. I look up and out to you as someone who has passed this particular milestone of 50. I have no idea how that journey was for you, what arose, what changed, if it was a big deal or just another day. 

My invitation, as someone who loves this man dearly, and sees how powerfully he lives in this world, is that you take time in the next month or so and write him a letter. Preferably the old school kind, written on paper, and sent via US Postal Service. I realize that you may not know my partner deeply, but I do know you hold some wisdom as a visionary and that he would appreciate hearing from you on this cusp.

How was it for you to come into your 50s; what wisdom have you harvested that feels worth sharing; what felt challenging or vulnerable; how you have created or found elderhood as a path…

What a lovely gift! Here are some of my reflections on the transition into elderhood:

o  Dearth of ritual
Our culture is ritual starved. While some of that has been preserved in church, or in moments of silence before meals, our lives are profoundly lacking in celebration of mysteries and rites of passage. As you reach the half century mark, I encourage you yo take some time in retreat to reflect on who you are and who you want to be. If you want to share what emerges (a conclusion, an intent, a hope) do so after the retreat in a setting and circle of your choosing. Make any ritual of sharing be your ritual.

o  No magic line to cross
While I think this can vary considerably by individual, I did not "ratchet" into elderhood. (You hit 50 and bingo—you're an elder—like watching all the numbers rolling over on an odometer.) I eased into it, just as I did other major points in my life. When do I know enough to ask people to pay for my services? When am I good enough to teach what I know? When do I have enough to say (and enough facility as a writer) to embrace the identity of author? When is it time to step down and give others a chance behind the wheel? Is my style of leadership helping those around me become better leaders? In my case I only knew I had crossed a boundary looking backward—it was not at all clear at the time—even if the question was imminent for me.

o  It's a state of mind
I think identities (such as elder, mentor, teacher, facilitator) work best when they come from within; as something you own, rather than a label thrust upon you. Not everyone will recognize your identity, or relate to you in that way, so your ownership needs to be resilient in those occasions of non-recognition (or even rejection) by others. Think of it as a deep well that you are able to drink from at need. 

o  It takes patience 
Elderhood requires ego management; not being in a hurry to help. It is an art form reading whether an invitation exists for you to offer your reflections. You are certain to have more germane thoughts than invitations to share them. Think of it as an opportunity: more time to read, visit, write, digest, and dream.

o  Don't wait for the phone to ring
Don't succumb to the temptation to tie your happiness to having your opinion sought, or your advice followed. Your job is to see that the trough is filled with water, but you can't make the horses drink. As an elder you want to be ready, but not needy. Like Cassandra, there will be times when your foresight will be prescient, yet your experience will be discounted, or even ignored. Keep breathing.

o  Turning over your work to others
One of the challenges you'll face—not yet, but it's coming—is finding one or more suitable successors to continue your work when it's time to hang 'em up. In fact, it's one of the ways that you'll ultimately be measured as a leader is whether you fostered the development of leadership capacity in those around you, or did you inhibit it?

o  Downshifting
As you enter elderhood there will start to be a diminishment of capacity. You will inevitably encounter limits on time and energy. This means greater attention needs to be given to where you invest. What are the leverage points? Where can your experience and wisdom make the most difference? Where do you derive the greatest enjoyment? Where is the door open? Think strategically (not about how to pad your résumé for your obituary). As an elder it's likely that many of your contributions will be behind the scenes and not openly acknowledged. Are you OK with that?

o  Know what you don't know
Operate within yourself, knowing what you know as well as what you don't. This is not about no longer plowing new ground or taking chances; it's about not misrepresenting your gifts. The more wisdom you possess, the harder it will be for others to discern the limits of your knowledge, and you need to be vigilant against overplaying your hand—all the more because you may not be dealt in as often as you'd like.

o  Low Threshold of delight
As a final thought, I encourage you to cultivate the capacity to be easily amused. Be an elder with an expanding, ever-curious spirit—not one whose soul shrivels as their physical stamina spirals down. Enjoy this life all the way through. There's no guarantee of a replay.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

FIC's Budget and Goals

Today I'll respond to a comment inspired by my blog of last week, Sprinting to the Finish Line.

The reader wrote:
What's the long range planning/goal setting process at FIC? It sounds like you've had a successful fundraiser, and you've just scrambled to figure out what you could do with the money. Seems a bit backward, frankly.

Also, is there any plan for FIC to develop an ongoing, sustainable funding source, or does it intend to continue with ad hoc fundraisers? And are FIC's budget and finances disclosed anywhere for the public to see?

I can see I didn't do a very good job of laying out the situation. Let me tackle these questions and comments one at a time.

FIC's 2015 Budget
Let's begin by painting the big picture. Here's the Fellowship's budget for last year.

Communities magazine                  58,500
Website                                           27,250
Events                                                      0
Community Bookstore                    30,450
Development                                  28,000
Office & Overhead                           1,000

Subtotal                                        145,200

Communities magazine                  51,389
Website                                           14,400
Events                                                      0
Community Bookstore                    18,660
Development                                   10,000
Office & Overhead                          49,079

Subtotal                                        143,528 

Net profit                                            1,672

o  FIC hosts events periodically, but not necessarily annually. While we participated in and supported a record eight community-focused events last year, we produced none of our own. Hence no money was spent in that category, nor was there any income. Others years will be different.

o  The Kickstarter campaign (which was the springboard for my blog, Sprinting to the Finish Line) was specifically targeted to help with Communities Directory—the print version is a line item under Community Bookstore, and the online version falls under Website. 

When we last printed the Directory in 2010, it appeared that there weren't enough sales of the book to justify printing it. That is, if we printed enough copies to get a reasonable price per copy, we'd be tying up the capital for too long. However, in recent years print-on-demand technology has improved to the point where that's now a viable option, and the viability of the project looks quite different when we only need to front the money to cover production labor.

o  While all of our programs make money when you look solely at direct expenses, we incur considerable indirect costs running a national nonprofit, including:
Executive Director salary
Accountant salary
Business Manager salary
Missouri office staff
Virginia office staff
Office utilities
Office supplies
Office rent
Board travel subsidies

Gross profits in the program areas need to be sufficient to cover Office & Overhead.

FIC's Development Strategy
One of the six main budget areas outlined above is Development, which includes membership, fiscal sponsorships, fundraising, and relationship building with people who like the cut of FIC's jib. 

It's worth noting that FIC did no fundraising its first 10 years, as we tried to make ends meet by just relying on user fees and people working as volunteers. Since 1997, however, we've changed our business model to purposefully include fundraising.

In general our Development strategy is to find a solid match between what we want to do and what a donor wants to see happen. We pair the donor's resources (money and connections) with our ideas and implementation know-how. It's a partnership. Though every conversation does not end in a good fit, we do pretty well.

We raise funds for our activities in a variety of ways: user fees, volunteer labor, earmarked donations, and general revenues (if there is a surplus in one area we may use it to cover a shortfall in another).
Because a) our policy is not to undertake a project unless we have the money in hand to do it well—or a clear pathway to it, and b) we have no shortage of ideas of good things to do (see long-range goals below), we are frequently in the position of trying to be creative about ways to increase revenues. On occasion we do so by running a crowdfunding campaign. (The one we just concluded in support of a new print version of Communities Directory is only the second one we've ever done.)

With crowdfunding you want to be as specific as possible about how the money will be used. That said, toward the end of the Directory campaign we had a special opportunity. We had already reached our funding targets and wanted to take advantage of the final days to see what would happen if we widened the pitch to support some of our additional funding goals. This was not done because we were confused about our needs or unsure how to use the money from the campaign. It was our being flexible about how to direct the money once the primary target had been achieved.

FIC's Long-range Goals I revealed a number of specific goals in Sprinting to the Finish Line:

o  Covering travel for our Executive Director to Mexico to make a public presentation to Alberto Ruz, winner of the 2016 Kozeny Communitarian Award.

o  Increasing travel subsidies for Board members to attend our semi-annual face-to-face meetings.

o  Seed money for future events.

o  Paying down debt on our new green office, that we moved into last spring. 

o  Helping to gather enough funds to hire a new Development Director.

Here are five more wide-sweeping ones as well:

—Hosting a summit among sister organizations that hold a core commitment to promoting community and cooperative culture—to explore developing greater cooperation among entities promoting cooperation (radical, eh?).

—Figuring out how to create and sustain a viable coalition of networks to form the newly christened Global Ecovillage Network of North America.
—Partnering with entities such as Transition US, worker collectives, and university sustainability programs to make common cause when it comes to pioneering sustainable practices.

—Puzzling out how to host events that are affordable to a wide range of our constituency, while at the same time providing enough income to decently compensate the core event staff.

—Doubling the paid subscriber base of Communities magazine to 2500.

While the Board talks about strategic goals and makes adjustments at every Board meeting, we conduct a major overhaul about once decade, which we are in the midst of right now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Road to Wellville

No, this isn't another movie review (though there is a semi-obscure 1994 comedic offering based loosely on the life of corn flakes inventor John Kellogg and his staunch enthusiasm for the health benefits of consuming his breakfast cereal and other equally quirky health ideas promoted at his Battle Creek MI sanatorium at the turn of the 20th Century).

Rather, this is an update on my battle with lower back pain.

One of the main things that I've been battling the last month is not just lower back pain, but the fact that I need to see a doctor in order to get prescription pain medications (Naproxen and Flexeril) for my lower back pain.

Because this latest flared-up occurred while I was 3000 miles from my home in NC, I first had to be well enough to travel to Urgent Care. While that worked the first time, I resumed my holiday travels afterwards and faced the same thing all over again when I was wiped out by the trip from Las Vegas (visiting Jo) to Duluth (where I'm currently convalescing with Susan).

By then the original prescription had run out and it took me 13 days from the onset of the latest inflammation to recover to the point where I could even walk to the car. The last round was triggered by my body's reaction to myofascial massage; my body was not able to absorb the deliberate, gentle manipulation without responding in pain. The irony is that I knew I needed the stronger medication to be able work my way back to normal functioning—to the point where I could begin rehab through physical therapy—but I wasn't well enough to manage the trip to the doctor's. Ugh.

Then, when I did get well enough for that (yesterday) I strained myself so much in the journey that it will take me a couple days for the secondary spasms to subside around my rib cage. (I feel like I was in a street fight.) The best news is that the doctor's visit is now behind me and I've refilled my prescriptions. This last month has been quite the roller coaster.

On the one hand, I need to get up and move around as part of my healing regime; on the other I need to not overdo it, triggering a setback. Where's the line? Mostly I try to pay attention to my body, and not ask it to do things that bring about discomfort such that I can't breathe through it.

Although I'm sure there will be more bumps ahead on the road to Wellville, I'm hoping they'll not stress my overworked shock absorbers too much, and that I'll be able to travel by the end of next week.

About the only steadfast thing about the last month is that I haven't been tempted, even once, to eat corn flakes.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Foyle's War

I haven't lived with a television since my set was stolen out of the living room of the group house where I was living in 1972. We replaced it with a ping pong table, and I've never gone back. 

That means that when I visit friends and relatives—virtually all of whom own televisions—it's a chance to catch up on what's worth watching on the boob tube (if you believe anything rises to that standard). Sometimes that means finding out about a program after the fact (such as the two seasons of Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night, that aired in 1998-2000), which was a terrific piece of comedy/sports/drama that fearlessly tackled tough moral issues through the medium of a TV sports program forever chasing ESPN and Fox in the ratings. The casting was brilliant, the personalities of the main characters were well developed (warts and all), and the scripts and editing were crisp.

Visiting Susan in Duluth this mid-winter, my stay has been unexpectedly extended by debilitating back pain. As I convalesce, Susan has been introducing me to the wonderful world of BBC drama. First it was Sherlock, the newest reincarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brilliant and enigmatic London detective from the 1890s. In this case, the setting is contemporary and features Benedict Cumberbatch as his nibs, with Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. (Martin is probably best known for his portrayal of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's brace of three-part cinematic tours de force, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit).

Cumberbatch (to my amazement, female aficianados of his acerbic, quirky personality have adopted the nom de guerre of "Cumberbitches"—apparently a term of pride and endearment) is terrific as a patrician, eccentric, easily bored, observer of fine detail and master of deduction. Freeman's Watson is forever not-quite catching up.

This series is running now (though at the snail's pace of three episodes per season—apparently high production values also mean high production costs).

• • •
My greatest find though has been Susan introducing me to Foyle's War, a BBC detective series that ran for eight seasons totaling 28 episodes starting in 2002 and ending just a year ago. The episodes run chronologically starting just as the Battle of Britain begins in spring 1940 and continue past the end of the Second World War.

In addition to offering up a series of carefully crafted mysteries to solve each show (slanted toward black market profiteering, greed, and plain old murder), each show also portrays the chaos, horror, and moral confusion of a country at war, as well as the breakdown of the patrician class structure. Frequently, Foyle's investigations are roadblocked by military stonewalling and duplicitous superiors who are caught with their hand in the cookie jar (or is that hand in the biscuit tin?).

There are three main characters:: 

o  Michael Kitchen as DCS Christopher Foyle (for reasons that escape me, Foyle is not merely a detective; he's Detective Chief Superintendent—how many titles does one need?). Foyle is a widower who desperately wants to contribute in some greater way to the war effort, but is trapped by how competent he is at his job (and by how may enemies he makes among his superiors). Meanwhile he operates out of the sleepy, historic town of Hastings, on the south shore of England—just the width of the Channel from occupied France.

o  Quaintly, Foyle types his own reports but does not drive. Thus, he was assigned a driver at the start of the series: a young woman from the motor pool: Samantha (Sam) Stewart, played by Honeysuckle Weeks. She is curious, vivacious, and spunky. Occasionally she gets to conduct some of the inquiries, or even go undercover.

o  To round out the team, Foyle is given Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (played by Anthony Howell). He lost the lower half of one leg early in the war, fighting in Norway and thus is exempt from further military service. But he learns to walk with an aluminum prosthesis and, ironically, does much of Foyle's leg work.

o  As an occasional fourth player, Julian Ovenden portrays Andrew, Foyle's son and an RAF pilot active in the defense of Britain's skies. While proud of his son, Foyle is also scared to lose him.

While it's painful to watch Foyle be held in thrall to British, stiff-upper-lip stoicism, where men rarely admit their feelings, at the same time he runs counter to stereotype by being a careful and patient listener who has an unerring instinct for bullshit and dissembling.
Though I've always been partial to well-done British mysteries (think PD James and John le Carré), what sets Foyle's War apart is the way the stories go right into the heart of human moral dilemmas, fueled by the desperate urgency of war. It's compelling drama.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Sprinting to the Finish Line

Tomorrow—at 4:35 pm Central time, to be precise—the Fellowship for Intentional Community's Kickstarter campaign will end. We set a goal of raising $6000 in 60 days (with Kickstarter you don't get any of the money pledged unless you reach your goal) to raise money to create a new print edition of our Communities Directory and to overhaul our online version at the same time. 

I'm pleased to report that our pledges now stand at $8001. That's good, but we can do better.

As a measure of how much I believe in the Fellowship, I am making a commitment during the final hours of our campaign and I hope you'll join me. For anyone making an additional pledge between now and tomorrow afternoon's closing bell, I'll personally match it dollar for dollar up to $500. Just click here and make a donation.

What would we do with the money (given that we've already secured what we need for the Directory work)? I'm glad you asked. We have no problem thinking up good ways to apply additional support. Here are five easy pieces that can use immediate help:

o  Covering travel to Mexico in April to present in person the 2016 Kozeny Communitarian Award to Alberto Ruz

This year, for the first time, we have selected a winner of this lifetime achievement award who does not live in the US. In fact, because Alberto lives a nomadic life that emphasizes action, support, and celebration over personal gain (very like what Geoph Kozeny did, in whose remembrance we created this award) Alberto is doubtful he can obtain a US visa. 

In any event, we always try to make a public presentation of this award in front an appreciative hometown audience, and this year that means going to Alberto's seasonal home in Mexico, the intentional community of Huehuecoyotl. There will be an important international gathering there in April, the Forum on Nature's Rights, where Alberto will be making the case for why Nature should regularly be given a seat at the table when proposals impacting the environment are discussed.

Sure, we could mail the award, but where is the solidarity in that? Sky Blue (our new Executive Director) is poised to go if we can raise the money.

Target: $600

o  Boosting travel subsidies to attend semi-annual organization meetings

This has traditionally been a small item in our annual budget, but we've realized in recent years that we need to make it bigger if we're serious about creating a more robust intergenerational and geographically diffused presence on our Board. If we intend to be a North American organization, then we need to face what it takes to bring people together from all over North America. 

Electronic technology allows us to do a certain amount of clever substitutions of virtual meetings for face-to-face gatherings, but there comes a point where people simply need to smell each other and breathe the same air in order to develop the depth of connections needed for our kind of work to thrive. We cannot afford to limit participation to those who can afford to cover their own travel costs.

Target: $1000

o  Capitalize an event seed fund

Ever since the FIC hosted the six-day Celebration of Community in 1993—bringing together 1000 people from all over the world—we have been in the event business, We love producing (or helping others produce) community-focused events where participants get both down-to-earth practical information about how to build and maintain successful communities, and a taste of community at the same time.

It will help us be more nimble and able to take advantage of emerging opportunities if we have a seed fund that will cover up-front costs of an event (think marketing, promotion, deposit on the venue, and core staff salary) before money from registrations, sponsorships, and advertising starts reversing the cash flow.

Target: $5000

o  Pay down debt on our new green headquarters

Last year FIC moved its headquarters from a breezy, thinly insulated '70s-era house trailer to a tight strawbale building with solar panels on the roof. For the first time in 28 years we had a sustainable building in which our staff answered inquiries about options in sustainable living. It was about time.

To accomplish this we took out a loan, Now we have to pay it back. While the terms are favorable, and we've aggregated a bit of the money needed to retire the debt, we still have a long ways to go, and it's prudent to keep chipping away at it.

Target: $25,000

o  Set aside funds to cover 18 months of salary for a new Development Director 

When I stepped down as FIC's main administrator last month, we reorganized the way we're doing business. Instead of one person acting as the central node we shifted to a team of three: an Executive Directory (Sky Blue), a Business Manager (Christopher Kindig), and a Development Director (currently vacant).

Unfortunately, our initial attempt to fill the Development Director position didn't work out and we have to start over. That includes manifesting enough money to cover that person's salary for 18 months, at which time we'll expect them to be generating enough income to cover their payroll. While we cannot afford to hire that person today, we cannot afford to build a future without someone regularly thinking about development and fundraising. 

To get out from under this Catch-22, FIC is making it a priority to manifest this funding in 2016. I figure we may as well start now.

Target: $27,000

• • •
So what do you say? I'm personally putting my money on the table if you act before tomorrow afternoon at 4:35 pm Central. 

Will you match me?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How My Approach to Clients Has Evolved

I've been a cooperative group process consultant for 28 years. Over that time I've made a number of adjustments to how I approach clients I'm seeing for the first time. While I have an a la carte menu of 12-14 training workshops (which has gradually grown from about three when I first started), most of the time I'm asked to tailor a program to the client. Generally that means there's a specific problem that the community has struggled to successfully address on its own, and there's the desire to learn how to handle that issue better in the future.

There is also a predictable range of support for bringing me in—all the way from yippee! to why do we need him? My liaisons to the group are generally from the yippee! crowd (which means that resistance may be understated) and I can count on the under-enthused to either skip the meetings that I'll facilitate (not infrequently they arrange for an "unavoidable" road trip during my visit) or constituting a skeptical peanut gallery. It goes with the territory.

My job is to arrive, sell myself as someone competent, and pull a rabbit out of the hat—all within 24-48 hours. Over my nearly three decades as an out-of-town gunslinger, I've adjusted my approach in some significant ways, all of which have increased the likelihood of my being effective. Here are half a dozen ways in which I work differently today:

I. I like to watch
It is often highly beneficial to observe a group in action before I start facilitating. While I rarely get the chance to do this (we're paying you to watch?) I can often see details and areas of struggle through observation that the group is not even aware of. Further, it helps me land my points about the theory of how to run good meetings if I can refer to actual, awkward moments while they're still fresh in everyone's mind.

II. I like to interview members up front
It used to be that if I was hired to work Saturday and Sunday that I'd show up Friday evening, and I'd jump into it from a cold start. Not any more. 

I've learned that it's better, if possible, to do considerable spade work before the plenaries begin. Talking with designated liaisons is good, but there's a danger of getting too little breadth of viewpoint relying solely on one or two spokespeople, plus I've discovered that it can help put everyone at ease if I arrive on site a couple days early (say Wednesday evening) for the express purpose of meeting with group members one-on-one or one-on-two for the purpose of their telling me directly what they think I ought to know, and to give them a chance to ask any questions about me. 

Not only do I get a richer picture of what's going on (having heard from many more voices), but the group feels that much more comfortable with me because I've already demonstrated my ability to listen carefully and to understand the complexities of community life. Thus, on Saturday morning I can hit the ground running.

Though I don't generally charge for those extra days, the payoff is huge. What happens in the pre-interviews? I generally ask people to address questions like the following:
o  What’s precious to you about living at community x? 

o  What challenges exist at community x for you, such that if they were resolved it would make your life there measurably better?

o  Is there any kind of support or improvement in community life such that if you got it, you’d be motivated to invest more personal time in the community?

o  What do you want me to know about community x?

o  How do you think we should focus the plenary time?

In all of the above, please be as specific as possible.

III. I try to combine theory and demonstration
Time is always at a premium—there is a definite limit to how many topics on which we can usefully engage. One of the ways I've learned to stretch things is by laying out theory (say of how to work constructively with conflict, or an effective way to manage an issue through plenary), followed immediately by a demonstration of the theory on a live example. That way the group gets both progress on the particular concern, as well as a demonstration of the pattern that they can apply to future concerns of the same ilk.Two for one.

While this approach entails some risk (what if the demonstration doesn't go so well?—it is, after all, unscripted), it's a wonderfully effective way to ground the learning. Groups will tend to remember the example more vividly than the theory.

IV. I write reports
I took me several years to understand that groups typically absorb only about 20% of what they're taught orally. Too much is happening in a tight time frame for all of it to be absorbed. 

This led me to make two important adjustments: 
a) Developing handouts to make plain the theory I want to teach, so that they can be referred to after I'm gone.

b) Writing an extensive report (that I commit to delivering within two weeks of the live work) that provides an overview of what happened, my commentary about what happened, and my observations and recommendations about where the group might usefully work in the work future.

That way, much more of the good that we accomplish has legs.

V. I like to meet with the process folks early and late
If possible I try to meet with the process folks (or facilitation team) of the host group. They are typically the group that will be responsible for making system changes (or at least shepherding the conversations about changes) and my preference is to meet with them both first thing when I arrive on site (so I understand well their needs and how I can best support them) and then again after the plenaries are over so that we can discuss why I made the choices I did and how I can support them carrying on after I depart.

This step makes it much more likely that forward momentum will be sustained.

VI. I will not duck the hard stuff
While there's a fair amount of pressure on me to be effective (the community has invested considerable time and money in working with me, and, understandably, they want value for their investment), I've learned that it's my job to tackle the hard issues, to the extent that the group is willing to go there. Sometimes this means taking the issues to a level of examination that is beyond what was asked of me, but once it's in the room, there you are.

While this doesn't always go well, I feel it's my duty to make an attempt if I can see a constructive angle of approach. One of the mantras I pass along to clients is "Have faith in the process." So this is a matter of integrity and walking my own talk. (Group process work is seldom dull.)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Groupthink and Creativity in Community

I recently received this comment about my blog of Jan 3, Working in the We Hours:

Nice. Still though, there is research that says, people are not the most creative in groups (as in brainstorming). But rather when they have a chance to (also) brainstorm privately. I would love to know your views on that, and on groupthink more specifically. I find that close communities, whether traditional or ICs, for all their virtues, promote groupthink via peer pressure. The ol' "I have to live with these people, so I better not be honest." 

This is a good topic. Cooperative culture is not about producing and maintaining a mind meld. Nonetheless, you do want people to exercise appropriate discipline, by which I mean:

o  Speaking on topic
o  Avoiding repetition
o  Keeping an open mind (especially when someone says something surprising or a odds with your views)
o  Looking for ways to connect ideas, rather than pitting them against each other

There is an important difference between not rocking the boat (going along to get along) and having a positive attitude about finding a mutually agreeable path forward.

In my experience, the key element is the way the group handles the Discussion and Proposal phases when wrangling with an issue. [For more detail about these phases, see Consensus from Soup to Nuts.]

1. First of all it's important that the group treats them as separate phases, to be completed in sequence. That's both because you want different energy for the two phases, and because you need the output of Discussion phase to know what screens to use for assessing proposals.

2. In Discussion phase you're trying to identify the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account—setting the table, as it were, for the problem solving that will come next. By keeping proposal generating assiduously separate from factor identification, it protects the group from short circuiting that can occur when by dancing back and forth between the two. If someone mentions a potential factor in brainstorm mode and it's immediately followed by a statement undercutting the suggestion, or by riffing on how to address it, that either dampens creativity or diffuses energy—neither of which is a good thing.

For brainstorms to work well they need to be free flowing and unevaluated until after all the input has been gathered. Critical comments midstream inhibit the flow, which directly relates to the question about the susceptibility of intentional communities to groupthink. The way to avoid a gravitational pull toward conformity (groupthink) is the adequate care and feeding of differences: are they welcomed, or attacked? 

In a voting environment ideas have to survive in a shark tank, where the operant rule is survival of the fittest. The potential of cooperative culture is not realized unless it is robust enough to make it safe for members to express dissent. To be clear, members should always be thinking about what's best for the group, but that should not produce lock-step thinking, or deferral to what the leaders say.

Here are other thoughts about ways communities can be on guard against groupthink:

3. If whole group brainstorming doesn't work for some members of the group, you can mix it up by doing it first in small groups and then aggregating the results in the whole circle (sure there will be a lot of overlap, but you will have protected some aspects of creativity). Alternately, you could give everyone a sheet of paper and 10 minutes to silently brainstorm before the ideas are collected. The value in not doing either of these things is the potential for one person's answer to creatively trigger an inspiration in another. This kind of synergy is sharply curtailed (or even lost) if brainstorms are always done in small groups or alone.

Sometimes you have to be creative about formats in order to protect creative input.
4. All of this said, it's true that there can be pressure to conform in intentional communities (this would all go a lot easier if you'd just go with the flow). I think this comes from arrested development of the group's culture. In particular, being stuck in what Scott Peck styled "false community," the first of four stages:

false community
true community

In false community, members act nice with one another before a solid basis for connection has been established (fake it til you make it). Dissent is suppressed, and expressing disagreement is seen as a social faux pas. There is the veneer of unity, but it's brittle and shallow. In true community it's OK to disagree, because there is sufficient social fabric for the group to hold dissent without tearing the group apart.

Seen through this lens, communities that are stuck in the first stage may indeed be susceptible to groupthink, but that shouldn't be the case in groups that have reached stage four, where the closing quote from my reader gets turned on its head:

I have to live with these people, so I better be honest.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Talking About Aging in Community

Almost all intentional communities do not expect to be able to provide support to members through end of life. While it may work out to provide that for some, there are a number of reasons why it may not work out in all cases. This essay is focused on what a group is likely to encounter when addressing the topic: What Are the Limits of Support for Basic Needs that the Community Can Provide Members with Diminished Capacity?

I. Asking for help
Some have no trouble being a squeaky wheel, and others would rather die first—literally. This means you have to expect that the threshold of when to ask for assistance will vary widely, to the point where some will request help with a want while others are suppressing requests for help with a need. You may have to get very specific about the kinds of support the community is willing to assist with.

II. Care Committee
In recognition of this, I think you want a mechanism whereby it's as easy as possible for people to step forward with their needs. This probably translates to a standing committee—let's call it the Care Committee—perhaps with a mandate that looks something like this:

o  Periodically canvasses the membership discreetly, to ascertain if anyone is suffering from a condition requiring assistance. 

o  When someone is known to have suffered a health setback—either temporary or permanent; physical or mental—or is observed to have diminished capacity that suggests they may need help, this committee is authorized to approach the member in question to inquire about their needs.

If it's determined that the member needs help, the committee will help develop a message (to be sent to members only) that apprises the community of the situation and makes clear what kind of assistance is requested. The expectation is that the content of the message will be developed with the aid of the member needing help, such that they approve of what everyone is being told.

If help is needed, the tasks will be specifically described and the committee will help identify a volunteer who is willing to serve as the Care Coordinator for that person.

To be clear, the community is not guaranteeing that other members will step forward to meet the needs; it is only making sure that everyone has accurate information about the situation and that offers to help are funneled through the Care Coordinator.

o  In addition to being available to members approaching them for help, the committee will have a responsibility to the community to see that rights are appropriately curtailed if it's deemed that the member's capacity has diminished to the point where they cannot function responsibly or safely. This could cover such things as exercising a right to block plenary proposals, or being allowed to drive to town to pick up kids after school. In handling this duty it is expected that the committee will work closely with family members and close friends of the member in question.

o  The committee will take primary responsibility for shepherding through community process any issues or suggested policy adjustments in the arena of support for members needing assistance in getting their needs met.

o  The committee can serve as a limited resource in helping members transition from living in the community to living elsewhere if conditions are such that the member's basic needs cannot be met if the member continues living in the community.

III. Waiting too long
This a delicate topic. As such, groups often put it off until they have members in need of help, which greatly complicates the conversations because you're essentially setting limits that will be immediately applied to individuals at or close to need (don't you love me any more?) This is an example of how waiting works against the group. It may be a tough topic pre-need, but it will be veritable hellhole if you delay policy developmnt until you need to apply it.

IV. Resources will not be evenly distributed
You have to expect the amount of resources available to a member suffering diminished capacity will be quite different from one member to another. Here are reasons why:

o  Partner in residence
It makes a big difference whether the person in question is living alone or with a domestic partner—someone able and highly motivated to supply help.

o  Money in the bank
There is also going to be quite a range in terms of the financial resources (cash, home equity, and strength of insurance) available with which to hire assistance.

o  Social capital
The willingness of other members to come forward to provide home health care assistance will be directly related to the affected member's social capital, which roughly is a measure of how much more the member in question has given to the community than what they taken. If a member runs a high balance, then the community is far more likely to be there for them in their hour(s) of need. If the person was not much engaged in community life, then that's likely to show up here.

o  Graciousness of the person receiving assistance
In addition to one's track record as a community member over the years (see the previous point) it matters how a person handles aging (and possibly pain) emotionally. For some, their spirit expands and there is a heightened sense of appreciation for the gift of assistance. They are grateful and let those around them know it. For others, their spirit shrivels and they become curmudgeonly. Those folks aren't very fun to be around and it directly impacts how much others are willing to volunteer care. (It's the same lesson that Dr Seuss so entertainingly related in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)

• • •
Having said all this, it's important that the community be as even-handed as possible in what support it provides members in need: the reaching out to gather accurate information about needs, the appropriate sensitivity and discretion in disseminating it, the coordination of support, and the help in transition when it's no longer possible to live in the community.

Taken all together, it's a lot to handle, but I think these are the inevitable challenges the community faces and it's doable to handle them as long as there's the will to discuss matters openly and with heart. Remember, you are not promising that members can stay in the community until they die; you are just promising to do what you can without swamping the boat.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Working in the We Hours

One of ways in which normal groups vary is in the preferences among members about when in the diurnal cycle to have meetings. Mostly people clump at either end of the spectrum, with some favoring meeting at first light (or perhaps after their first cup of coffee) and others preferring to burn the midnight oil (or at least meeting after dinner).

There is no right or wrong to this; there are just preferences. Night people tend to be only partially present if you meet earlier than 11 am, and morning people tend to be like chickens—not worth much after the sun goes down.

Perspicacious readers may ask: what about the afternoon? Well, that's nap time for many. To be sure, you can neutralize the tendency toward the soporific by a thoughtful choice of topics (something controversial perhaps) or a careful selection of formats (something interactive), but on the whole, it has been my observation that afternoons are rarely anyone's first choice for when to hold meetings. In general, people prefer to meet in the wee hours: either early or late.

This is worth discussing because groups typically develop the habit of holding plenaries at the same time of day. This simplifies planning, yet it almost certainly means that the timing will favor some members and disfavor those who are not hitting on all cylinders at that time of day. In short, regularity of meeting times translates into an unintentional bias in the playing field.

Maybe that can't be helped (for example, there may not be sufficient flexibility in members' schedules), but have you asked? Mixing it up can go a long way toward balancing input. Mind you it's not a panacea: you still need to be concerned with the reality that not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of a more than four people, and not everyone is equally quick to know their thoughts or be ready to articulate them. Nonetheless, mixing up meetings times will help.

Another thing that will help is getting everyone on board with doing the personal work needed to consistently assume a curious attitude when presented with different opinions than their own, especially when the stakes are high. Cooperative living is about trying to build and sustain cooperative culture, and that requires unlearning our deep conditioning in competitive culture—where we learn to fight for our opinions. This requires that members are motivated to make the adjustment to regularly thinking about what's best for the group ("we" thinking) and less about personal preferences ("I" thinking).)

This is what I meant by the title of this essay—that time of day doesn't matter nearly as much as timely attitude. When groups are first learning to make this transition it often makes a critical difference if there's skilled facilitation present, to help remind everyone of the way they meant to be with each other, but tend to forget in the heat of the moment.

To be clear, I am not advocating "group think" where everyone rushes to join the opinion of someone else and disagreement is viewed as immature ego management. In a healthy cooperative group, disagreement is welcome, because there is the opportunity to shed more light on the issue at hand; it adds different perspectives, which makes it all the more likely that the best solution will be found.

The gold in cooperative culture is not "I" thinking, nor is it eye-for-an-eye thinking, nor is it I'm-more-eloquent-than-thou thinking; nor is it us/them thinking—it's we're-all-in-this-together-and-we-need-soluions-that-don't-leave-anyone-behind thinking. We need to be meeting during the time of day where we're most centered (least distracted by everything on our personal To Do Lists) and least reactive, so that we can listen well and be creative. Those are the we hours.