Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Fog of Consensus

Back in 2003, there was a powerful documentary released called The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara (Kennedy's Secretary of Defense) offered a mea culpa about his role in perpetuating and expanding the Vietnam War. He painfully explained how hard it was to know what was actually happening in the chaos of war. In hindsight, he regretted his role in that American tragedy.

As a long-time observer of cooperative groups that struggle with inclusive decision-making, it has occurred to me that may groups suffer from an analogous malady: the fog of consensus, where they get bogged down in disagreements and don't see the way through.

I was recently sent the following explanation of how a group makes decisions. Notably, this is was the output of a carefully considered process to learn about consensus:

The group makes decisions by consensus as defined by the following:

A. After discussion, the presider of such meeting will first ask who is for and then who is opposed to the action being voted upon.

B. If there is one or more persons present opposed to the proposed action, further discussion will be held to ensure that all points of view have been heard.

C. After completion of such additional discussion, the presider will again ask who is for and who is opposed to the proposed action and shall then call the vote on the action for recording in the minutes of the corporation.

D. Any member may request that the proposed action under discussion be held over to the next meeting, in which case, the members present will decide whether or not to so hold-over according to steps A, B and C of the above process.

Oh boy. Here was a group that genuinely wanted to be inclusive yet never got off to the right start. I have a number of concerns with labeling this group's process "consensus." As you read my comments, please keep in mind that this process is meant to be a thoughtful, respectful adaptation of consensus. (I shudder to think what we'd get if the group intended mischief.)

1. Notice how decision-making is described in terms of voting. While this is a natural extension of what we learned from student council meetings growing up and by observing the US Congress, it is not how consensus works.

What's laid out above is a form of majority voting in which serious effort is made to resolve differences such that proposals are passed without dissent, if it can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time—where “reasonable” is defined by a majority of those present at any given time. It is, if you will, a nicer form of majority rule—but the power still resides in the majority, rather than in the whole.

To embrace consensus, participants need to understand that it necessarily entails culture change, purposefully moving from a competitive culture to a cooperative one. You have to view meetings as an opportunity to have your mind changed, rather than as an occasion to convince others of the superiority of your viewpoint. It is, to be sure, not easy to effect this change, but it is possible and can lead to wondrous results if you make the investment. To be fair to the group that drafted this process, many groups stumble over this foundational point.

2. I am hopeful that it was an inadvertent mistake to imply in Step B that ensuring "that all points have been heard" only happens if there is dissent regarding the proposal. Wouldn't you want to start with that? Wouldn't you want to start with that every time?

3. In my experience, a good facilitator does not test for consensus unless they feel it is in the room. While anyone can make a mistake in discernment, I find it counterproductive to ask for consensus when you know it isn't there. It just puts pressure on the minority to acquiesce (while simultaneously sending a signal to the majority that they can ease off because they'll win the vote if it comes down to one). Instead of encouraging groups to redouble efforts to find a middle way (where bridging prevails), testing prematurely for consensus tends to frustrate groups and draw participants back into a competitive mind set (where advocacy prevails).

4. Under Step D, a request to table a proposal (because there was dissent at the last vote) has to be supported by a majority of the members. Think about that. It means that people who voted for a proposal must now agree to set that decision aside in the interest of members who don't feel good about the proposal. While that might happen, it's a high bar.

Taken as a whole the majority is under no obligation to work to find an alternative solution to the proposal that they support. In consensus, everyone has a good faith obligation to work toward a solution that everyone can agree with. In turn, individuals have a responsibility to make sure that their concerns are rooted in group values (as distinct from personal preferences). The individual's right to stop a proposal single-handedly, is paired with the responsibility to not abuse it. Under the system outlined above, the group has protected itself from the possibility of an individual monkey-wrenching the process (enabling tyranny of the minority) by allowing individuals to be outvoted (enabling tyranny of the majority). 

Haven't we had enough of that? Isn't it time to try something else?

5. Notably, there is no mention here of how the group develops proposals; how it intends to delegate; how it will protect the rights of members who miss a meeting to have a say in proposals brought up in that meeting; how it works through differences; how it responds to emotional input; or how it trains new members in its process. Nor does it attempt to describe the culture it is striving to create. That's a lot of missing parts.

6. Although subtle, notice that meetings are being run by a "presider" rather than a facilitator. While it is not spelled out what a presider is, I am concerned that it may be the president or a committee chair—people who are not necessarily neutral on the topic at hand (when you think about the power that resides in committee chairpersons in the US government you'll get a better sense of how the person who runs the meting has the potential to steer things in a direction they favor). In consensus you want a disinterested facilitator. but nowhere is that spelled out in this document.

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