I recently worked with a group that hired me after they had struggled for a year to make a difficult decision. They were looking for assistance with four things:
a) How to finally make the decision (their inability to cross the finish line was eating them up) while at the same time avoid calling for a vote, if possible. Voting was on the books as a backup to consensus yet had never been invoked, and they were leery of how a split vote might harden hearts.
b) Regardless of the decision, the group knew it needed to recover from the relationship damage that had been sustained over the prior year. The community needed to heal and was uncertain how to go about it.
c) Help identifying the lessons from the hard time.
d) What tools could I leave them with that would help them avoid repeating the exhausting experience they had just gone through.
Though I was principally hired to wrangle the group to a consensus decision, they were happy to have me arrive early (Wed night) and stay through Sunday, which allowed me sufficient room to facilitate five hours of plenaries, sit with committees for four hours, and interview individuals for 13 hours.
One of the pivotal moments came Saturday morning when the whole group was gathered and I asked people to respond to the question, "What, if anything, do you want others to know about what has come up for you in the context of this issue and the way the community has been working on it?"
Everyone was given a chance to speak once, and almost everyone did. It took us 80 minutes to get around the room, but I knew this was an essential building block of the healing process, since so many had reported to me in 1:1 sessions that they did not feel heard. There was no cross talk and no discussion; people just listened.
While most of what was said was not a surprise, there were a handful of revelations—especially with regard to analysis and depth of anguish. Two strong themes that emerged from that sharing were: a) many reported feelings of guilt (either about what they had done, or about what they had not done in connection with the presenting issue); and b) a significant minority described feelings of martyrdom (doing more than they felt comfortable doing, to the point of resentment, even though no one had asked them to do so much).
Because it's so common for people in nonprofits to feel either guilty or overworked (sometimes both!) this is where I want to focus today's essay.
o Dynamics of Volunteers
There is always much more work to do than paid staff time to accomplish it. This leads to relying on volunteers at all levels: everything from filling Board spots, to filling coffee pots; from taking a few minutes to meet with visitors, to taking minutes at a few meetings; from running to the store to get flip chart paper, to running off hard copies.
People's life circumstances vary widely. Anything from retired in good health with no kids at home, to two rugrats in a household where both parents work full time and can only scrape together 30 minutes of discretionary time once a week (before bed Saturday night) to read a magazine, change the sheets, or make love (pick one).
People's motivation to do more than their fair share varies widely, based how much they identify with the group, how intrinsically interesting they find their work, how they've been raised ("giving back" is a powerful motivator in some households, while "charity begins at home" is cross-stitched over the fireplace in others).
In the land of volunteers, recognition is the coin of the realm, yet all coins are is not valued equally. Some prefer that this be handled quietly, behind the scenes—perhaps via a hand-written note or a privately delivered bouquet of flowers. Others want their name in lights, or engraved for posterity in pavers prominently displayed on the patio flooring of the new building. Nobody is wrong; they're just different.
o Dynamics of Uncertainty
Not knowing fully what's going on, do you assume the best or suspect the worst? When you encounter a fog (lack of clarity) do you tend to hold back until the fog lifts, to avoid the potential embarrassment of a misstep, or do you step right in figuring it's simpler to secure forgiveness than permission (and you have no qualms about breaking a few eggs en route to an omelet)? Hint: it's not so much that there's a best path in this situation as that there are multiple lenses through which this common circumstance will be viewed, and there needs to be some compassion around the near-certainty that different folks will navigate this differently— without anyone being branded a jerk or cold-hearted.
o Dynamics of Structure
When structure is high, people who like that find it relaxing and reassuring (you know where you stand and what's expected). If you don't like it, it's a straight jacket that forces one-size-fits-all solutions, eliminating nuance and respect for individual differences (we are people, after all, not automatons).
Alternately, when structure is low, people who favor that will appreciate the extra breathing room, making it possible for creative solutions to bubble up and fill the interstices left by emerging conditions. They accept responsibility for their actions and are glad that their intelligence is not insulted by having it all spelled out. Sometimes they are able to do more; sometimes they need to do less, and they're confident that it will all even out over time. If you don't like low structure, then you experience it as dangerous or needlessly vague—initiative can be viewed as power mongering; inaction can be labeled overly timid, placing undo burdens on those who have to pick up the slack. In short, you can get in trouble either way.
o Dynamics of Guilt
The old saw is that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. Left unattended, it breeds in dark corners. In a perfect shit storm we hesitate to voice guilty feelings for a number of reasons:
—It can be excruciating shining a negative spotlight on yourself.
—If you alone sense it, you may be drawing heretofore unfocused critical attention to yourself. Now that you have alerted others to what you feel guilty about, they may join in your negative judgment, heaping ashes on your soul.
—If others don't share your self-judgment, your critical assessment may come across as unbalanced—even paranoid—calling into question your ability to read situations accurately. Left unexamined, this can lead to people sharing less with you in the future (for fear that you'll do something weird with the information) or to being more hesitant to give you assignments that require discernment. In short, your social capital can take a hit.
—While people prefer that co-workers (especially leaders) are relatively self-aware of their weaknesses and foibles, it is also true that they are generally more drawn to people with a positive attitude, who are not obsessed with flaws. After all, nobody's perfect and we have work to do. Let's get on with it. If you are devoting a substantial portion of your bandwidth to self-flagellation, how much remains for problem solving and being an enjoyable compatriot?
Of course, not being forthcoming about one's shortcomings also carries risks. (Did someone say this was easy?) If others think you should be more sensitive to how your words or actions may result in strain for others, you're in danger of coming across as callous, uncaring, or at least naive if you're not the first one out of the blocks with a mea culpa. It doesn't take very many iterations of contemplating the best course of action with respect to self-disclosure before you enter that rarefied how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin territory: where you start to feel guilty about whether or not you've expressed enough guilt. Talk about chasing your tail!
o Dynamics of Martyrdom
Here's how martyrdom works: First there exists a decided shortfall of work that needs to get done and some people respond by volunteering to do extra, in a good faith effort to close the gap. So far so good. Over time, however, the extra work becomes a burden, and this is where it gets interesting. Instead of cutting back to a more manageable workload, the martyr continues to keep their thumb in the dike yet starts claiming that they're due extra consideration in group decisions by virtue of "credit" they've earned by letting their thumb get all wrinkly—even though the group never agreed to that quid pro quo. At its worst, the martyr resents the group and the group resents the martyr, with each feeling taken advantage of by the other. Yuck!
The baseline in most nonprofits (of which intentional community is a subset) is that they have to depend both on some degree of volunteerism, and on some portion of the volunteers contributing above and beyond their fair share to the well-being and maintenance of the organization. The trick is making it clear that you do not want people contributing more than they can do freely (no strings attached), because the resentment invariably poisons the well.
So you must rely on uneven contributions, yet embrace them in such a way that it doesn't leak into martyrdom. The good news is that with diligence, clarity of purpose, and good communication this strategy will float. Without those buoyant qualities however, prepare to ship water.
o Dynamics of Accountability
Many people come into the experience of community living with the best of intentions… and naive ideas about how humans will behave. It can be shocking (a fall from grace) to realize that people don't always do what they say they'll do, and, in fact, will sometimes willfully break agreements. Now what? Some groups are paralyzed by this dynamic. They didn't sign up for holding people's feet to the fire and they resent the miscreants who visit this unthoughtful behavior on the group. Unfortunately, merely occupying the high moral ground and adopting an attitude of dismay and disdain will—along with $4—not get you much more than a good cup of coffee. Unaddressed, the impact of people being allowed to color outside the lines is a steady erosion of trust and a malignant cynicism about group agreements.
You're going to have to talk about it.
In the group I mentioned at the front of this essay, one of the most disturbing elements was how many people told me 1:1 they were disturbed by what they saw others doing yet were unwilling (to date) to approach them directly to discuss it. There were some instances where this had been going on for more than two years. Not good.
While some people automatically associate accountability with consequences, it's rarely that simple. (Yes, there are times when there's an obvious and natural option: when a person repeatedly fails to clean and sharpen the community chain saw after using it, they may lose their designation as an approved operator.) In general, I find it more productive to focus the conversation on the carrot (improved relationships and social capital) rather than on the stick (loss of privileges, fines, and a trip through the spanking machine).
o Dynamics of Clearing the Air
Once you've screwed up your courage to have that conversation, my strong advice is to set it up well. First, ask for a good time to share some critical feedback (don't assume that what's good for you is good for them). You might give the headline, without giving the feedback ("This about following our agreements about chain saw use") so that the recipient's imagination doesn't veer into overdrive. Sometimes people feel more at ease if there's a third party present. While you shouldn't agree to conditions that don't feel safe to you, the prime objective here is to have a constructive exchange, so I urge you to give as much ground as you can in the set up.
Once the talk begins, keep in mind that yours is not the only truth in play, and that there needs to be a full opportunity for each player to say what they believe happened, what feelings came up for them about that, and what meaning that sequence has for them. It will serve you well to remember that you may have a mistaken perception or you may not be fully aware of the circumstances.
I advise that the goal here should not be so much about punishment and consequences as about eliminating the problem in the future and repairing damage to relationship. You can aim to secure an affirmation of the agreement that the behavior is unacceptable—even though you thought the group already had that agreement. Now you've made sure: a) that others are clear about that as well; and b) that if the objectionable behavior persists that there will be another conversation. If the perpetrator thought it might go unnoticed or be allowed to slide by, you have disabused them of that.
Alternately, the conversation may go in other directions. It could, for example, uncover ambiguity or dissatisfaction with the agreement that needs plenary attention. Further, it is not unusual to learn that a person is breaking an agreement in part because they witnessed someone else break that agreement and not get called on it—thus, the problem may be bigger than you knew.
(While there is occasional need for policy about how to handle a pattern of agreement breaking—where the same person fails repeatedly to keep agreements despite attempts to point it out—this drifts into the territory of involuntary loss of member rights and is beyond the scope of this essay.)
The thing is, guilt, blame, martyrdom, and the desire to punish are all common fauna in our zoo of alternative culture, yet none are helpful. I have written this essay on the theory that we need to thoroughly understand their living conditions and breeding habits if we're to have a chance of expunging them from the many places in our culture where their presence persists. We have to learn to neither feed nor pet the dangerous animals, and it is my hope that this tour guide will be instructive in that effort.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
I recently worked with a group that hired me after they had struggled for a year to make a difficult decision. They were looking for assistance with four things:
Friday, December 23, 2016
Today I'm making a $1000 year-end donation to the Fellowship for Intentional Community and I want to tell you why—in the hope that it may inspire you to write a check of your own.
FIC has been around since 1987, when a group of dedicated individuals with fire in their bellies came together from across the continent to explore a common dream: to promote a more cooperative world. Out of that modest beginning—perhaps 20 people with high enthusiasm and no bank account—over the course of three decades the Fellowship gradually built a viable network, founded on the premise that the intentional community experience can be a beacon of light in dark times.
Though only a small fraction of the population will ever live in intentional community, where property is jointly owned by a group that has coalesced around common values, I am convinced that there is a broad-based societal hunger for a greater sense of community and belonging in our lives—something that we used to have in greater abundance and that has been degraded over the course of our lifetimes. (If you question that conclusion, just reflect on the enmity and lack of civility that characterized our recent Presidential election. We are a seriously fractured society.)
Thus, FIC operates at two levels: a) serving in the trenches, making available the hard-earned lessons about what distilled from those who have gone before, and helping groups find prospective members who are a good fit; and b) repackaging those lessons so that they can be exported and usable wherever people want more community in their lives.
While FIC estimates that there are perhaps 100,000 people living in some form of intentional community in the US today, there are easily 100 million who are the audience for the larger mission. Because FIC makes do on annual budget of around $150,000, they've gotten exceptionally clever at stretching dollars. Their budget has no fat.
o Though I retired from front line work with FIC a year ago (my only remaining task is a pleasant one—convening the Award Committee that organizes nominations for the annual Kozeny Award for lifetime achievement) my heart remains solidly behind its efforts to promote cooperative culture based on the cutting edge work of intentional communities to puzzle out what it means to be socially sustainable. Is this work crucial today? Do we need a better response to society's challenges than Donald Trump?
o My work as a group dynamics instructor and consultant is rooted in over 40 years of community living. Just as soldiers refer to battlefield experience as "on the job training" there is no more grounded way to understand group dynamics than total immersion—it's not a hobby for me, it's been my life. And I know of no richer or more complex classroom in which to learn my craft than membership in a secular income-sharing intentional community (in my case, Sandhill Farm)—where everything is on the table and you have to work it out with everyone you live with. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.
o If you are an individual, FIC makes available the resources needed to better understand the options available in group living: why people do it, what challenges they face, and what the rewards are. Their Communities Directory can be an invaluable aid in helping you find out who's doing what and where.
o If you are an intentional community, FIC's Directory provides lifeblood support—both through its free listings, telling the wide world that you're out there (the online Directory supplies information to over 100 different people every hour around the clock), and by helping you locate those who are on the same path as you—groups who may have already weathered similar challenges. (In today's world you no longer have to go it alone.)
o If you are part of a cooperative group, the Fellowship is pleased to supply you with in-depth information about how your organization can function better, based on workable solutions pioneered in intentional communities. (Though my 30-year-old consulting practice has been centered around helping communities, I field an increasing number of calls to assist nonprofits, churches, schools, and workplaces, where there's burgeoning interest in the nuts and bolts of how to develop and sustain cooperative culture.)
o Communities magazine was launched in 1972 (FIC took over as publisher in 1992) as the accreted pre-internet vision of seven cooperatives scattered across the US who saw the need for chronicling what's happening in the protean world of community living. Though this periodical has operated at a deficit almost every year, it has survived on a shoestring circulation of around 1000 paid subscribers and the rock-solid dedication of an underpaid staff and a publisher who thoroughly believes in its mission.
o I almost died of cancer last winter, and paying for my extraordinary medical care almost killed my bank account (even after the substantial cushions of Medicare, supplemental insurance, and the generous support of friends were brought to bear on my situation). While my cancer is currently in remission (knock on wood) it can come back at any time and there is no crystal ball that can tell me with any certainty what kind of savings is prudent to accumulate against that possibility. Though it's awkward knowing what amount of money I can reasonably afford to free up from my limited supply without jeopardizing my health, I know that FIC needs my support now, so I'm writing that check.
o Amazingly, today I have prospects for some period of high-quality time in front of me. As someone who was recently dancing close to death (and who may suddenly find himself again on the brink at any moment) I have given serious thought to how best to use this gift of additional time. I believe I am called on to continue my work to build a more cooperative world, and to give back as much as I can to all who will follow.
o When done well, donations are a collaboration, matching the donor's dollars, skills, and connections with the recipient's energy and know-how. Everyone benefits. I am not asking for a handout; I'm asking for a partnership.
o With 30 years in the field FIC has amply demonstrated that it knows how to build connections, how to be discrete with sensitive information, how to be even-handed when representing the incredible breadth and diversity of the Communities Movement, and how to represent to the media the relevance of the community experience to a culture that is sick with adversarial dynamics and unjust practices.
o In these extraordinary times the Fellowship needs extraordinary support. I invite you to give like your life depends on it. That's how I'm seeing it. To make an unrestricted donation click here. Donations are tax deductible. To become an FIC member as a show of baseline support (and receive benefits in return), click here.
If you're looking for a meaningful last-minute holiday gift—either for yourself or a loved one—consider a gift subscription to Communities magazine. To subscribe or renew to Communities, click here.
Any and all of these steps will help.
Together, we are making a difference.
Monday, December 19, 2016
I've been working seriously with secular consensus since Sandhill started in 1974. Although the bulk of my learning has been distilled from living it (on the job training), I participated in a five-day consensus and facilitation training taught by Caroline Estes at her home community (Alpha Farm) in 1987, and I started my career as a group dynamics consultant later that same year.
As consensus—in one or another of its many guises—is by far the most common form of decision-making in intentional communities, and communities are the foundation of my consultancy, I have necessarily been hip deep in consensus for the last four decades, the last three as a professional.
As someone who believes firmly that meetings should be enjoyable as well as productive, I look for occasions where whimsy can seamlessly be inserted into the flow without sacrificing continuity or efficiency. One such place—and the subject of today's essay—is the specific moment when a group is poised to make a decision.
Much of what happens in a meeting is informal (thank god)—things like where to focus the conversation, what topic to address next, whether a summary is good enough, or when to take a break and for how long. While these questions may have gravitas in the moment, they are procedural matters with a short lifespan and will promptly be covered over by the sands of time. This class of decisions stand in sharp contrast with binding decisions about budget or policy—things you want carefully captured in the minutes and the agreement log, ad which may impact the community for years.
While it's generally not that big deal if you're loosey goosey about procedural decisions, you don't want any sloppiness when it comes to policy agreements. Thus, it tends to be a good idea to have some kind of ritual by which group members indicate whether they're in agreement (green light), standing aside (yellow light) or blocking (red light).
A number of groups employ colored cards for this purpose, both to indicate the nature of their comments during discussion, and to indicate their position when testing for consensus. Essentially, each member raises a card at the key moment instead of their hand. Other groups use thumbs (up=yes; sideways=stand aside; down=block). Some are more nuanced, such as relying on the number of fingers held aloft to indicate their degree of support:
0=Over my dead body
2=I can swallow
4=I'm liking it strong
5=Best thing since pockets on shirts
Some more adventurous groups really go for the gusto—I once encountered an art collective where people gave a hearty pirate Argh! to signify affirmation. Opa! (At least in my presence rum was not involved and no planks were walked.)
Really, anything can be done so long as the meaning is clear.
Is Silence Golden… or Iron Pyrite)?
A word of caution. It's not such a great idea relying on silence=assent. While it's tempting to reach for this time-tested Quaker standby (after all, the strongest roots of secular consensus are traceable to the worship practices of the Religious Society of Friends, and they like silence=assent) don't be seduced! I counsel against mum's the word, since silence is so easily misunderstood. It can mean any of the following:
o I heard you and have no problem
o I'm confused and don't know what you want
o I'm thinking and not yet ready
o I didn't hear you; I'm oblivious
o I'm so angry that I can't speak
Yikes! Since guessing is a poor strategy, it's better to rely on something proactive and unambiguous. Best is using a symbol that is not used for anything else—so that its employment is crystal clear. (Arghing, for example, is unlikely to be confused with anything else—unless your group is reprising Peter Pan or rehearsing for The Pirates of Penzance).
I figure this is just the kind of opportunity I like: bring out the clowns and the dancing bears! Maybe it could be a perk of facilitating (or a bonus for volunteering to take minutes)—you get to be queen for a day and announce the consensus ritual de jour. It's OK to have fun; just make sure that it's also obvious.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Here's a picture taken last Saturday night, as the New England facilitation training class unwound at The Pizza Stone, just a few doors down from The Karass Inn, where we were gathered in Chester VT for an intensive three-day weekend. Starting on the left is Alyson (my co-trainer), Clinton, Laird, and Steve, followed by Sue, Valerie, Leslie, and Mary continuing around the horn.
You can see the detritus of dinner strewn around the table. Though the food and drink were scrumptious, we were worried about a restaurant where our group was a majority of their customers during the 6:30-8:30 stretch on a Saturday night. That's not a great business model. Of course, having the place more or less to ourselves helped our group hear each other across the table—something we often struggle with—and we got excellent service. (We're hoping that they were just caught between seasons: with leaf peeping behind them and skiing dead ahead.)
I decided to share this image because it saves 1000 words, helping make clear the potency of the class engaging in ways other than in the classroom. Alyson and I endeavor to teach facilitators to work with the whole person (by which we mean the emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and perhaps spiritual, as well as the rational) and that means walking our talk—teaching the whole person and purposefully engaging the students at multiple levels. Laughter and singing, for example, are used liberally (who wants to be grim all the time?) and tears are never far from the surface when we dance close to the bone.
Thus, we shut down the classroom around 5 pm each Saturday (after being at it nonstop since 9 am Friday) and step out together. On the occasion of last Saturday the skids were greased by Clinton, who just so happened to bring a bottle of homemade mead from Buffalo—which helped us shuffle off to dinner with smiles all around even before anyone had ordered their first beer.
While drinking is optional during the off-hours of our class, it's advantageous as an accelerant when you want to let your hair down. (Of course, after chemotherapy this past summer I don't particularly have much to let down, but it's slowly growing back, nicely paralleling my body's ability to handle alcohol again. These days I have a drink about once a week instead of the near daily intake of a year ago—and that's plenty.)
While we prefer a larger class (10-12 is ideal, balancing greater income without compromising individual attention and opportunity), from a learning perspective half a dozen is terrific. With smaller numbers there was plenty of breathing room, allowing us to tease out the tangled threads of personal distress whenever we encountered tender knots—which is a difficult thing to schedule.
Since first launching this two-year facilitation program in 2003, I've delivered the training in its entirety eight times and have three more currently underway (in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and in North Carolina), and two more on the drawing boards (one in the Mid-Atlantic States and another in Colorado). While I've tweaked various aspects of the program over the years, some things worked well right out of the starting gate and have become bedrock features:
o Whenever possible I work with a co-trainer (preferably a woman for the gender mix).
o Weekends always begin with a Thursday evening check-in, followed by teaching that starts full bore at 9 am Friday, and continues through a Sunday afternoon closing.
o The main approach to teaching is to learn through doing. While there is plenty of time for questions, typically two-thirds of each weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings that the students facilitate for the host group—with the trainers in the room as a safety net in case the students lose their way or are ineffective.
o Although we almost always work into the evening on Fridays, we scrupulously take a break after Saturday afternoon. The students tend to be running on fumes by then anyway and need time to recharge their batteries. Instead of accomplishing that by dispersing in solitude, we encourage the class to eat out together (at some inexpensive nearby restaurant with decent acoustics and a liquor license). We eat ravenously—it takes prodigious quantities of carbohydrates both to facilitate and to learn about facilitation—and laugh until our sides ache, followed by an early bedtime. (Hint: if you can't laugh at yourself this training will kill you.)
o At some point or other everyone goofs up—including the trainers—and that moment invariably becomes grist for the mill: another fucking growth opportunity.
Leslie (the Québécoise sitting second from the right in the photo above) mentioned Sunday that she once met a woman who was able to listen to a discussion and then weave the essence of what she'd heard into a pithy poem. (Wow!) In that spirit I offer this ditty entitled Facilitation Feedback, sung to the tune of Wells Fargo Wagon (from the Broadway hit musical The Music Man):
O-ho facilitation feedback's comin' to our group,
—with apologies to Meredith Willson
Monday, December 12, 2016
There's a prevalent style of facilitation that's mostly passive—where the person running the meeting isn't doing much more than deciding who'll talk next, punctuated by the occasional need to blow the whistle, perhaps to signal that time has expired or to announce a restart, either to referee moments of fulminating tension or to cut through the fog of creeping chaos.
In the interest of safeguarding their neutrality—necessary to be an effective referee—facilitators will often adopt a style that scrupulously steers clear of offering suggestions about how to handle issues on the table. As a facilitation trainer, however, that's not what I teach. Rather, I prefer that facilitators be open to the possibility of their having insights into good solutions that can accelerate bringing the ship into a safe harbor.
This is my thinking:
o Mostly facilitators are members of the groups they facilitate. As such they typically have in-depth knowledge of both the players and the circumstances surrounding the issue. Why shut down a potentially valuable voice when it comes to figuring out what's best? I'm not suggesting that the facilitator's input should carry any more weight than anyone else's, only that it not be discounted, or disqualified.
o On a more subtle level, good facilitators have typically done a considerable amount of personal work to become aware of their competitive conditioning and the ways that we have inadvertently been trained to focus on differences more than similarities. Thus, facilitators can be particularly valuable when searching for common ground.
[It works like this: in mainstream Western culture there is an extreme emphasis on "I" (in contrast with a potential focus on"we"). A consequence of this is an obsession with how we are distinct in any situation—because the "I," a culturally driven imperative, can get lost when wallowing in similarities. Thus, when the glass if half full we learn to quickly hone in on the empty part ahead of the half-full part. Even though both are equally true and solutions are invariably built on common ground, most people have been conditioned to see disagreement ahead of agreement. As such, they can be slow to see potential solutions lying right in front of them. In that dynamic a facilitator who has worked to unlearn their competitive conditioning may see viable connections between positions that others miss—until the facilitator articulates the potential bridge. It's not so much that the facilitator is brilliant (though that's a possibility) as that people tend to find what they're looking for and facilitators often have trained themselves to see common ground. It can be like Magic Eye autostereograms: obvious when you see the underlying three-dimensional image yet totally mysterious when you don't.]
o At the end of the day, it doesn't matter much where a good idea comes from so long as the energy behind it is solid. (I know that I'm articulating a cooperative ideal and that in reality ego enters the equation more than I'd prefer to admit—where it matters on a personal level if the germ of the prevailing proposal came from you—yet it still behooves us to move in the direction we intend to go.)
o There are, I think, two keys to this working well. This first is that facilitators do their best to remain neutral about the outcome and restrict their suggestions to ways of putting together elements that have already been articulated by the group. The image I hold is that it's OK to mold the clay, but please only use clay provided by other group members; do not slip your own clay bodies into the mix. The litmus test is that it should be relatively easy for group members to connect the dots—to see how the threads of your proposal were derived from input given by others.
o The second key is that facilitators present their offerings with grace and humility. Not with a large bow wave that makes it difficult to express reservations. If members of the group feel that the facilitator is pushing, selling, or arm twisting, there is considerable risk of sacrificing their neutrality, which can be very expensive. Keep in mind that this admonition obtains even if the idea is brilliant. What you need to track closely is not so much the quality of your thinking (about which there can easily be divergent views) as the quality of its landing. If there is hesitation in the reception, the facilitator needs to back out of there; not fight for their idea. You should think of your suggestion as a gift. Much as you'd like it to be embraced, if it is spurned, so be it.
o To be clear, I am not suggesting that the facilitator hide their light under a bushel. It's OK to be excited and enthusiastic about your suggestion; just be sensitive to the response and not bowl anyone over. If the succeeding idea mainly comes from a different direction, try to be equally celebratory (hurray we solved the problem!) and not subdued because your idea didn't turn out to be the stairway to heaven.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
surprised to discover that in the last decade economics has become
increasingly interesting to me as a social change agent.
My surprise is not so much that economics should have a seat at the table when discussing the elements of sustainable culture—that made eminent sense to me right away. The shock is that I might be sitting at the table, helping to articulate the economic elements of the better world we're all aspiring to manifest. I never saw it coming.
Today's offering is a collection of 10 interestingly-shaped pieces of the economic puzzle. While I cannot promise that they can be assembled into a compete picture they suggest a different relationship to economics. See what you think.
1. The Big Canvas
For more than half my life I've identified cooperative culture as my lode star. As someone who wants to make a positive difference in the world, I screen all of my work through the fundamental question, Is this in service to building a more cooperative world? Mostly I've devoted myself to pursuing this through promoting and understanding community, and how individuals relate to it.
That's a plenty large enough field to play in, and there's no danger of running out of meaningful work. For decades it was compelling to focus strictly on how people functioned in a community context. Where did they fall into the ditch, what skills were essential to getting out of the ditch, how to work conflict constructively, how to balance "I" and "we," how to work non-rationally—stuff like that was my milieu and the bulk of my consulting work has fallen within those lines of inquiry. I've even been around long enough to help shape what the questions are.
Gradually, however, I became aware of larger questions. In particular, what is right relationship between social interactions (the heart of community) and resource consumption (ecology) and how we make a living (economics)? What does an integrated package of sustainability look like?
As I became aware of the three-legged stool of sustainability—ecological social, and economic—it was immediately apparent that all three legs were not equally robust. The ecological thrust has been most prominent (the first Earth Day was 46 years ago, and I can even recall a conversation with my high school science teacher in the late '60s about the pros and cons of a new text book that approached biology through an ecological overview—a radical concept at the time). For many today, sustainability is tantamount to ecology. The first and only images they hold are of solar panels, spotted owls, and recycling barrels.
In recent decades though, there has been quite a bit of progress made in bringing into wider awareness my leg of the stool: social sustainability. I've invested heavily in understanding the nuts and bolts of cooperation. I've learned how it breaks down and how it can be salvaged or repaired. I've traveled all across the continent offering everything from workshops in cooperative theory to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Satisfyingly, over the span of my professional lifetime I've witnessed a decided uptick in awareness of social sustainability.
That brings us to the poor stepchild that is the third leg: economics. It's the one that's least written about and least well understood. In contemplating this, I believe a huge factor is that the progressive elements most inspired by a sustainable future have a marked tendency to suffer from arrested development. In particular, they have not gotten past the biblical admonition that "money is the root of all evil."
Sustainable economics necessarily requires one to get comfortable with the concept of fair exchange, but it's damn hard to navigate that territory if you find money—the primary medium of exchange—to be inherently grubby and soul crushing. To be clear, I'm not offering paeans to money; I'm saying it is what we make of it, and it's not going to work if all economic exchange is smeared with the oleaginous face cream of prostitution and exploitation.
2. The Big Canvass
Terry O'Keefe and I are going to be delivering a workshop at next May's National Cohousing Conference (May 19-21 in Nashville TN) entitled "Community as Economic Engine." In preparation for it we're working with the Coho Association of the US on an economic survey.
We'll be finding out how many communities currently partner with their members to enhance their economic situation. Overwhelmingly, non-income-sharing groups (about 90% of the total) wash their hands when it comes to helping members meet their economic nut. Terry and I think they can—and should—do better. In addition to banging the drum, we'll roll up our sleeves and suggest ways to do it.
3. Carrier as Belwether
Last week President-elect Trump did some serious jawboning with Carrier, the huge HVAC company in Indiana. They were poised to close down gas furnace manufacturing operations in Indianapolis and move nearly 1000 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico, where Carrier could pay workers $3/hour instead of $25/hour—realizing a neat $65 million in annual savings. It would have been a no brainer except for the fact that Trump had made a big deal out how he was going to put a stop to this very thing—outsourcing US jobs to foreign countries.
Given that Indiana is a very red state (and the home of Vice President-elect Pence), Carrier's proposed move would have left a very red President-elect (take your pick between embarrassed or angry, though the latter seems easier to access from what I've seen).
In the end, Trump succeeded in getting Carrier to rescind their move. But what really happened? No new jobs were created; rather, Indiana Governor Pence saved jobs (in his state) by offering Carrier unspecified "major concessions" that compensated them enough to forego their putative labor savings. And it does not take an MBA from Wharton to connect the dots between this deal and the sensitivity of United Technologies (Carrier's parent company) to retaining its favorable position at the trough regarding lucrative contracts for jet engines and other defense-related equipment.
Because Carrier has annual gross profits of $4 billion, the Mexico move only represented a gain of 1.6%, which they were willing to put on the table in exchange for concessions and public relations credit (it's interesting to speculate on what value Carrier assigns to not being in Trump's cross hairs).
When the smoke clears what have we got? We can be sure that Carrier protected its primary mission: making money for its shareholders. And Trump came through on a campaign promise to stop outsourcing. But what does protectivism have to do with "making America great again"? Are manufacturing start-ups now more likely to site plants in Indiana than Mexico? I don't think so. How long will it be before another major company gets the bright idea to announce plans to move operations out of country, trolling for another round of "major concessions" because Trump needs to avoid the embarrassment of failing to keep an uneconomic campaign promise?
Trump held up the hands of time for 1000 jobs in America's heartland, but it is hardly a blueprint for a robust economy. Progressives need to stop ceding economic territory to an energetic vampire like Trump.
4. Intersection of Economic and Social
In our efforts to articulate a better world (not just complain about the injustices of the one we've got) little attention has been focused on how the social and economic can, and should, be allies. Fortunately, there is considerable overlap between the two. The skills needed to resolve differences creatively in consensus are essentially the same ones needed to sort out thorny issues in economic diversity.
We need to be doing a better job of integrating the various parts of our lives into a cohesive whole, not straining the seams. Suppose you have a dream job in the city that pays top dollar, coupled with an idyllic house in the burbs with a great school for your kids—but there's just one problem: these two gems are interconnected by a brutal, bumper-to-bumper 90-minute commute twice a day, five days a week. How integrated is that (and how's your blood pressure these days)?
5. Intersection of Work and Value
When people complain about their struggles to find work, I've learned that what they really mean is their struggles to find good work. And "good," I've learned, distills down to values match. Though salary, flex-time, security, benefits, and a boss who respects you all come into the conversation, the bottom line is whether the inherent nature of the work—the actual good or service produced—is consonant with what you value in life.
Thus, the fundamental economic challenge can be boiled down to this: how can I be paid a decent wage for doing work that I believe in? Once you understand this, life becomes simpler. Yes, it's more difficult if you are risk averse and non-entrepreneurial (because it can be too scary to try living on less income in order to have a better values match, and there are fewer options if you have to depend on others to create a job that will work for you) but everyone has choices.
We are not raised to think this way. For that matter, we are not raised to contemplate what are values are, much less how to assess job opportunities for a match with them. Instead, we are taught to prioritize income and marketable skills, and then use the money to buy what we want. The model we are offered is that if each person maximizes their potential (makes as much money as possible) all boats will rise on the flood. But that's way too simplistic. Income in a vacuum is too often vacuous (read spirit killing, which can be very expensive).
To be fair, jobs are available in a spectrum; not just sorted into categories of good and evil. And there can be a world of difference between jobs that are value-neutral (perhaps domestic cleaning) and those that are value-negative (say, marketing inferior products). The power in this analysis is appreciating the full value of a good match—where work is life affirming, rather than a necessary evil that allows you to pay the rent and buy groceries. Once you taste work that is value-aligned it spoils you for settling again for something less. When your heart is in it, it doesn't feel like "work." Your battery doesn't drain as fast. You recover more quickly and you're a joy to be around. It's addictive (in a good way).
6. Disassociation of Money from Security
One of the biggest lessons I learned from community living was how to get a better handle on the concept of security. As a young adult I didn't think much about it. I focused more on opportunity and how to be a positive influence in the world. In an effort to recapitulate the combination of stimulation and support that I experienced in dormitory living as an undergraduate (at Carleton College, 1967-71), I stumbled onto community living at age 24 and never looked back.
When, through a combination of intimate misadventures, I would up leaving intentional community 40 years later, I looked up and discovered that a lifetime of being economically generative had left me with very little money in the bank. I had been living in income-sharing situations since 1974 and had not been accumulating anything in my name. While I was safely under the economic umbrella of partnerships (first my intentional community, Sandhill Farm, and later my marriage) I lost that protection when those associations ended.
My initial response was to simply go out and make more money. While that started off well, my vulnerability caught up with me when I got sick last winter and discovered I had cancer. While my bank account was starting to swell, I hadn't gotten very far before work was derailed and I was facing horrific medical bills—a complete financial reversal. Fortunately I was already on Medicare and had purchased a strong supplemental policy that provided a substantial cushion.
For all of that however, I was still financially exposed and completely without the protection of my prior partnerships. As someone who had been active in the Communities Movement, I had been writing and presenting for years about the advantages of group living, especially if you redefined security in terms of relationships rather than bank accounts. Well, my cancer inadvertently afforded me the occasion to field test that theory.
Perhaps the most humbling experience of my life was the unabashed outpouring of love and support I received once word got out about my battle with cancer. I was completely bathed in caring energy—even from people I didn't know but whose lives had been touched by a workshop I once gave. This, I came to appreciate at a visceral level, was what it meant to redefine security in terms of relationships. No amount of money in the bank could substitute for what that meant to me, or the role it played in my being able to push the cancer into remission. It has been a team effort.
The cherry on top was that when I put out a discrete call for help with medical bills (through this blog last July), 30 friends responded and the gap was closed. Yes, money made a difference. But that was the medium; friends and relationships were the foundation.
If you are able to make this transition, it is incredibly freeing when it comes to how you budget. You need less income when you are not salting it away against a rainy day. If you can afford to work for less it widens the horizon in your search for work with an excellent values match. Depending on your circumstances you can even consider volunteer work. This is a quality of life issue, where bedrock is happiness.
7. Marriage of Entrepreneur and Non-entrepreneur
Although it took me about three decades to see this, it's useful to absorb the following reality about a typical cooperative group: in almost all cases there will be a significant minority of members who identify as entrepreneurial, and a clear majority who identify as not. This is an important insight because the profiles of these two groups don't align easily.
Entrepreneurs are risk tolerant and tend to not depend on the approbation of others to feel good about themselves. They are comfortable in their own company and tend to prefer low structure (read minimal red tape).
The majority are the reverse, and one of the main challenges achieving group health is figuring out how these two disparate groups can play well with one another. It can be a bitch.
To add to the joy, community founders, almost by definition, tend to be entrepreneurial as pioneers. It takes a certain kind of craziness and audacity to envision a successful intentional community—much less attempt one—and no small amount of chutzpah to pull it off. That said, once a community is established it depends on a steady diet of settlers joining the experiment in order to sustain it, and settler qualities tend to be non-entrepreneurial. Talk about fun. (Did anyone promise that community was easy?)
Why hasn't more attention been given to this? Both are always going to exist and we need models for how they can be allies instead of irritants.
8. Integration of Entrepreneur and Community
Another angle on this same dynamic has to do with how the group relates to its risk-takers. Ironically, even though intentional communities are radical social experiments, they tend to be obsessed with their own stability, which leads to the development of a generally conservative atmosphere—not so much regarding politics as internal experimentation.
The upshot of this is that groups tend to view their entrepreneurs with a jaundiced eye (while we love them as our very own, we wish they wouldn't come up with so many boat-rocking ideas). Precious few communities have directly addressed this issue—perhaps because they don't understand that it's happening; perhaps because they're afraid it will lead to a witch hunt.
As we know, however, that we resist persists. By failing to tackle the issue of risk management head on, the result is that it's decided in the trenches. Entrepreneurs adapt by either conducting end runs (under the theory that it's easier to get forgiven than to get permission) or by taking their energy elsewhere.
9. Difference Between a Good Idea and a Good Business
A lot of folks fail to understand that having good product sense is not the same as having good business sense. While having a superior product or service is a definite advantage, it doesn't guarantee black ink at the end of the year. The business world is full of cautionary tales about how the better product lost because it was outmarketed (think Beta versus VHS; or FireWire versus USB).
To what extent are cooperative groups helping their members with business advice? Answer: not nearly enough. This problem needs to be worked from both ends. Entrepreneurs need to swallow their pride and ask for help (what do you mean it doesn't count if you get assistance?); cooperative groups need to get over thinking that helping to develop values-based business plans as contamination with filthy lucre (who, after all, is pure in this vale of tears?). The point of this is to help everyone. Not only will the entrepreneurs be rewarded, but as their businesses succeed they'll be better able to employ non-entrepreneurs, who want good jobs.
10. Local Answers not Federal
Circling back to my third point about Carrier, I believe that economics—just like politics—start at home; not with government subsidies. While markets can be as wide as make sense (and with today's information-based products that can be as far as broadband ethernet can reach, which is just about everywhere), the foundation of right exchange is local. Instead of doing everything myself (or doing without), I trade to you what I'm good at or have in surplus and get in exchange something that you're better at than I or can afford to share. If we both give good value we're in integrity and both of our lives have been enhanced. Everyone sleeps well at night. It's that simple.
Small towns die when they lose their economic base. When local stores are franchises and not locally owned (think Walmart), profits are siphoned off to out-of-town shareholders and wages drop to legal minimums. People are no longer working for Uncle Fred, Grandma Gutierrez, or Ole Johansson—all of whom care about whether your daughter is sick or your dog just had triplets; they're working for Lord Farquaad or his moral equivalent. The good news is that this trend can be reversed. Buy locally. Give a damn.
If the viability of our businesses was rooted in our home communities—instead of leveraged off of investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation allowances—we'd be inflation proof and wouldn't give a hoot what the wage rate was in Guadalajara.
It's something to think about.
Monday, December 5, 2016
I borrowed the title for today's blog from the long-time advertising slogan of Coca Cola. It's one they first introduced in 1929.
I had taken a break from blogging after giving thanks the Friday after Turkey Day and haven't posted anything since… until today—an occurrence notable enough that it seemed worth commenting on. That 10-day publishing hiatus has been by far my longest period of epistolary interruptus. So what's been happening, you ask? My health has continued its mostly unremarkable improvement , Susan and I are getting along just fine, and I've been unusually busy crafting proposals and assembling reports (not necessarily to determine who's been naughty or nice, but you get the idea).
Lest readers worry that my fount of creative composition is drying up, I was so a-bubble with ideas last Saturday that I arose to jot down notes at 5:30 am, before they dissipated like the brilliancies of dreams that evaporate as the sun peeks over the horizon. (To be sure, it was a confusing moment for Lucie—our eight-year-old rescue dog who enjoys nocturnal squatter's rights on our bedspread; she didn't understand why the light was on—but she soldiered on, putting her head back down as I scribbled away.)
o I want to explore cooperative economics more comprehensively. Increasingly, I suspect the literature is missing key elements.
o I want to examine more closely the art of teaching and the tarantella of dancing between being a practitioner (out of town gun) and an instructor (disassembling the parts so that students can discern the sleight of hand of the artful facilitator).
o I want to delve more deeply into how we understand cooperative culture, and why the shift away from our competitive overculture is so urgently needed.
o Why are people so poor at listening? And so reticent to write?
o I want to celebrate the miracle of how much good we humans are able to do in the world despite our feet of clay, our fumbling awareness, and the myriad excuses we have to be fucked up beyond functionality.
o What is the right way to apportion attention among practicing the craft of facilitation, reading about facilitation, teaching facilitation, and writing about facilitation? Ai-yi-yi!
So there is a lot to write about. Whether Lucie thinks so or not.