Friday, June 23, 2017

Beware of One-Trick Ponies

There is a trend in cooperative group process that has me worried: the tendency to offer one-size-fits-all solutions to complex dynamics.


I can understand the seductiveness of this. (Wouldn’t life be simpler if we had a handful of straight forward techniques that could reliably get us through the hard spots?) We yearn for magic beans (clear answers), and there is no dearth of practitioners who offer up their pet modality with the promise that if you only learn their approach your problems will be over, or at least easily managed. 

The difficulty with those claims—of which there are a growing number—is that none can deliver utopia on demand. Perhaps some of the time, but not all of the time. People (and therefore the groups into which they accrete) are simply too complex for their dynamics to be reliably broken down and resolved with techniques that can be digested in a weekend seminar.

To be sure, there are principles that serve as reliable guideposts (the imperative of acknowledging distress before attempting problem solving; the need for known channels of feedback whereby one member can pass along critical information to another about their behavior as a member of the group; meetings will occasionally be experienced as unsafe without agreements about how you’re going to work constructively with emotional input; healthy relationships are the lifeblood of community). In addition, there are useful patterns that can be learned (groups will include both the risk tolerant and the risk averse—you might as well get used to it; go rounds in large groups invariably take a long time and are highly repetitive; people process information and organize their thoughts at different speeds; rational discourse is not everyone’s best language).

But there is not just one right way to do things, and those who try to convince you otherwise are selling snake oil.

Hear me correctly: I am not saying that sociocracy, ZEGG forum, restorative circles, and nonviolent communication have no merit. I'm saying that they are not panaceas.
 
They all have strengths and can work spectacularly at times. However, my experience informs me that all of them have moments where the gold is revealed to be only a veneer; where the luster can be tarnished in the heat of the moment and the base metal core exposed.

All of them have been oversold. If a practitioner tells you that their approach has no downside and works well across the board, be very afraid.

If you witness an approach to group dynamics that works well, there’s an understandable urge to learn that approach. So far, so good. My advice, however, is that you don’t stop there. Test drive other approaches to similar dynamics so that you can pick and choose among them. Your prime directive should not be how to operate with the fewest techniques (looking for the one true way); it should be what’s most effective. Give yourself options.

Becoming nuanced and effective with cooperative group dynamics is not so much about learning a formula (if A happens, then do B) or operating from a playbook. It’s more about having an understanding of principles and developing an instinct about which to apply in emerging conditions. While it’s an excellent idea to create a plan ahead of time (to feel into what you expect to encounter), you have to be willing to scrap your plan and go off script in the dynamic moment—because that’s what the situation calls for. Your pole stars are two: 

a) What approach do you think is most likely to help the group reach its objectives for the meeting, recognizing that your answer may change over the course of the meeting?

b) How can you move forward enhancing relationships (rather than degrading them) and without leaving anyone behind?

If your course of action addresses both questions well, you know you’re in the sweet spot—never mind how well it aligns with your original plan or your favorite technique.

If you see someone do something terrific using only a hammer (or read a book that extols the virtue of hammers), there is a risk of falling in love with your hammer and neglecting the other tools in your kit. Over time, if you’re only using your hammer, a subtle change can occur: everything starts looking like a nail. (After all, it’s natural to want to justify your investment, and it can be embarrassing to admit that you may be overly relying on one tool.) 
 
The problem is that dynamics remain as messy and complicated as they ever were, yet if all you see is nails then out comes the hammer. Have you ever tried to cut a board or turn a nut with a hammer? Don’t let that be your group.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Game On

When I grew up I played a lot of cards and a lot of board games—Monopoly, Careers, Clue, Risk, Parcheesi, Life, Scrabble—that kind of thing. Games were an enjoyable way to learn math, strategic thinking, statistics, economic principles, and even geography.

In my teens I expanded my repertoire to include chess, go, and bridge.

When I was a young adult there was a new round of games: Diplomacy, Rummikub, Scotland Yard, Uno, followed by the family of train games by Mayfair—starting with Empire Builder, and eventually extending to Eurorails and Iron Dragon.

In the '90s the pace picked up. I was introduced to the breakthrough Eurogame Siedler von Catan (Settlers of Catan in English) designed by Klaus Teuber. Eurogames emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They also tend to have economic themes rather than military and are more likely to keep all players in the game until the end.

Designed for 3-6 players, Siedler allows opportunities for players who are lagging behind to slow down the leader, and offers multiple winning strategies. The best version (for my sensibilities) is the Cities and Knights expansion, employing the fish feature and a deck of 36 cards substituting for all possible rolls of two dice. Over the past two decades I've played this game hundreds of times and it remains an all-time favorite.

Then came the no-dice games of which there are now many: Puerto Rico, Trajan, Hansa Teutonica, Caylus, and the games of Uwe Rosenberg, notably Agricola, Le Havre, and Ora and Labora. I am in awe of constructors who can figure out how to craft a game that minimizes random chance yet remains balanced.

For those who want to do more than one thing in an evening, there are shorter games like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, and Splendor.

For the more cooperatively minded, there are a handful of offerings where players unite against the game (either everyone wins or everyone loses). Examples include Arkham Horror, Pandemic, Forbidden Island.

While there are way more games than those named above (who can keep up?), these are ones I've played most and which essentially comprise my gaming universe.

Coincident with the emergence of Siedler, my kids (Ceilee and Jo) became old enough to join me at the gaming table and it was something we did together (instead of a television, we played board games and I read thousands of pages of fiction to each of them). Sometime in the late '90s we hit upon the idea of conducting Game Days: marathon sessions where we'd play all day and occasionally into the night.
(It amuses me to observe that in the last decade Jo and I have exchanged roles with respect to board games. When she was a child I used to introduce new games to her; now it's the other way around. In fact, Jo met her husband, Peter, at a game store in Asheville NC, and they typically participate in gaming nights twice weekly. While Susan and I both enjoy games, we don't play that often.)

Game Day Rules
1. The first game is always Monopoly (which takes us experienced gamers about 45 minutes).

2. The person who finishes last in a game (or the first person eliminated) picks the next game. 

3. No game will be played more than once.

4. In addition to the games themselves, we play a meta game where we kept a running total of points earned this way:

   o  You earn a raw score of 5 points for winning a game; 2 points for second, and 1 point for third.
   o  In addition, there is a multiplier for each game (anything from 1.0 to 1.8) that is used to determine the adjusted score (taking into account the degree of skill/difficulty for that game). By definition, Monopoly has a multiplier of 1.0; for each additional game the players agree on the multiplier at start of the game.

5. The winner of the meta game is the person who accumulates the most total points over the course of the Game Day.

6. Players may selectively drop out of any game. While they score a zero for that game, they preemptively earn the right to select the next one.

Over the years there have been quite a number of people who have participated in Game Days, but the hard core—those who have most consistently indulged in this particular brand of fanaticism—are Jeffrey Harris (who lived for seven years at Dancing Rabbit, just three miles from Sandhill), Ceilee, Jo, and myself.

We tried to reprise this configuration last Friday at Jo's house in Las Vegas, but unfortunately Ceilee was not able to get away from Los Angeles to participate. Still, we had a potent gaming group: Jeffrey, Jo, Peter, and myself—with Susan flying in from Minnesota for a long weekend. While Susan decided to stand back from the intensity of Game Day, she joined us for a recreational game of Ticket to Ride Thursday evening, and a marathon game of Mah Jongg that started Saturday evening and extended into Sunday.

For Game Day we played these five games:
Monopoly
Colonia
Trajan
Railroad Tycoon
Anachrony

While Jo and Peter knew all five games, I was playing Colonia for only the second time, and Railroad Tycoon and Anachrony for the first time. Excepting Monopoly, Jeffrey was playing every game for the first time. While there's a marked tendency to be subject to fool's tax the first time you pencounter a complex game, it was a testament to Jeffrey's game savvy that he hung right in there.

After a stout breakfast we started play around 9:40 am and played until 1 am (with breaks for lunch and dinner). Notably, all four players finished first at least once, and all four of us finished last at least once. (When we played Colonia, Peter won with a score of 26; I finished dead last with a score of 23.) The competition was remarkably even, and I had a wonderful time connecting with family and an old friend. 

Given my improved health these days and the fact that Ceilee, Jo, and Jeffrey all live in the Pacific time zone, I'll be looking more assertively for future Game Day opportunities in the months and years ahead. It's hard to get too much fun and games with family and friends.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Centenary of My Father

Four days ago my father, Robert Schaub, would have been 100—if he hadn't died in 1989.

Marking this milestone, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on the influence he had on me. It turns out that it was quite a bit.

I was 40 when my father died and our time together on this earth divides fairly sharply into two periods.

I. The Early Years
This covers my birth through high school graduation, essentially my first 18 years. 

I was my father's first child, and his only biological son. He clearly loved me, and had aspirations of my taking over the engineering business that his father (Fred Schaub) had started in the Depression. It took me a while to figure out that he was giving me love and attention that he was not giving with the same exuberance to my siblings. I was his favorite; the one he wanted to grow up like him. In my early years I accepted this without reflection; just as privileged people everywhere tend to be oblivious to their advantages.

We grew up in a middle class neighborhood and I never knew serious privation. We were not rich, yet we never lacked for basics. 

The two most important educational experiences of my early years were: 
a) I spent many summers (from ages 8-16) at Camp Easton for Boys in Ely MN, where I learned campcraft and a love for wilderness canoeing. Time spent in the pristine lakes and rivers of the Precambrian Shield became precious to me as opportunities for spiritual cleansing and renewal. It is a part of the world that is blessedly unspoiled by humans, where life reduces to elementals: wind, sun, water, rock, trees, and fire.

b) My junior and senior years in high school I worked on the school newspaper, The Lion, under the guidance of faculty adviser Kay Keefe. I learned journalism and the art of writing clean prose—something that has paid dividends ever since. It was also my seminal experience with leading a team. I was the editor my senior year and practically lived in the newspaper office. There were 20 other seniors on staff as well as 40 juniors (who were being groomed to run the paper the following year). I loved the camaraderie of working together toward a common goal.

I did well academically and was able to get into a prestigious school: Carleton College in Northfield MN.

II. That Adult Years
This covers my college years through Thanksgiving weekend of 1989, when my father went to bed not feeling well and was dead in the morning of a heart attack.

My time in college (1967-71) coincided with the height of the Vietnam War, and I, along with many of my peers, underwent a political radicalization. While my father continued to hold conservative Republican views, I veered sharply to the left and we never reconciled the rift. I became aware of the perniciousness of institutional racism, that Christians did not necessarily have God's approbation for all that they did, and that sexual orientation did not necessarily mean straight. These were protean times and I couldn't get enough of it.

My father, on the other hand, did not enjoy what I was becoming. He had scrimped and saved to make college a possibility for me, and I had betrayed that investment by using the opportunity to challenge almost everything he believed in. I returned home as a viper in the nest. We became two males whose ships passed each other in the turbulence of the '70 and '80s, rarely recognizing that the other's charted course had any validity as guidance for the uncertain future.

Even as I was exhilarated by all the fresh ideas and and lifestyles that I was exposed to, I was aware that there was a widening gulf between my father and me, and it left me in anguish. It got so bad that we couldn't be in the same house for 48 hours without squabbling, exchanging sniping remarks.

While I didn't expect him to agree with me, I wanted to be accepted as someone who could think differently. But I never got that. My father felt I was squandering my college education; that I couldn't stand the competition of the real world and had retreated to the obscure triviality of a farm in northeast Missouri. He was bitterly disappointed in me. 

He was a sensitive man who didn't know what to do with his feelings. There were precious few role models for emotionally aware men in those days, and my father gradually became an alcoholic as he struggled to cope. He died a fairly lonely man.

III. Being My Father's Son
Though I fought with my father for almost all of our last 20 years together, and spent untold hours trying to disavow his influence, the truth is that I am very much my father's son. While it took me most of my adult life to get there, I am now at peace with that. Let me count the ways…

•  Stable Home
I enjoyed a childhood where I was loved and secure. Think about how huge that is; how much that should be every child's birthright. Well, I had it, and I tried as hard as I knew to provide the same thing for my two children, albeit in different ways than my father provided for me.

•  Intellectual Development
Dad expected me to use my brain and I did. To be sure, I have employed it differently than he intended, but he resented that he did not have choices when he was done with school (shortly after high school he went to work for his father) and vowed to give his children something he didn't have. I benefited from that freedom and chose something radically different—something my father never imagined I might choose: to start an intentional community and become an expert in cooperative culture.

•  Insight into Relationships
Though I was pretty invested in the idea that my father was obtuse (how else explain his bulldogged adherence to what I considered antediluvian political views in the face of changing times) he really wasn't. As I think back to memories of my childhood, there are many examples of my father's insight.

Once, we were walking into a department store, looking to buy a pair of socks. My father looked ahead to the man at the information kiosk, who was absorbed in checking an article of clothing. Dad leaned over and told me, "Watch this. I'm going to go up to that man and ask a clear question. His response will be, 'What?' "

Up until then I had never heard my father predict what another person would say and I thought it fairly brazen of him to hazard a guess. In any event, we proceeded to walk up to the counter. My father patiently waited until the man looked up, at which point he spoke slowly and clearly, "Excuse me, can you tell me where where we can find men's socks?" To which the man replied, "What?"

I was pretty impressed.

•  Love of Words
My father had a passion for the English language, and he passed that along to me. Though it was just an oral tradition for him, I regularly endeavor to dust off underused denizens of the dictionary when speaking and writing. (If not I, then who?)

•  Insistence on Quality
At my father's engineering company they made high quality liquid level controllers. He insisted on it. Today, I'm a stickler for quality as well. It doesn't matter if I'm concocting tomatillo salsa, window reveals, or a magazine article; I always give it my best shot.

•  Entrepreneurial Energy
While I purposefully eschewed materialism as an adult (an in-your-face rejection of my father's lifestyle), it turns out that I'm risk tolerant and good at making money—just like my dad. It took me a number of years to work through my issues with money, but I finally came to peace with it, so long as the money has been earned in activities that are congruent with my values, and that people are not denied access to my services because of low income. Today I like making money.

IV. The End Game
I made an effort to reconcile with my father a couple years before he died. I wrote him a letter in which I owned my contributions to our broken relationship, asking if he was willing to meet me in this effort. While he thanked me for my offer he declined to own his part and we were not able to reassert the loving feelings that had been ascendant during my childhood. 

But it was important that I made the attempt. I was able to turn the corner on my anger, transmuting it into sadness. After 17 years of bickering I finally began the unilateral work of rehabilitating the memory of my father into that of the man who loved me and was doing the best that he could.

Sadly, he did not live long enough to see me blossom in my chosen fields: as FIC administrator; as creator of a self-insurance program for income-sharing communities; and as a cooperative process consultant. He did not live long enough to see that I was using my community in northeast Missouri as a base of operations; not as a place to hide.

While there is no knowing whether he would have allowed himself to enjoy any vicarious satisfaction from my ultimate successes, it gives me solace to think that he might. After all, a great deal of that success was built on the foundations he laid. 

Thanks, Dad.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Watching Acorns Sprout from My Oak Tree

Last week I got an email from my good friend María, who related an inquiry she'd received from a former client that we'd both worked with, asking for help in navigating tension that's tearing up a key committee.

My initial, knee-jerk response was, "Why didn't they ask me?" But after about 10 seconds of licking my ego, it occurred to me that a good thing had happened. A protégé was getting professional respect.

Even if you set aside my recent bout with cancer (and its dramatic reminder of my mortality) I was never going to live forever. So what could be better than to remain in the saddle long enough to start seeing my students blossom as process professionals? Now they're even taking work away from me! 

There are a number of factors that enter into this equation:

• Clients prefer to hire locally. If nothing else, it contains travel costs (for which clients are on the hook), and if they're really close, the consultant may sleep at home and commute to the job. Living in Duluth I'm hardly local to anyone.

• Mostly my students are more moderately priced than me, and clients need to count beans just like everyone else. If you don't need the high-priced spread, why pay more? 

• When I started working professionally (30 years ago), almost no one hung out a shingle as a process consultant. Today there's much more demand, and it's growing. Because I lived in an income-sharing community for the bulk of my career, I didn't need a lot of money, but I realized early on that as a market maker in a burgeoning field I could have an impact on the value people placed on process consulting. 

Living in community in rural northeast MO my cost of living was minuscule; consultants living alone near major cities need to make much more. With that in mind I gradually moved my prices up over the years, so that those following in my wake could make a decent living.

In addition, higher rates afforded me the flexibility to bring in aspiring students as apprentices. Without asking the client to pay more, I could share some of my income and give them valuable exposure (why would you hire someone who has no résumé?). I didn't have that kind of help when I started out, and I wanted my students to have an easier entrée into the field.

• How much work do I need anyway? Even though I no longer keep my foot tromped on the gas, I am getting work in proportion to my need for income, and my desire to be of service. Mostly I slant things toward teaching and coaching these days, but I still get calls—especially from old clients, and from new ones with a five-alarm fire to put out.

All together I'm getting 1-2 jobs per month and that's plenty. There's no point in coveting my students' work into the bargain. Besides, I'd like to narrow my focus to those aspects of group dynamics that are most pivotal and most complex.

As an example, three weeks ago I attended the national cohousing conference in Nashville TN. Among other things I teamed up with Joe Cole (another protégé) to conduct an all-day facilitation workshop. I let Joe cover the basics, while I focused on the parts that grab me most: those brief moments in meetings when what the facilitator does can make the most difference: when the magic can emerge. In a typical meeting there are only 2-3 of those.

Here's an outline of what I consider to be key leverage points for facilitators:

A. Riding Two Horses 
Being able to managing both content and energy, and knowing which to focus on in the moment. You also need to know when to slow down and when you can speed up; and you need to be able to tell when an agreement is in the room (and how to lasso it before it escapes).

B. How to Work an Issue  

There are three key aspects to this:

Clearing the air

While this step is not always needed, when there is nontrivial distress related to the topic you should always start by naming it. If you skip this step all subsequent work will be prone to brittleness and poor buy-in. Doing this means making room to hear upset (that means focusing on emotions), and finding out what it means.

—Identifying factors to take into account

This entails determining what a good response will need to take into account before you entertain suggestions about what to do. It's OK to make room for advocacy at this stage (though you shouldn't need to hear it more than once).

Problem solving

Which approach does the best job of balancing what needs to be taken into account? The time for advocacy has now passed; at this stage you're looking for bridging.

Note: The container that the facilitator needs to establish for each of these steps is very different and the order is crucial.

C. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee

There are several parts to this:

o  Only dealing with plenary worthy considerations in plenary

o  Having the discipline to stay on topic and not drift into a level of detail below plenary worthiness

o  Developing and using a template for establishing comprehensive committee mandates

o  Creating a thoughtful method for filling committee and manager slots

o  Establishing the habit of rigorously evaluating committees and managers

D. Getting All the Product in the Room

Many groups fail to see the forest for the trees, and allow conversations to end without connecting all the dots, thereby squandering some of the concentrated work. Agreements that are not captured in the moment are lost, and must be rebuilt another time. Very wasteful.

To accomplish this the facilitator must be able to see how things look from the prospective of each participant, and have a feel for what everyone can say "yes" to.

E. Managing Your Nightmares

While no one is perfect, to be an excellent facilitator you need to know what you don't know, and where your blind spots are. 

What personalities drive you crazy?

How are you triggering for others?

—Can you manage your reactivity?

F. Can You Handle Failing in Public?

No matter how accomplished you are, no one succeeds all the time. When you have a bad moment as facilitator, however, your failure can be spectacular. Can you pick yourself up off the floor and get back on the horse? Hint: If you need to succeed every time, quit now.

G. Getting Help

—Inviting critical feedback about how you're facilitating (Hint: If you get defensive, the feedback does no good).

—Bringing the pool of facilitators together to help plan and debrief meetings
 

—Identifying area facilitators who can help your group when you need outside neutrality.

—Making a commitment to training, which means both time and money. Hint: Learning by osmosis alone is not enough.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Signs of the Times

I was recently working with a community that had been wandering in the wilderness of group process for seven years in search of a consensus policy under which members could post yard signs (think political campaigns) on the strip of community land that fronted their access highway.

Essentially, it was a three-cornered argument:

A. Freedom of Speech
As is the case in most intentional communities, the members of this group often have definite opinions about the political questions of the day, and clear preferences about candidates. Some fraction of those folks want to be loud and proud about their views, and there is no more noticeable platform on which to do so than right along the frontage road.

People in this camp believe that all members—who own the property jointly—should be allowed to express their views with signage (within the bounds of size, length of time posted, and noninflammatory language) as a First Amendment right.

This comes from the position that home can be a base of operation for nonviolent social activism.

B. Aesthetics
Many think signs are ugly, and it's an affront to their sensibilities to have political candidates and catch phrases be the first thing they encounter when they arrive home—instead of trees and flowers. Ugh. Aren't there enough assaults on our consciousness in this modern electronic world (where even the President is prone to posting provocative tweets before we can get to out first cup of coffee) without having it invade our nest?

This comes from the position that home can be sanctuary, for safety and renewal. People in this position yearn for a place where our bruised psyches can be salved by unadulterated contact with the natural environment.

C. Misinformation & Confrontation
There is unease among some that signs imply monolithic support in favor of the espoused candidate or position, when that's almost never the case. Thus, if you disagree with the sign (or even are neutral about it) it can be uncomfortable feeling that everyone driving by the sign may think the sign represents your position.

In this way signs lack nuance and people's individual viewpoints are at risk of being lost whenever a (pardon the expression) trumped up neighbor posts a sign. Yuck.

There is also a second question here: what constitutes effective social change? While some willingly embrace vigorous political discourse, others find it crude and confrontational—especially when reduced to shibboleths and slogans. Instead of stimulating thoughtful conversation there is concern that signs merely feed the contemporary tendency toward knee-jerk sorting that fuels us/them dynamics—which we pretty well know doesn't work.

• • •
Taken all together, it's not hard to see why it was difficult to craft a policy that embraced all positions. All three concerns have a foundational quality, such that movement toward A was seen as undercutting positions B and C, and vice versa. No matter what was proposed it tended to cut close to the bone for someone, and thus no proposal garnered everyone's support. Stalemate.

Recasting the Net
Then the group did a clever thing. After years of banging their collective heads against the wall of rights (which turned into an inconclusive tug-of-war), they empaneled a task force to tackle it fresh, selecting committee members not strongly identified with any particular position.

The committee then did a number of noteworthy things:

1) To be sure of their footing, they conducted a detailed survey of member views about signs.

2) In the interest of increasing the task force's gravitas, they purposefully recruited two additional members: one known to be pro-sign and one known to be anti-sign—both of whom were also known to be able to put the group's best interests ahead of their own.

3) Digesting the perennial loggerheads that resulted from focusing on rights, they hit upon the idea of turning around the conversation by focusing on responsibilities.

4) In putting forward their proposal there were three key components:

—They did not come to the plenary until they had a proposal that the full committee was behind; that is, there was no minority dissent on the task force.

—They advocated for creating a standing Sign Advisory Committee (SAC) whose job it would be to review all proposals for signs to be posted on community property, to help surface and resolve any concerns. The SAC could not impose solutions (they could only advise) yet they would be in place to promote dialog and help find soft landings.

—They asked for a trial period of one year, to test their theory that if the community approached this issue with an attitude of responsibility, that members would rise to the challenge of being responsible (rather than sink to the temptation of insisting upon rights), and no one would feel run over or sold out. Because of the one-year sunset clause, the community will review the agreement in 12 months, and the agreement will expire at that time unless the plenary explicitly acts to continue it.

Best of all, it worked! Instead of settling for the least common denominator, the community was inspired to stretch to live up to its higher aspirations. Much more satisfying.

I'm writing about this because it was inspiring to witness. The group did not pretend that there were not differences (in fact, the main points I outlined above were all reiterated in the survey results and the committee did not flinch from acknowledging them when introducing the proposal).

Now, for the first time, any member can propose a sign and that proposal cannot be blocked. However, every proposer is expected to listen to any and all concerns and to make a good faith effort to resolve them either directly with the person who raised them, or with the assistance of the SAC.

It's delightful to observe cooperative culture emerge from the fray with a creative answer. I see it as a sign.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Tough Topics in Cooperative Groups

Not all topics are created equal. In the context of cooperative culture, some topics are much tougher to get at than others.

Here are half a dozen that I encounter regularly. These are by no means all, but they're representative. If your group consistently handles any two of these well, you're way ahead of the curve. (If not, I'm available for hire.)

I. How Power is Used in Cooperative Groups
Groups need to understand—and be able to talk authentically about—how power (influence) is distributed in the group.

If the group has not done foundational work to define healthy models of leadership, it is fraught with danger for members to admit that they have power or are available to fill leadership roles.

Members of cooperative groups tend to want the power gradient to be a shallow as possible (ostensibly in the hope of getting away from the power abuses all of us have had bad experiences with in mainstream situations, whether it be family, church, school, or workplace), but wishing doesn't make it so. Power is never distributed evenly, and you can't reasonably work constructively with a thing you can't talk about openly.

Groups need to distinguish good uses of power (generally speaking, it's when people use their influence for the good of the whole) from poor uses of power (using influence for the benefit of some and at the expense of others) and to develop the chops to be able navigate the perception that a person did not use their power as cleanly as he or she thought they had. That moment is particularly tricky.

Hint: If your group hasn't yet defined what qualities it wants from leaders, and what constitutes healthy uses of power, have those conversations now! Just bumbling along in the fog is not a strategy; it's a train wreck.

II. Limits of Diversity
No group can be all things to all people.

While all groups have some level of diversity among their membership (surely you weren't expecting clones), and most embrace a common value supporting diversity, it is a nuanced question just how much you can handle of any particular stripe of diversity—which manifests in a bewildering array of sizes and colors.

And it's worse than that. While few groups get around to an in-depth conversation about what they actually want in the way of diversity, I have not yet met the group that's developed a culture robust enough to give voice to the desires of those of how want more of a thing (in the name of diversity), only to encounter others in the group who report feeling stretched to the max. Now what?

You need a strong web of caring relationships to sensitively navigate that conversation.

III. Accountability
In most groups there will be a mix of people who favor low structure and people who favor high structure—with a healthy sprinkling of folks in the middle. Those at the low end prefer minimal rules and a high degree of personal discretion, coupled with personal responsibility. They want the flexibility to make nuanced determinations on a case-by-case basis.

Those on the high structure end favor spelling things out to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty. If the standards are well-articulated than you know at all times where the boundary is and it's easier to relax. You'll know what's expected and when you've done your fair share.

The bad news is: nobody's wrong. People at both ends of this very human spectrum have to figure out how to live together. One of the key tests for this is what happens when Member A has the perception that Member B has broken an agreement or failed to come through on a commitment. (Hint: If you believe this problem would be eliminated by high structure, think again.)

Note that I didn't say that Member B had done anything wrong; I said that Member A thought Member B had done something wrong. In situations like this most groups prefer that Member A discuss this directly (and hopefully cordially) with Member B in a good-faith attempt to resolve this concern as cheaply as possible. But what if Member B isn't interested in hearing feedback from Member A—either because of the content or because of the delivery?

Does your group have in place an explicit agreement that members are expected to provide a channel for receiving critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group? Few do. Yet you can see how much mischief can result from accumulated grumblings that never get cleared. Yuck.

The next thing you know, there's a call for accountability (we can't let those bastards get away with this; they're ruining the community!). This can polarize the group in a blink.

Whenever there's the sense that someone has neglected a duty, done slipshod work, or acted in their own interest instead of the group's, there needs to be a conversation. You need a group culture strong enough to hold that conversation and to keep its focus on repairing damage to relationship; not on determining who's right and how many lashed should be meted out.

Sanctions come only at the end of the line, when all else has failed.

IV. Standing up to Bullying Behavior 
This is a special case of the previous point, yet one that obtains frequently enough to get its own mention.

Bullying is about intimidation. It's accomplished through size, facial expression, crowding of personal space, belligerent attitude, tone of voice, volume, persistence, and through threats and retaliation. It's pushing others out of their comfort zone to the point where they shut up or leave the field rather than continue to voice concerns or opposition.

It needs to be stood up to and not allowed to control the conversation, yet that often adds up to meeting the bully with behavior that mirrors theirs—which tends to be distinctly uncomfortable in the genteel world of cooperative living. Sadly, many good people would rather exit or tolerate bad behavior than stand up in the face of it.

The challenge is to be both firm and compassionate. It's not about ganging up on the bully (which runs the risk of sliding into vigilante dynamics), and it's not about mud wrestling on the plenary floor; it's about interrupting the behavior as soon as it arises, and changing the focus to what's unacceptable about the process before continuing with the topic that the bully was speaking to. You cannot afford to allow bad process to run unchecked.

V. Being Selective about Members
Many groups shy away from discussing what qualities they want in members—not because they don't have preferences, but because it's unseemly to be viewed as favoring some over others. Mostly, I think, this is a misinterpretation of a core value of anti-discrimination.

It's one thing to be scrupulously fair on matters of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc—all protected classes under fair housing laws—yet it's an all together different matter to be blind about a person's communication skills (when assessing membership potential) or their management skills (when considering them to mange a major construction project). The former makes sense from the standpoint of making strides toward building a more just world; the latter is just plain shooting yourself in the foot.

While you can make the case that almost everyone could benefit from living cooperatively, not everyone has the capacity to do it well and you can only make so many silk purses out of sow's ears. It's hard enough to navigate the intricacies of cooperative living with people who "get it"; why complicate matters by working with random volunteers? Doesn't it make more sense to be deliberate about who joins the group: about who is asked to do certain tasks?

To be clear, I am not saying that groups shouldn't commit to creating opportunities for people to learn the skills needed to take on group roles; I'm only saying it's a poor bargain letting unqualified people fill slots simply to avoid giving them the assessment that others don't think they're ready.

In the case of group membership, it's a frightening risk having little or no discernment about who joins the group, and then trying to get them out later once you've discovered they're a poor fit. In the case of making committee assignments or filling manager slots, the more important it is that the job be done well (or is a high trust position), the more crucial it is that you select well to fill it. The stakes are too high to trust to chance to meet your needs.

What all this adds up to is the importance of developing a culture in which it's OK to be discerning, and it's OK to let others know that you don't think they have what the group agrees is needed. Pretending people have what it takes when they don't is a very dubious foundation on which to build a durable culture.

VI. Working Constructively with Distress
Face it. We come out of a mainstream culture that does not do well with distress (outside of a therapeutic setting), and we bring that inability with us into the cooperative experience. Unfortunately, as human beings, we also bring distress.

Once nontrivial distress is in the room (never mind how it got there; it will come) you really only have two choices: pay now or pay later. Let's look at what happens with each of those options:

Dealing in the Moment
If you're willing to engage with fulminating distress, then a few things need to be put into place ahead of time: a) you need explicit buy-in from the group that there's permission to go there (seeking permission in the dynamic moment is a nightmare; it has to be done ahead of need); b) you should determine a menu of options that may be used to work with distress, so that folks know what they've signed up for; and c) you need to develop the internal capacity to understand and sensitively employ the modalities on the approved menu.

In my view if you're going to go down this road—which I recommend you do—then you need facilitators who can do two important things:

• Be sensitive to energy shifts so that distress can be recognized and attended to as it occurs. This can mean shifting on a dime, suspending the topic in which the distress erupted, to focus on the reactivity and getting the person (or persons) deescalated to the point that the group can productively return to the original conversation. This is an important criteria in that the skills needed to manage a conversation deftly are almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to work distress well. So asking facilitators to be able to do both can be a tall order.

•  Be able to discern when it's an effective use of group time to work distress, and when that's happened sufficiently that the group can productively return to working the topic that was suspended in order to attend to the distress. This is a sophisticated balancing act that calls for the facilitator to be able to accurately read how upset people are (both the person who was initially in reaction, and those around them) and when the group's attention can productively shift off the persons in distress.

Setting Distress Aside
When you make this choice you're rolling the dice. The good outcome is that it's possible that the person in distress can work through their feelings on their own and come through the experience OK, with no toxic aftereffects. I'm not saying that's likely, but it's possible.

Unfortunately, the downside is pretty big. All of the following can happen:

• The person in reaction may not be able to manage deescalation on their own. For as long as significant distress continues you have to expect they're experiencing significant distortion. That means they aren't able to hear accurately what's being discussed; they are essentially lost as a functioning participant, perhaps for the remainder of the meeting.

• Often, when one person is enduring unaddressed distress, there is blow by on those around them, who are significantly distracted by it. Thus, the focus of many people can be impaired when one person in distress is not getting help.

• When group members observe others not getting help (when they go into distress), the message is that it's not OK to go into distress. This leads to suppression, which makes it that much harder to know what's happening when quashed feelings start leaking and someone starts behaving weirdly.

• Even after the meeting you can't count on things settling down in a balanced way. Sometimes, upon reflection, hearts get hardened rather than softened and the group gets that much more brittle. Not good.

• Maybe you're thinking that if the group sidesteps working with distress there's that much more time to work the issue in which the distress arose. Yes, but it tends to be a bad bargain if the room is infected with significant distortion. How good can those decisions be? How good will the buy-in be if some people aren't hearing well?

Taken all together, I'm question whether you can afford the compound interest when you defer payments on distress.

Many groups avoid working distress in the moment because they have no agreement in place to do so, or no confidence in the skills of their facilitators to handle it constructively. Don't let that be your group.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Groundhog Day in Plenary

I had a phone conversation with a good friend the other day, who needed someone to vent with about a frustrating experience she'd recently had as an outside facilitator.

The group had been struggling with a delicate issue that brought out the more strident and challenging sides of a handful of members and my friend dutifully guided them safely through the thorny thicket of their reactivity. While that's a bread and butter experience for a professional facilitator (you could handle three meetings like that every week and not run out of work before Christmas), in this case her teeth were grinding because she'd worked with that group previously, and it was frustrating to realize that the same people were reprising their same roles as petulant adolescents. Though the specifics had shifted, the dynamics had not. Ugh! It was the intentional community version of Groundhog Day!

While it's often exhilarating for a professional to help a group navigate a mess that they're uncertain how to handle on their own, singing the same refrain a second time is rather like bringing wilted flowers to the altar. What was inspiring the first time was somewhat depressing when the dynamics were on play repeat. What's the point? Is the group learning? While repeat customers are a delight; repeat dynamics not so much.

So why was the needle skipping back to the beginning?

Though I can't be certain, I can speculate on some likely possibilities. Here are four:

o  Change Is Hard
The most obvious explanation is that pointing out ineffective patterned behavior is the easy part. Shifting it is the hard part. Under stress (as in when we're triggered) we overwhelmingly tend to fall back on our reptile brain and slip into grooved behavior. It takes conscious effort to shift a pattern, and there are few among us who can experience a single different outcome and then successfully break a mold that has been relied on for decades.

While it would be nice if it were otherwise, it often takes several exposures to the "lesson" before it's incorporated.

o  Ineffective Pedagogy
Maybe the path through the jungle was insufficiently mapped. Just because the theory is clear to the teacher doesn't mean the explanation was clear to the student.

Demonstrating is only part of teaching. Often people need to do a thing themselves (under supervision) before the lesson can be ingrained in their body. If it's only in their head, it may not be accessible in the dynamic moment. It depends on how people learn.

I know people who can see a thing done once and are immediately willing to jump in and try it themselves, but they're the exception. Most people prefer multiple exposures before venturing into new behavior.

o  Compromised Neutrality
Maybe the group's facilitators (the people you're especially trying to pass along knowledge to) were triggered by the dynamic, or hooked on the topic. Once your neutrality is blown you're effectively disqualified as an arbiter of delicate dynamics. Thus, it's possible that there was no one behind the wheel (in the way of an authorized internal facilitator) to step in and take control when things went south. Perhaps they could have handled different configurations of dysfunctional dynamics, just not that configuration.

o  Steep Power Gradient
Sometimes it's too daunting to call particular, powerful individuals on their behavior. Maybe they're thick-skinned, maybe they're too well loved, maybe their health is questionable, maybe they have a reputation for lashing out when asked to cease and desist. There can be any number of reasons why otherwise well-informed and well-intentioned facilitators hesitate to act when certain individuals are misbehaving.

It can take major league chutzpah to confront powerful people.

• • •
Undoubtedly it's hard to watch a group fall back into unproductive patterns—especially after you'd worked so hard to help them out of the pit. Yet beating yourself (or the client) up because they weren't able to successfully turn it around after one successful counter example, won't help. Change is hard.

Along these lines I try to remember that life's lessons are mandatory, but the learning is optional. The fact that people don't learn a lesson the first time they're exposed to it can be discouraging, but who's perfect? The other side of the coin is that the same people responded well (again) when my friend guided them a second time. Maybe the third time will go better.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Putting on My Socks One at a Time

The other day I got out of bed and starting putting on my socks.

While that's a rather mundane morning operation, I paused to reflect on how that wasn't so only 15 months ago…

Though there is a tendency for the things we commit to routine to drop below the radar of our consciousness, they can suddenly pop out in sharp relief when that routine is suspended.

After a long life of mostly robust health (it didn't hurt living a homestead lifestyle on an organic farm for 40 years, eating the food we grew), I developed a persistent back pain starting in the fall of 2014, when I used poor technique loading the back of a pickup with heavy boxes in the rain. From that point forward, my routine was interrupted, and I went through long stretches of bed rest in an effort to recover. (I recall being in too much pain to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving; I just wanted to be horizontal, and there is nothing routine about my skipping Thanksgiving dinner.)

While I didn't split much wood in the winter of 2014-15, I was mostly able to manage the pain with OTC doses of ibuprofen, and things gradually got better. I returned to work (traveling across the country) and resumed my busy life as a community networker and process consultant. But I wasn't really better. My back still hurt and I had to be increasingly careful how much weight I put in my suitcase. For the first time in my life I started being picky about where I slept. If the bed was too low (like a futon on the floor) it was an ordeal getting up and I was susceptible to muscle clenching in my lower back whenever I needed to get up in the night to pee. No fun!

Finally my body broke down again. I was visiting my son, Ceilee, and my grandkids (Taivyn and Connor) in Los Angeles in December 2015 when my back clenched up again and I was bed ridden for a couple days. I recovered sufficiently from that to travel (by bus, no less) to Las Vegas and see my daughter, Jo and son-in-law, Peter, for a few days over Christmas. Though still in pain, I was semi-ambulatory and managed to take a red eye to Minnesota to be with my new partner, Susan, in Duluth for a week straddling New Year's.

I can still recall how excruciating it was walking to the gate in McCarran around midnight, and then repeating the process fours later when I landed at dawn in Minneapolis. I felt like shit. By the time I arrived in Duluth (via a shuttle van), I was a wreck. Susan put me to bed (it was all I could do to climb the stairs) and once she tucked me in I barely left it.

After five weeks of feeding me in bed Susan decided enough was enough (duh), and took me to the ER at St Luke's Hospital. Not having ever been seriously sick before I didn't have a frame of reference to understand how stupid I was, trying to heal myself with bed rest and ibuprofen. Although I knew that pain is Nature's way of telling you that something's wrong, I essentially had the ringer off and the messages kept going to voice mail—which I then erased without checking.

As you can imagine, my daily routine started breaking down in Los Angeles when my back pain returned with a vengeance. From that point on, it was an exceptional day when I was feeling frisky enough for a shower. By the time I got to Duluth and Susan poured me into bed it was uncomfortable to even lie on my side.

I recall waiting to be seen at St Luke's Emergency Room and hardly being able to tolerate the pain of sitting up—my back hurt that much. Finally, I got into a bed and the doctors started looking me over. From there, things went fast. They gave me oxycontin for my pain and it disappeared! Of course, it was being masked, not cured, but I was grateful nonetheless. After a few hours of blood work they determined that I had enough problems to admit me to the hospital:

•  Multiple myeloma—a cancer of the blood where the bone marrow produces an over-abundance of unhelpful plasma cells instead of the red and white corpuscles called for in the instructions.

•  Kidneys that were near failure, operating at only 20% capacity because of the strain they were under attempting to dispose of all the unwanted plasma cells.

•  Skeleton thinning. A common byproduct of my cancer is calcium leaching and the doctors were quite concerned that I might break something.

•  Three collapsed vertebrae (probably related to the skeletal thinning), which coincided with the epicenter of my back pain. While my spinal cord was not at risk (there was no imminent threat of paralysis), I will never build another cistern or fell another tree.

Well, no wonder I wasn't feeling so good! I spent the next 19 days in the hospital, during which they worked diligently to support and strengthen my kidneys, to contain and drive back the cancer, and to manage my pain. While all of this was accomplished (hurray!), I was in an opioid fog. I think there was a point where I was getting as much as 60 mg of oxycontin twice a day and I was pretty weak and loopy.

To be clear, I'm not criticizing my doctor's choices in how they medicated me (I don't know enough to have an opinion about that); I'm only reporting that I don't remember much. I was (I discovered later) pretty close to death, and by the time I got out of the hospital I had lost a lot of weight and muscle tone. It was an ordeal just getting out of bed to pee.

While Susan tried taking care of me at home when I got discharged from the hospital (Feb 19), that proved too much. I was still fuzzy brained, and weak as a kitten. Fortunately, we got sage counsel from a home healthcare nurse, and my medical insurance was robust enough to pony up for a stay in an assisted care facility. Thus I moved into Ecumen Lakeshore Feb 26-March 19, for short-stay rehabilitation, which turned out to be exactly what I needed.
In particular, it was at Ecumen that I started reclaiming control of my life. When I was at St Luke's I just fell into the back seat and let them take the wheel; now it was time to climb back into the driver's seat.

Riding the Opioid Tiger
There have been two tracks in particular that I want to shine the light on. The first has been my journey with opioids—which is all the more interesting in that there are rising concerns these days about opioid abuse, and even some emerging evidence that they may not be as helpful in pain management as once thought.

After a certain amount of chaos in my early days at St Luke's, my doctors dialed back my oxycontin intake to two 30 mg pills daily—a level at which I had no trouble tolerating the pain. Yet it wasn't until my stay at Ecumen that I started getting serious traction on regaining my cognitive ability—a process that mostly proceeded subconsciously.

I started doing the NYT daily crossword again with Susan, I read more, and slowly the fog lifted. (I am in total awe of what the human brain can acclimate to.) I'm still scratching my head about how my brain—which was completely woozled by oxycontin at the outset—figured out how to benefit from the pain suppression and at the same time make steady progress in recovering cognitive function. Wow!


When I was at the Mayo Clinic in the summer, the doctor overseeing my care there (Frances Buadi) decided to cut my oxycontin back to 20 mg twice a day, and I had no trouble with the lower dosage. Already then! I was at that level for six months and then my Duluth oncologist (Humam Alkaied) halved the dosage to 10 mg twice daily. I still did fine.

It's been an interesting dance. On the one hand, I want to be totally off opioids (I'm concerned about the possibility of addiction); on the other, I like not being in pain. This month, with Alaied's encouragement, I've been experimenting with going off oxycontin all together. Instead, I've been given a PRN (use as needed) prescription for 5 mg tablets of oxycodone (which is just as potent as oxycontin, but quicker acting) with the idea that I can use them if the pain gets to be too much. Kind of a safety net. Since taking my last oxycontin April 25 (13 days ago) I've only taken oxycodone four times, the last pill five days ago.

Because I don't want pain to compromise my ability as a professional facilitator and teacher (and I know that oxycodone doesn't interfere with my cognitive ability) I'm traveling with a supply of oxycodone tablets. But maybe I'm done. I still have back pain, but I've adapted to it and it no longer gets in the way. If I can manage all that without opioids—which is what appears to be happening without any horrendous withdrawal symptoms—hallelujah!

Reclaiming My Routines
My second track toward recovery has been reestablishing my routines. It's been a matter of starting simple and working up from there:

At Ecumen this translated to:
—Using a walker instead of a wheelchair
—Strengthening my legs on a stationary bicycle
—Getting out of bed each morning and dressing myself before Susan visited with coffee and the Minneapolis StarTribune

It turned out that the trickiest part of getting dressed was putting on my socks—something I'd more or less taken for granted since I was three. Bending over meant stretching my tender back and moving muscles that had gotten lazy. It was humbling, but gradually it got easier.


A month later, I had graduated from Ecumen and was (gratefully) back home with Susan. Then my goals ramped up a bit:

—Get up every day, and work in a chair (rather than bed)
—Manage my own pill regimen
—Stop using the walker to get around
—Make the coffee
—Put away the dishes
After my stem cell transplant last summer, we bumped it up again:

—Cook breakfast M-F (the days when Susan goes to work)
—Start driving myself to the hospital for infusion therapy, and to the store for groceries
—Be the backup dog walker
—Take turns cooking dinner

This summer I may even do a spot of gardening and canning. Susan has wisely encouraged me to make steady progress in reclaiming my routine, and it's definitely helped with my morale. If you start acting like a normal person, before you know it you start being one. Today I put on my socks one at a time—just like a normal person—and smile.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

As a cooperative group process consultant, I work with committees all the time—or at least I encounter their spoor. While a decent number function well enough, it's relatively rare to discover unalloyed successes. The majority of committees, unfortunately, are either limping along or dead in the water. Why is that so common?

There's a significant difference between knowing that you need a committee, and knowing how to set one up well. By "committee" I'm referring to any subgroup of the whole that has two or more members and is asked to handle certain tasks on the group's behalf. (Don't get hung up on the name—task force, team, board, council, brain trust, etc—they're all essentially committees, and what I have to say here applies to them.)

In honor of the fifth day of the fifth month (happy Cinco de Mayo!—OK, I didn't get this posted until the 7th; consider it poetic license) I'm going to describe five ways that committees tend to stumble.

1. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee
There are three principal ways that committees get in trouble in this regard:

—A weakly defined committee/plenary boundary 
It can be a major headache if it's unclear what work should be handled by plenary and what work should be handled by the committee. Perhaps the mandate, which lays out the committee's duties and authority, is unclear (see point 2 below for more on this). Perhaps the plenary is inconsistent about how it interprets the mandate: sometimes asking the committee to do things, then other times handling the same things themselves. It can be crazy making.

Ambiguity about responsibilities leaves the committee guessing about how to serve the plenary well, making it susceptible to being accused of exceeding its authority (we didn't ask you to do that!) or of neglecting its responsibility (we've been waiting for your work; why aren't you done yet?). This can be very anxiety producing for the committee. Not only can ambiguity about expectations undercut the sense of satisfaction that people get from serving on the committee, it can undermine the quality of the product that comes back. Yuck.

—Low trust in the committee's skill or judgment
When care is not exercised in placing the right people on the committee (or perhaps the right mix of people) the result can be fractious. It can show up as poor morale (little or no camaraderie) and an inability to get the work done. See point 3 below for thoughts about how to avoid this trap.

—Poor discipline about respecting the committee/plenary boundary
Even if the boundary is spelled out, it only works if the plenary respects it. If the plenary is not conscious about the boundary, it can easily slip into working at a level of detail that should have been given to the committee. Every time the plenary does this (or overhauls work that was within the committee's purview to handle) it undermines the committee. 

(Sometimes this happens because the plenary is frustrated by a lack of product and goes overboard for the sheer joy of getting something done, instead of relying on its committee structure to finish up. However, if you want solid work from your committees, then plenaries need to be disciplined about not jumping the fence and grazing in the committee's pasture.)

2. Rigorous Mandates
Way too often, once plenaries decide to hand off a chunk of work to a committee they can be in such a hurry to wrap up and move onto the next agenda item, that they rush their work. Unfortunately, this is false economy. Sloppy mandates lead to sloppy work, and the moment of committee creation (or adjustment) is a time to slow down—to make sure you get it right.

For a complete layout of my thinking about how to craft solid mandates, I refer readers to Consensus from Soup to Nuts from March 20, 2010. In section F of that blog I present a laundry list of questions. While all won't apply in all situations, if you walk through them whenever you strike a committee (or adjust the mandate of an existing one), the answers should result in a comprehensive mandate every time.

3. Selection of Committee Members
In the majority of cases, the groups I work with rely overwhelmingly on a show of hands to decide who will staff a committee. While quick, that's about the only positive thing you can say about it.

If results matter (and they should), then I urge groups to be much more deliberate about the selection of committee members—especially when high trust is called for.

—Establishing Desirable Qualities
The first step I'd take is having a conversation about the qualities wanted in people serving on the committee. This can include familiarity with the technical aspects of the work being overseen (such as a handyman serving on the Maintenance Committee), interpersonal skills, reliability, easy-going nature… all manner of things.

Hint: When developing a list of selection criteria, there is an important nuance about qualities that you want all committee members to have (such as a basic understanding of accounting principles for sitting on the Finance Committee), and those that you only need some committee members to possess (perhaps facility with html if you serve on the team that manages the group's website).

Note: It can often be good for the plenary to select the committee's convener, so that you'll get someone with the right qualities (these may be somewhat different than the qualities wanted from regular committee members—for example, a greater emphasis may be placed on the convener being a good administrator, a prompt communicator, or discreet with sensitive information). 

I recommend that the group develop a written standard for what it wants from people serving in the capacity of convener, adjusting it as needed for specific committees.

—Selection Process
In deciding who will serve, I recommend against simply asking for raised hands (volunteer roulette). Instead, I suggest the following, which is much more deliberate:

o Post the committee job description and desired qualities for the members who serve on it.


o Ask all group members if they are willing to serve and create a written ballot listing all those who consider themselves qualified, willing, and available.


o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team (two people?) from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.


o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they find acceptable to serve (people can pick none, all, or anything in between).


o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.


o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are added only if they are agreeable to those who have already accepted—that way you protect the chemistry of the committee. This process continues until all slots are filled.


o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the team (which does not require plenary ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is disbanded.


—Handling Ties
What happens if two or more people have the same number of votes? As this could arise in two forms, I’ll handle them separately:


Case I. Ties that occur when there is room to accept all those who are tied
This situation is fairly easy to deal with. I suggest taking all the nominees who are tied and shop them all together (as a package) with those who received more votes and and have accepted the nomination, if there are any. Thus, suppose you have five slots, the two top vote-getters are Adrian and Chris, and they’ve accepted the appointment. Tied for third are Dale, Jesse and Robin. I would show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and see if all three are acceptable from the standpoint of working together. If any are unacceptable they are dropped from the list, and you accept only those among the three with whom Adrian and Chris are OK working with. 

If that completes the slate, great. If not, you continue down your list.
 
If a tie occurs among the top vote-getters (that is, there are no people already appointed to the committee), then the Ballot Team will meet with all those involved, explain the situation, and ask if they are all willing to serve together. If there are any unresolved concerns about that, people with reservations can decline to serve and the Ballot Team will continue to work down its list.

Case II. Ties that occur when there are fewer available slots than people in the tie
This is more interesting (by which I mean complicated).

I suggest following the same procedure as above with this modification: 

Case IIa. Suppose there are three slots available and Adrian and Chris have already accepted as the top vote-getters. Again, assume that Dale, Jesse and Robin are tied for third. Show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and have the two of them collectively select the person they think is the best from among the three from the standpoint of qualifications and a good working relationship. 

Case IIb. Suppose there are three slots and there are five people tied with the most votes, That is, there is no one already on the committee to show the list of ties to. In this instance, I would bring together all five people, tell them they are tied as the top vote-getters and they must decide among them which three will serve on the committee. Again they should do this on the basis of qualifications (established by the plenary) and the desire for a good working relationship among the committee members.

Note: In all cases you want the results to be announced by the Ballot Team after all the behind-the-scenes resolution of ties have been settled. You need not tell the group that there were ties.

—Staggered Terms
When you are empaneling a committee with staggered terms, I suggest proceeding in one of two ways. Let's suppose you have a committee with three seats and you want staggered three-year terms. You could take either of the following two options:

a) Letting the committee decide among themselves how to assign the one-year term, the two-year term, and the three-year term; or

b) Having the top vote-getter be assigned the three-year term, the second top vote-getter assigned the two-year term, and the third place finisher gets the one-year term.
 
That should just about cover it.

4. Poor Supervision
One of the ways that committees can struggle is that they typically don't commit to the same standard of process that the plenary does. For example, meetings are often not formally facilitated—they are just run by the convener (a person who has typically been selected for their administrative reliability, rather than their process facility). This is economical but not necessarily smart. If you need facilitation (some committees do; some don't) then it's important that it be neutral and that's not likely what you'll get from the convener, who is often a key stakeholder in committee business.

Further, if there's tension among committee members, there may be no one on the committee who has the chops to handle it. Left unaddressed, this can undermine morale and committee effectiveness.

Another angle on this is the potential for committees to become isolated from the rest of the group. Perhaps because of inconsistent (or even nonexistent) notification of when and where committee meetings happen, careless distribution of the meeting minutes (or indifferently captured meeting notes), or reporting on committee activity that is vague, late, or incomplete.

5. Evaluations
The caboose topic for this essay is closing the feedback loop. It is not enough to lay out good principles—from time to time you need to stop and look over what you're doing, it see how well reality is matching up with theory.

I'll refer readers to Evaluations in Cooperative Groups, posted Feb 20, 2012, for a detailed explanation of my thinking about this oft-neglected pillar of sound process.