Saturday, October 5, 2019

When Committees Get Ahead of the Group

I was recently working with a community that had been together for several years but was struggling with the right relationship between committees and the plenary.

Like most intentional communities, the group had committed to making decisions by consensus. Unfortunately, also like most groups, the community had not bothered to get trained in consensus or to define clearly how it would work (uh oh). I have sympathy for how they got there. Members had mostly led successful lives (how else would they have been able to afford their units?). How hard could it be to work things out with like-valued people?

Sadly, living cooperatively is harder than it looks, and good intentions and a healthy bank account are rarely sufficient to get you to heaven.

Let me explain how they'd slid into the ditch.

In consensus all the power (the ability to decide things for the group) initially resides with the plenary (meetings of the whole), and you don't move forward in the presence of a principled objection (by which I mean a proposed action or agreement is deemed bad for the group, contradicts an existing agreement, or is crosswise with a common value). While groups sometimes run afoul of what constitutes legitimate grounds for blocking, that wasn't where this group was struggling. Their issue revolved around how power was distributed.

While consensus groups start with all the power being held by the plenary, it's generally not a good practice to keep it that way. If the group has more than a handful of members (eight?) it's almost always better to delegate some degree of power (the ability to make decisions that are binding on the group) to managers and committees. If all decisions must come to the plenary for final say, it becomes a choke point, and members are all too often forced to sit through conversations about matters they really don't care about—when they'd rather be washing their hair or watching reruns of Downton Abbey.

This leads to problems. First, there is meeting fatigue (why are we spending so much time in plenaries?), which leads to a drop in energy and diminished meeting attendance. Simultaneously, it undercuts the morale of committees when all their work must be funneled through the plenary, which is under no obligation to like what committees send up. If all the power is retained by the plenary then why join committees, which only do grunt work? If committees struggle to get members and are demoralized, then the plenary has to pick up the slack, which puts even further pressure on community meetings as the sole place where action happens. It's a vicious cycle. 

Over time, plenary attendance may shake down to the point where only the battle tested and diehards are coming to meetings and resentment builds over the imbalance of who has their oar in the water when it comes to governance. Yuck!

The community in question was foundering over three things:

a) The mistaken notion that it's inappropriate in consensus to ever delegate group-wide decision-making to managers or committees. (While only some of members held this view, it was sufficiently prevalent to hamstring attempts to authorize committees to make decisions without the plenary sprinkling holy water on it.)

b) The inability to develop a sense of trust among members that everyone in the group was generally well-intentioned and can normally be relied on to think and act in the group's best interest. (Note that this is not the same as expecting everyone to think and act just like you—which you'll never get.)

c) The lack of open conversations about how power is distributed in the group: how it actually is, how you'd like it to be, and what's possible. To be fair, this topic is a hot potato for almost all cooperative groups and few handle it cleanly—so I'm profiling a typical group, not a defective one.

Now I want to switch focus to committees trying to operate in this environment, and the dilemma they face. On the one hand, they want to be useful and get things done. On the other, they don't want to be accused of power mongering. When the plenary is not used to giving committees meaningful work, teams may be left to feel their own way into what their role should be. 

During my visit, two different committees brought forward work for the plenary's consideration. In both cases, the committee had done its homework, having made a concerted effort to listen to what community members wanted (not just what committee members wanted), and to develop proposals that reflected that input. However, because committee conveners were taking the lead in bringing things forward, there was suspicion that the committee had gotten ahead of the community and was pushing water uphill. Some members felt that they were being sold rather than solicited, and there was a tense undercurrent.

The good news is that this is fixable. Here's how:

1. Clarifying consensus ambiguities, with a particular eye on delegation
The community needs to address head on the pros and cons of committees being authorized to handle issues in their bailiwick within boundaries established by the plenary. In addition to resolving questions about the theory of delegation, the group stands to benefit substantially from being much more diligent about delegating effectively. If the license for committees is ill-defined there's plenty of room for mischief and misunderstanding. If the plenary expects good work from its teams, it needs to set them up for success by making crystal clear what's expected.

When operating within the traces, committee initiatives need to be celebrated, not eviscerated.

2. Talking openly about power
While this isn't easy, it's doable and necessary. The community needs to develop a common understanding of what power is (influence), how its distribution is situational, how its distribution is always unbalanced, and how it's neutral in and of itself.

While power can be toxic when used to benefit some at the expense of others; it can be medicine when used to benefit all. The community urgently needs a common vocabulary about power.

3. Trusting the process
You can't expect community to bloom in an atmosphere of mistrust. After you do the work of cleaning up the ambiguities about how you want to operate (the previous two steps), members need to extend some grace to each other, allowing room for healing and good will to prevail.


Becky Gooding Laskody said...

I appreciate your clear writing on this tricky balance of power between plenary and committee. I’ve noticed, over the 25 years of participating in my community of Arcadia, that the use of and perception of power also varies with individuals and changes over time with life experiences. Great to have regular conversations about all aspects of power!

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