Friday, February 26, 2010

Currency Exchange

I'm in Yellow Springs OH this weekend, working with The Vale, a Quaker-based community celebrating its golden anniversary this year. Money was among the topics that the group asked me to address this weekend, because the group has been getting stuck whenever an issue surfaces suggesting significant community expenditures. Many of the members struggle financially, and there tends to be knee-jerk reaction among the Have-nots that the Haves are not really appreciating that there's no more wiggle room in the Have-nots' personal budgets.

As this topic has familiarity to me, I opened the first plenary with an outline of the myriad ways in which typical groups have to navigate a range of
serious differences among the membership when it comes to issues involving healthy chunks of change. In cooperative groups there's a naive tendency to assume that everyone will view money in a similar way, and I worked hard to show the community that it's normal to experience a rather wide range of basic financial realities through which money matters are viewed. Here are seven different lenses:

o Contributions to building the community (this isn't solely about money—it's about energy and life force as well).

o Net assets.

o Liquid assets (for some folks, much of their net worth is tied up in property or other assets that aren't easily translated into cash and this can profoundly affect how someone hears requests for additional investment).

o Income.

o Income potential (there can be a subtle, yet powerful difference between what you're earning now and what you expect to be able to earn in the near future—especially if your earning potential is on the decline).

o Household budgets (there can be substantial differences in standard of living and costs related personal expenses such as health care or support of minors).

o Risk tolerance and how someone defines financial security (this one typically goes back to family of origin).

When you digest that there are at least these seven different lenses through which people hear and see money issues, the surprising thing may be that the conversations ever go well. It's easy to see how people can feel misunderstood or not adequately taken into account, and I cautioned the group about the value of making sure at the outset that you've demonstrated to the other person's satisfaction that you've understood their viewpoint about money before launching into your pitch.

A lot of money conversations go poorly because the players lack the appreciation (or patience) needed to establish a solid baseline for how everyone is viewing the information. Once a solid container is created, the problem solving itself often turns out to be small change. Give it a try.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Safe Driving: an Oxymoron?

Last Thursday, a friend of mine, Joe Cole, was in a bad car accident on his way to work. He was in the hospital for a two days with a broken collarbone, a sprained ankle, traumatized kidney, and bruised ribs. Now home, he's still pretty sore. There was a woman driving the other car. She momentarily blacked out following a reaction to medication, and drifted into Joe's lane, resulting in a head-on crash that totaled both cars yet both drivers walked away from. Whew!
Joe or Jo?Joe had called Ma'ikwe and me Sunday afternoon, to tell us the bad news. Unfortunately, we were in meetings at the time and the message went to voice mail. Because Ma'ikwe's cell phone was out of reception range when we checked, the voice recording had been converted to a text message:

"Hi, this is Joe. I'm OK but I wanted to let you know I was in a car accident on my way to school Thursday and broke my collarbone. I'm out of the hospital now and am in considerable pain, but will be all right."

As it happens, Joe Cole teaches philosophy at Guilford College in Greensboro NC. My daughter, Jo, works at the University of Toledo. Since text messages work phonetically, there was no immediate way to tell whether the caller was Joe or Jo, which ratcheted up my heart rate for the minute or two it took us to check the phone number of the caller and determine it was the man in North Carolina; not the woman in Ohio. While we knew that someone we cared about had had a serious accident—and thus it was going to be somber news regardless—it was nonetheless moderately relieving to grasp that it wasn't my daughter.

• • •
Years ago I recall being in a discussion with members of a community who were concerned about AIDS and were wrestling with the question of what constituted appropriate safeguards against that awful disease. This was an urban group and they were contemplating a standard whereby anyone proposing to be sexual with any member of the group would not only have to test negatively for the HIV virus themselves, but anyone that person had been sexual with in the past two years would have to test negatively for the virus as well—which constituted quite a gauntlet.

My response was that they were over-reacting. Yes, AIDS is a horrific disease, yet it's not easy to transmit and they were reaching for a level of security that would attempt to eliminate almost all chance of it accidentally being contracted by a member. While not a bad goal in and of itself, I told them if they wanted to focus on improving member safety, it would be much more productive to concentrate on reducing car trips. I told them they were accepting a far greater risk every time they drove in the city than every time they made love.

And, as Joe painfully found out last Thursday, it's not enough that you're sober, alert, and have good driving conditions. You cannot control the choices that other drivers make, and sometimes accidents will find you through no fault of your own. Fortunately, Joe's injuries are minor enough that he's expected to make a full recovery. Given that he was in an head-on collision, he was very lucky.

We are, by far, the most mobile society of any in human history. In the US we are so wedded to the privilege of mobility that we blindly race to exhaust our dwindling supply of fossil fuels and blithely find it acceptable to suffer a toll in vehicular deaths that accumulates every decade to equal the entire population of Miami—and I'm not talking about the halt and lame here, only the deaths. It's incredible what we'll sacrifice on the altar of mobility. And Joe's story brings that sharply in to focus.

Joe lives in Carrboro and works in Greensboro, a daily commute of 45 miles each way. I'll bet his thinking hard about whether that makes as much sense this week as it did last.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where to Do the Heavy Lifting on Tough Topics

When a group tackles a tough issue, there is considerable leeway in how to sequence the conversation. Part of the art of facilitation is figuring out an inclusive, yet efficient way for the group to work the tough parts—that is, to do the heavy lifting.

No small part of this is figuring out what to attempt in committee (which could be as few as one or two people) and what to handle in plenary. On the one hand, savvy committees (or managers) can often save the group gobs of time because they may be able to anticipate 90% of what the plenary will generate acting as a whole. On the other hand, brilliant work by a committee may not be swallowed by the plenary if it's offered up too much, too fast—it may feel like the answers came out of a smoke-filled back room and the group may balk. The conclusions and suggested direction may feel like it was done to them rather than with them.

The magic of doing work in groups is that the individuals are able to participate live in the developing consideration. The bane of working in groups is when folks insist that everything be chewed on in plenary, under the mistaken belief that subgroups can't be authorized to act of the group's behalf without accusations of a power elite. What's the way out of this conundrum (how do you get the magic without the tragic)? I think there are three key moments in wrestling with tough issues where
it's important that each person who self-identifies as a stakeholder feels their needs have been met:

o Their concerns about the issue have been accurately heard by the group (Note: this may have a significant emotional component.)
o Any proposals do a fair job of balancing their interests with those of other stakeholders in the group.
o The action steps being asked of them in the final agreement are doable and not an undo burden.

In order to successfully navigate each of these checkpoints, it's best to test for each of them in plenary—even if that means three separate meetings. While it can often streamline the group's consideration of an issue to make judicious use of committees to conduct research (how have other groups handled this?), to draft proposals (how do we best weigh the factors in play?), and to oversee implementation (who will do what when?), it is dangerous to let a committee attempt to answer to these questions without at least having their work reviewed by the whole. It is often crucial that a person can hear how others answer the same questions in order to feel fairly treated. That is, it is often inadequate and unsatisfying to simply be told by a committee that they have no cause to worry.

One of the interesting features of these three checkpoints is that they each have a characteristic energy, and it can be important to understand this nuance when trying to handle these moments well. Let me walk through them one at a time:

1. Hearing Everyone Accurately
This is mostly about giving people full room to state what's up for them on the topic. This can stir up considerable passion and the trick here is to be minimally reactive, which includes helping others not feel swamped by someone else's bow wave. The objective here is hearing, not agreeing.

2. Balancing Interests
After you've surfaced all the factors that need to be taken into account, the group needs to make a transition to problem solving. That means laying down advocacy (which you probably got an earful of during the name-that-factor phase) and focusing on bridging. Here you're looking for ideas about what links various factors, probing for creative ways to leave none behind. You will also get into relative priorities, continually reminding all the stakeholders that one's right to have your pet concerns taken into account is tempered by your responsibility to work constructively with everyone else's factors as well.

3. Reasonable Implementation
Even right before the finish line, the wheels can fall off the wagon if there's the feeling that the proposed actions entail unreasonable requests (expecting the vegetarian to kill and dress the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner). Sometimes you have to slow it down at this juncture to make sure you're not accidentally swallowing a half-baked or ill-advised implementation plan.

While potentially awkward dynamics may surface in any of the phases, the heaviest lifting generally occurs in the Balancing Interests phase, where you're trying to find solutions that bring together disparate concerns. The trick is not letting them come across as desperate concerns. The art here is in creating a constructive (rather than constrictive) container for the consideration, where everyone knows that the train won't pull out of the station unless everyone's on board.

It's important that everyone knows where in the sequence the heavy lifting will occur, and that it is being protected with plenty of time and skilled facilitation. When done well, the magic is that the group feels uplifted and lighter, rather than exhausted by just having lifted up something heavy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Forward Progress from the Retreat

It's always struck me as whimsical that groups schedule a retreat in order to focus their attention forward. But that's just what Sandhill did last weekend, and the big news coming out of that three-day huddle is that Trish (28), Joe (30), and Emory (1) will be joining us in June. Yippee!

Just in time for the Summer Solstice, Sandhill's population will swell to seven adults and two children—which feels spacious after several years of wanting new members but being stalled out at five adults. To be fair, we've been picky about whom we invite to the party. In our 36 years we've developed a signature commitment to growing our own food and land stewardship. In line with that, all four of the adults who've joined the community in recent years (Apple in 2007, Emily in 2009, and Joe & Trish this year) have a strong commitment to homesteading, and all four are under 40. (Can you hear me exhale?) This bodes well for our making an orderly transition to the next generation of Sandhillians.

As excited as Trish & Joe are about moving to Sandhill, it was not an easy decision. They are leaving a community they helped found in St Louis, New Roots Urban Farm, where they have loving connections with their fellow community members, and are positioned closer to both sets of Emory's grandparents—all of whom, understandably, cherish regular contact their children's children. But for all of that, Trish & Joe feel the call of the country; the sanity and rootedness of rural living, and the resource leveraging of income sharing.

At the checkouts we did during the final session of the retreat, Trish said her biggest remaining question mark was whether there was enough love among Sandhill members. She has a loving connection with others at New Roots and she was wondering if that precious quality would be available to her here. It's a great question.

The challenge is now on the community to build quality relationships with Joe, Trish, and Emory, to integrate them well into our lives. Their lease in St Louis ends in late April and they're taking the month of May off to enjoy a much deserved month-long vacation—their first in years. They'll linger in St Louis to celebrate Emory's second birthday with family in late May and then move up to Sandhill to start their new lives.

Given that Trish identifies primarily as a farmer, a June arrival means the growing season will already be well begun before she's on site, and thus the 2010 garden will not be "hers" in the same way that it would be if she were here to order seeds and start seedlings. It's a luxury of our more robust population that we can afford to protect their May vacation and not worry about having all the bases covered during our busy planting season. Both Trish & Joe figure the first year is mostly about learning the customs and strategies of gardening in northeast Missouri—with its different climate zone and different soils—and everyone feels there's plenty of time to figure what levels of management the two of them want to shoulder for the 2011 growing season. It's so much better not to rush.

While the calendar says it's still the middle of winter, and there's still half a foot of snow on the ground, Stan & Apple tapped maple trees today. Daytime temperatures are tentatively poking above 32 degrees on a regular basis and the sap is starting to flow. With Trish & Joe's announcement of their decision to join the community, Sandhill's sap starting flowing last weekend. Can spring be far behind?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Valentine to the Less Demonstrably Distressed

Yesterday was the first day of Sandhill's annual retreat. Today is Valentine's Day. With a little creative inspiration (and a cup of strong coffee) I've hit upon an idea about how to combine these two in today's blog.

Valentine's Day, aside from what Hallmark would have us believe, is not so much about smarm as about agape. As children, we were encouraged to reach out to every kid in our class and send them a valentine—whether we felt like it or not—and especially to the shy kids, who otherwise get few clear indications of being seen or cared about. I want to write today about reaching out to the mildly upset or bothered, who tend to get lost in the high drama of fulminating conflict.

We opened the Sandhill retreat focusing on tensions: how we understood that chaotic moment, what we had agreement to attempt when tensions manifested, and what we might otherwise do when there is no one in the group capable to doing what we said we wanted—which is all the more likely to happen in a group as small as ours (which will soon to be seven adults after Joe & Trish move here in early June).

Like many groups, there are a couple of people in my community who are not reticent to express strong feelings in the group (I'm not saying this always goes well; I'm only saying there are a couple of people regularly willing to express upset in plenaries—and I'm one of them); there are a greater number of members who are not comfortable doing this. Without putting a value judgment on where a person is located on the willingness-to-express-strong-feelings-in-group spectrum, it's nonetheless important to understand people's tendencies and to have an idea about how to work constructively with what you have.

One of the most valuable pieces that came out of yesterday's conversation was hearing from Apple and Emily, both of whom are newer members and reported a tendency to feel overwhelmed in the presence of erupting conflict between others. They both said that upset in others sometimes triggers reactions in them, yet they didn't feel comfortable with having group attention directed toward what was going on for them, because: a) their upset was nothing compared with what was going on for the main protagonists; and b) by the time that the main dynamic had been hashed out, they were typically too exhausted and/or confused to want to engage in additional emotional work focused on their experience. It was just too much.

What excited me about hearing these women's stories was that I could see how to fit this into my understanding of when It's necessary to address distress. The key is not to focus on the amplitude of the emotional bow wave; it's to focus on the severity of the distortion that accompanies it—by which I mean the degree to which they're not able to hear or track accurately what others are saying. In the case of Apple & Emily, they may not be experiencing high distress, but if it's enough to seriously distract them from the conversation (perhaps because they're wondering whether or not to say anything about what they're going through, or why all the attention goes to the drama queens like me), then it tends to be more expensive to ignore the distress than to deal with it.

Of course, describing this phenomenon is not the same as getting everyone on board with actually doing something about it. Even if the group is on the lookout for this subtler version of what Yoda might style "a disturbance in the Force," there is a limit to how long a group can stay in that tender and authentic zone where conflict needs to be worked. A group might reasonably need a break even when it knows that additional clearing might be useful and appropriate.

In such situations, it tends to be that the quieter, less demonstrative folks are the ones who are put on hold, while the squeaky wheels get the grease. What can be done? The first step is recognizing that this might be in play, so you know to look for it. Second, you can create options for coping. If the less obviously upset decline the invitation of group attention, you might nonetheless call for a break. During the hiatus, folks might fluff their own aura (perhaps through stretching, splashing water on their face, or screaming into a pillow) or take advantage of the time to have a one-on-one download with you or someone else, the better to name that tune (the one that's stuck on play/repeat in their head) and be able to return from the break with their ability to focus adequately restored.

It's important, I think, that a commitment to working actively with distress does not translate into relinquishing control of plenaries to those who find it easiest to express distress. There needs to be a balance, and mature groups will learn how to offer succor to those who suffer more quietly, as well as to the loud and the proud.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More on Managing Management

Continuing the conversation I wrote about Monday, Tony Sirna came back with the following:

I wrote:
I’d define good (or effective) management pretty much the same way whether the group is using consensus, voting, ouija boards, or do-whatever-Ralph-says.

Tony responded:
While I agree, I think the interesting question is in the edge effects. The middle management might be the same, but I think the relation of CEO to shareholder is very different from Executive Director to members which is different from that of president to voting public.

While I agree that the relationships are quite different in the three diverse examples Tony cites above, I don't think what defines good management changes. That is, the answers to the laundry list I posted under the heading "
Effective delegation requires clear mandates" might change significantly, but the questions don't change.

Tony continued:
At DR I’m most curious about how to deal with that relationship—between top level managers and the group, or alternately how the group can function as a good manager.

My shoot-from-the-hip response is to insist on clear mandates, so that the relationships and expectations are well defined. As a process consultant I work with many cooperative groups and, overwhelmingly, there is a marked tendency to be sloppy about crafting clear mandates for managers and committees, trusting (naively) that good intent will be an adequate substitute for comprehensive thinking. While I'm not sure this is a problem at Dancing Rabbit (I haven't seen their authorizing agreements), I am aware that they have a level of sophistication in how subgroups are categorized regarding their authority to act, and I'd like to bring that into the conversation as I widen my answer.

Jacob Corvidae (an ex-DR member and regular contributor to the Sky Talk blog) laid it out well in the thread he added to this conversation on Tuesday:

I dug up a common business concept (which I first learned from you, Tony) of defining levels of delegation. My paraphrase of it looks like this:

Level 1 – The Report:
Look into the matter, gather information and options, and report back.

Level 2 – The Recommendation:
Look into the matters, gather information and options, identify possibly actions with pros and cons and recommend one of them.

Level 3 – The Action Plan:
Decide the best course of action and make a plan to implement it. Then get the plan approved before starting.

Level 4 – Make the Decision:
Decide and take action, but report on progress and the plan along the way.

Level 5 – Full Delegation:
Go do it and report back only if something unexpected happens.

Several ideas are used around these levels of delegation. The first is that they simply help clarify to everyone involved what’s expected. That’s an important first step in avoiding future problems.

My understanding is that all managers and committees at DR are assigned a level of authority along the lines of the five enumerated above. Essentially, they choose from this menu when addressing the specific question in my mandate template that reads: "What are the limits of their authority to act on behalf of the group? (Put another way, when can they act on their own and when do they need to consult?)"

While I think it's terrific that they've developed this concept of authority levels (which simplifies a complex field—range of authority—making it easier to grasp), I'm concerned that a given manager or committee might simply be assigned one level to cover everything they do. If that's what DR is doing (and I'm not sure it is), it can't be right. Better, I think, would be to walk through each responsibility assigned to that manager (the detailed answer to my question "What is the manager expected to accomplish?") and assign a distinctive authority level to that manager for that responsibility. Thus, the Pet Committee might have Level 4 authority to confine roaming cats indoors during bird nesting season, yet have only Level 2 authority to establish policy regarding pet armadillos (which exotic thing, blessedly, has not yet occurred).

Jacob further wrote:
Other business folks use it as a progressive path for empowerment. In other words, you should never start with delegating at levels 3, 4 or 5 for a new person or committee or when someone’s taking on a significantly new role. Rather, each level builds on the other, and a good manager has to check the skill level and match it with expectations before moving on to the next.

While I like the idea of a pathway to earning the group's trust, I don't agree that you can't start new managers or new committees with high levels of authority. It depends on how clearly the mandate is established, your assessment of competency, and your sense of what degree of nuance and familiarity with the group's culture is needed in order to function well. If you hire a new CPA to handle your accounting, you can be damn sure you'll want that person to have Level 5 authority over ledger entries (though, of course, you may only extend Level 2 authority to them with regard to budget recommendations).

But let's get back to Tony's second question. Reading between the lines, I imagine that Tony's main concern is that top managers must wrestle with how much information to share with the group, when to consult before acting, and when to simply go ahead, even when the expectations in that regard have been spelled out. I suspect that Tony's worrying about the tension between a steady demand for a more streamlined governance process (read wanting fewer meetings, and thus being willing to assign higher authority levels to top managers) and members' expectations that if they complain about something they don't like that it will get addressed (read uneasiness about getting steamrollered by bureaucracy, and thus cautious about advancing authority levels too far).

While I may or may not be reading Tony's concern accurately, I think there's a definite issue of how to avoid a concomitant rise in us/them dynamics as the group steadily increases in size—which is the express path that DR is on. Put another way, how does a group intelligently minimize grumbling about what "they" are doing when members complain about the actions taken by top management?

I believe there is a five-part strategy (If you like the metaphor of five fingers on a helping hand, I invite you to envision an open palm, not a fist):

1) Insist on clear mandates (which I've spelled out in my previous blog).

2) Insist on good reporting (there's an strong link between access to accurate information and trust; if good information is not readily available, eventually, neither will trust be readily available).

3) Delegate the highest authority levels you can stand (if your mandate and reporting standards are high, you can do a lot with this, minimizing the needed for plenaries). Hint: for this strategy to work well, the group has to be disciplined about honoring the work of the managers when they operate within their mandates. If you don't like something they did, yet they stayed within the traces, don't be an ass and ream them out in plenary. Have a private conversation where you share your opinion while recognizing that they had the right to act as they did, and then move on.

4) Insist on regular evaluations of managers and committees, which should absolutely include appreciations as well as any critical feedback (I spelled this out in my previous blog, where I laid out the value of attending to minor irritations as a prophylactic against sepsis).

5) Educate the membership on the balance needed between rights and responsibilities. Thus, each member does have the right for their voice to be heard on community issues. However, that right is inexorably linked with honoring the process the group establishes for how to contribute respectfully and effectively. Members who wish for their opinions to count have the responsibility to read the minutes,
go to the relevant committee meetings, add their input in a timely manner, and contribute constructively (not obstructively). Skipping all the preliminary meetings, not reading the minutes, and then bursting into the final plenary with guns blazing to shoot down the proposal at the last minute is not cool. Independent of whether the complaint is based on sound thinking, it trashes the group's process and undermines the system of governance. Don't be that person!

What I'm talking about here is developing a community-wide culture where there's definition about what it means to be a good citizen.
It's an important conversation.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Managing Management

My friend Tony Sirna sent me an email this morning, asking for my reflections on a blog he just posted on "How Do We Define Good Governance." After reading it just now, I realized my response would make a delightful subject for my blog (I reckon it's a milestone of some sort that, for the first time, I'm blogging about someone else's blog—I'm sure it's a slope of no small slipperiness, but hell, you take inspiration where you find it... )

Tony lives at Dancing Rabbit, a 12-year-old ecovillage located three miles from my home at Sandhill Farm. They have a population of about 50 right now, merrily on their way to manifesting their vision of being a village of 500+. Among other issues, such as roads and waste water management, increased size puts a strain on their governance system. Up until now, they've been using consensus, yet there are grumblings about the cumbersomeness of the process. Their annual retreat is coming up the next two weekends and one of the major topics they'll tackle is whether or not to overhaul their governance system. Quite reasonably, DR is not just looking for a band-aid solution; they're trying to look ahead and anticipate what kind of system will work well for the community when its population swells into the hundreds.

In Tony's blog, he identifies the demand for greater ease of delegation and more streamlined management as a key impetus for reviewing DR's decision-making process. Springboarding off this, he focuses on the question of what constitutes "good" management. In consensus, he postulates that managers are making good decisions when they are the same ones that would have resulted from the matter being carefully considered by the full group. He also has a thoughtful analysis of how effective managers must balance the impact of their decisions on the whole group, with the effect on the staff or team who work under their managership. (While you might wish that these two sets have the same interests, Tony properly points out that it ain't necessarily so).

Tony further explores the "inertia factor" which takes into account that it's too much trouble (in terms of both time and morale) to call attention to every decision a manger makes that seems somewhat "off." Thus, beyond the ideal decision (to the extent that's knowable), the group needs to wrestles with what's good enough.

So here are my reflections on good management:
1. For the most part, I don't think the answer here depends much on what form of of decision-making is used. That is, I'd define good (or effective) management pretty much the same way whether the group is using consensus, voting, ouija boards, or do-whatever-Ralph-says. While I understand that there are very different power gradients in different forms of decision-making, I've come to believe that the most effective management always attempts to balance the impact of actions on the whole system.

If you buy this, then it follows that the issue of good management is more or less independent of the decision-making process. So, my advice to Tony is that you can tackle the question of good management and delegation first, and then consider whether the answers you come up with best fit within a continuation of consensus or something else.

2. In addition to the factors that Tony enumerated, I want to add some more. [Although I will use the term "manager" below, my comments apply equally to individuals who are designated as managers, and to groups who are identified as teams or committees.]

o Good managers are accessible. This flower has a number of petals:
—Ease of getting information from them (this is both about gracefully and promptly answering questions—even the stupid ones—and the degree to which they offer a clear rationale for their actions).
—Ease of their receiving information and concerns about the issues touching their area of responsibility.
—Their relative openness to receiving critical feedback. (I'm not talking about their agreeing with the feedback; only their ability to demonstrate that they've heard it accurately and are thankful for having been told.)

o Effective delegation requires clear mandates. That is, managers need to know a number of things in order to do a bang up job, including:
—What is the manager expected to accomplish (and how will success to measured)?
—Are there deadlines for when things need to be done?
—What resources will be made available to accomplish the work (money, labor, and access to equipment and facilities)?
—What are the limits of their authority to act on behalf of the group? (Put another way, when can they do on their own and when do they need to consult?)
—What are the factors they are expected to weigh in making decisions? (The simple answer may be the group's explicit common values, but there are subtleties here about additional factors that may be peculiar to that managership.)
—What are the expectations, if any, around collaborating with other managers?
—What are the reporting standards?
—To what extent can the manager self-govern (conversely, to what extent is the manager expected to act in a way that is consistent with the culture and precedents of the whole group)?
—Are there limits on how the manager selects people to work in their area?

o Effective delegation goes hand in hand with effective evaluation. How will managers be reviewed, both in terms of how well they're fulfilling their mandate, and in terms how good the mandate is. It's rare in my experience to find a group that does this well. Think of it like getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist. If you skip that regular chore, there tends to be a build-up of plaque that can lead to serious consequences. If you don't periodically clear the air, it leads to pockets of unresolved grousing and undermined trust in the manager (as well as in the system that paced that person there). Yuck!

o Cooperative groups have trouble appreciating managers in proportion to criticizing them. Where successful managers in the capitalistic mainstream get rewarded with bonuses, new cars, and an office with a corner window, in cooperative groups managers typically are rewarded with little more than the opportunity to serve and an occasional attaboy. If DR wants to have enough good managers to cover their bases (and I'm sure they do), they'll be wise to develop a culture that regularly appreciates good managers. Hint: In an ecovillage bent on pioneering a model of sustainable culture, this may require some creative thinking about what coin appreciation can be paid in.

o Great managers see ahead of the curve. While you can be a good manager without this quality, great ones bring up important issues and focus resources on their consideration before an opportunity is lost (or before a crisis has arrived). They inspire the group (or at least their staff) to see a bigger picture and to dream beyond the current reality. One of the insidious aspects of consensus is its conservative nature, which tends to punish initiative more than reward it. That is, leaders will not tend to be criticized for work done diligently to improve the seaworthiness of the boat the group is in, but they can count on incoming arrows whenever they propose abandoning the current, familiar craft in exchange for a different vessel, the better to weather the seas ahead. And the further ahead the storm, the greater the resistance to changing ships.

For my money, this is perhaps the largest governance conundrum that DR faces. While it is still pioneering a new culture, it is no longer just attracting pioneers. Twelve years into the experiment, many of the folks coming these days are settlers, who are happy to live a life based on what is, rather than on what might yet be built. This will act as a brake on dynamic managers unless great care is taken to make clear how their dynamism serves the group—both now and in the future. Tony wrote about the need to give managers some latitude to do things their way as part of the equation in keeping everyone reasonably happy (that is, it will not work if the concept of Servant Leader gets translated into Manager Slave, where it is all responsibility and no room for individual expression—just have a seat here on this bench and keep pulling on that oar until you drop).

It's tremendously exciting to have this grand experiment in sustainable governance unfold just three miles down the road. I can't wait to see how it turns out.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Touching the (Leadership) Void

The other day I got the following email from an intentional community for advice about how to fill leadership slots:

We [the Process Committee] just received an email from the Board President reminding us that we need to address the issue of future board leadership (several long term members are expected to drop off the Board next term). Do you have any advice for the community on this issue?

This topic—leadership in cooperative groups—is a terrific one, and I thought I'd share my response to this group.

There are a couple of angles on this.

1. The Board in Relationship to Community Governance

Like many communities, this one is structured as a condominium association and is legally required to have a governing Board of Directors. At the same time, the community has chosen to make its decisions by consensus, and these two systems of governance don't tend to play well together. When a group works by consensus, it's confusing to have a Board that's also doing real work for the group. It can lead to two governing bodies which make decisions by different methods (the Board votes and the community makes decisions by consensus). While it's possible to set it up so that the Board also makes decisions by consensus (which would be less confusing), there's still potential trouble whenever the Board comes to a different conclusion than the community would. Which prevails?

There's also the potential for awkwardness whenever there's overlapping aspects of responsibility. For example, I know communities where the Board handles financial and legal matters, while the community oversees social and membership matters. On paper it looks like a straight-forward division, but it's not hard to imagine issues that spill over into both spheres of influence. Suppose a member is behind in dues payments—which body will wrestle with the consequences? It can become a tangled mess in a blink.

I much prefer that the Board be titular only and do no real work. That is, have a party every year and have people throw darts or draw lots to determine who will be the President and Secretary (as those are probably the only two officers the law requires you to have), and then ask them to do no real work.

Instead, make the community be the Board, such that all community decisions are automatically Board decisions. That way, you have only one governing body. It's much cleaner.

So that's my rap on structure. I'm imagining that the urgency behind the Board President's request is that the Board does real work, and thus it's a relatively big deal that Board slots might go unfilled. Thus, even if you like my structural suggestion, that doesn't solve the problem of how to get important functions covered, and that brings me to my second angle...

2. Filling Leadership Roles

Regardless of what governance structure the community adopts, you'll need leaders. That is, people who will inspire, coordinate, take initiative, and manage things needing to get done. I'm assuming that the Board currently does real work and the President is properly concerned that there is a dearth of people willing to fill non-trivial slots.

If this community is like most other cooperative groups, leaders are expected to shoulder a full complement of responsibilities while enjoying few rights or privileges. People serving the cmty in management positions are typically expected to be available on demand to hear (and hopefully resolve) members' frustrations with how things are progressing in their areas of responsibility, yet they have little power to act without explicit group sanction at every turn. They don't get paid (perhaps not even in hours), they don't get a new car, and they don't get an office with a corner window. In many cases, the leader's well-intentioned best efforts rankle a disaffected few who have no qualms about letting the leader know how unhappy they are with the leader's actions (or inactions) with respect to their pet concerns. Most leaders report that they receive far more criticism than appreciation, and are happy when their tour of duty ends and they can take off the "Shoot Here" shirt.

In many cases, the only thing that leaders get in compensation for their efforts is the opportunity to serve—and for many, that's not worth the hassle.

This is a community issue, and I have two recommendations about how to turn this around:

a) Talk about power and leadership in the group

There needs to be community-wide buy-in with the concept that leaders are necessary, and you need to have a model of what healthy leadership looks like. Absent that, there will always be at least low-level grousing about what leaders do, as people project their past damage (and everyone has personal experience of leaders who abused their power) onto the current leaders.

I'll give you some hints about what this model will need to include:

o High standards for disclosure, so that the work of leaders is transparent.

o Careful selection of people who serve in positions of significant responsibility (don't just take the first person who puts their hand in the air). This includes job descriptions and an explicit naming of the characteristics wanted for the person filling that role.

o Periodic evaluation of leaders (which can serve both to clear the air and to celebrate their accomplishments).

o A culture where all members are encouraged to take on positions of leadership over the course of time. Note that I am not suggesting that all members be required to take on leadership; rather, I'm suggesting that the community encourages members to consider it (to diffuse the tendency to see those wiling to serve as the Leader Elite).

b) Incorporate appreciation of leaders into the regular culture of the community

I believe it's worthwhile for communities to establish a body—perhaps a Participation Committee—whose job it is (among other things) to help lead the cheers for contributions made by members to enhancing community life. The segment of the community that I am particularly focusing on here are the leaders and managers, who would receive this attention as a balm. Note that I am not suggesting that leaders should not be criticized—if someone does something wrong or takes an action that upsets someone, there has to be a known and protected pathway be which that can surface and be dealt with. The point I am trying to make here is that people doing important work for the group deserve recognition for their contributions and that making sure this happens will make a significant difference in terms of people being willing to take a turn.

There are three groups that should be able to help do this consistently and do it well:

—The Participation Committee (if you have one)

—The Process Committee (because they'll be on top of what leaders and mangers are doing)

—Former leaders (who have personal experience of what it's like to walk in those shoes)

While it may be obvious, I want to point out that it's inappropriate to expect leaders to take the lead on appreciating themselves—even if they know it should happen. Some other group in the community must handle that.

If you put all this in place, I think you'll have a lot better luck finding good people willing to step forward to fill slots.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Foot Traffic is Prohibited on the Sidewalk

Yesterday I was in Chicago (with a layover between trains) and walked by a printed sign on Canal St that gave me the title for today's blog. The sign was directed toward pedestrians (like myself) walking northbound on the west side of the street and I had to read it three times before I convinced myself it really said that.

The sign was at the driveway portal to a parking garage beneath a major facility of the US Postal Service. There were raised sidewalks on either side of the driving lanes leading under the building, and I reckon they didn't want people using them. Maybe
the sidewalk turned out to be dangerous (people getting bumped by cars flying in and out of the garage), and they decided to shut it down. Who knows.

In any event, the sign gave me pause to ponder a number of questions...

1. Were other kinds of traffic are permitted on the sidewalk? Night crawlers, perhaps?
2. Where would foot traffic be permitted, if not on the sidewalk?
3. What did they mean, "the sidewalk"; most anyone who could read the sign would be walking on "the sidewalk."
4. If they wanted to close it, why didn't the sign say "Sidewalk Closed"? After all, what possible traffic could it have been open to? Rickshaws?

This is the kind of sign that makes fun of itself (though I'm doing what I can to help it along) and fuels that special blend of outrage and humor epitomized by $2700 hammers revealed to have been buried in military budgets. It boggles the mind to imagine the number of bureaucrats who signed off on this sign (so to speak) in order to get it officially blessed for prominent placement in a US government building, without noting that the self-contradictory potential in its message was likely to offer up as much opportunity for lampooning as enhanced safety. But I'll be damned if they didn't print it and post it anyway. What a country!

It reminds me of a Ron White joke where he complains about being profiled by local police because they were pulling over every car that traveled along this particular stretch of sidewalk...

• • •
On a more sober note, this mostly innocuous example of poor signage leads me to lament how low the bar has been set when it comes to what passes as acceptable standards of communication. It's one thing when an individual's best effort falls short of aligning meaning with intent; it's an altogether sadder state of affairs when obfuscatory efforts pass institutional review and manifest as posters. WWPGT (what was the Postmaster General thinking?)

Maybe it'll be a little easier now to understand why the Postal Service needs to keep seeking higher rates for first class stamps. While they're making no claims whatsoever about whether you'll find first class communication inside the envelope, these dedicated couriers
apparently have to complete their appointed rounds while weathering imprecise instructions as well as the vagaries of snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night. I'll bet it's a real gauntlet.