Monday, December 29, 2014

Bedlam 2014

Continuing a holiday tradition I started in 2011, I'm devoting my final post of the year to a summary of where I laid my weary head each night.

I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental illness; and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.

So here's the summary of where I was when the lights went out each night:

o  I spent 226 nights in my own bed, a whopping 62% of the time, up sharply from 185 last year. Even taking into account that I missed a week of travel in December due to my strained lower back, it appears I'm trending toward being more of a home body in my dotage.

o  I slept with my wife 235 nights, or 64% of the time—which was nearly double the total from the prior year, and was one of the main motivations for our moving into the same house a year ago. It nice to know that strategy was successful. (Of course, I wasn't in exile pending divorce for any of 2014, so that helped, too.)

o  I was guested by clients 13 times for a total of 48 nights, which was down slightly from the year before.

o  I stayed with family a meager 17 nights—less than half of 2013. The main difference was seeing my kids markedly less. There was only a single visit to each in '14 (Ceilee and my grandkids are in Los Angeles; Jo is in Las Vegas) where there had been three each the year before. I'll be trying to manifest more work out West in the coming year.

o  I had 47 overnights with friends, which is about normal.

o  I traveled to attend FIC meetings and events enough to claim 20 nights.

o  I managed to stay in a motel overnight a mere four times, which pleases me (at this point in my career as a consultant and community networker I know folks almost everywhere, obviating the need to pay for a bed).

o  I slept on a train 17 times.

o  While mostly I was in a bed with a real mattress, 17 times I slept on couches, and 13 times on air mattresses (kinda like camping in someone's living room).

o  All together I spent the night in 38 different locations away from Rutledge, encompassing 18 states and one province, plus all four time zones—all of which is about average.

No sooner have Ma'ikwe and I gotten used to living together—all of 2014, no less—but we'll be branching out into new territory as road warriors in 2015. Ma'ikwe will not be doing as much facilitation teaching with me as she experiments with giving sustainability talks on university campuses. Last year I only spent 21 nights at home while Ma'ikwe was elsewhere; next year that may double. 

We like to tell people that there's nothing like simple country living—and believe me, the way Ma'ikwe and I do it is nothing like simple country living. 

Friday, December 26, 2014


A couple weeks ago I was discussing family traditions with Ma'ikwe one evening. While I was thinking mostly about spiked egg nog and plum pudding, she recalled family rituals at Fourth of July waterskiing parties, where the featured libation was a thirst quenching concoction of rum, limeade, and beer called a Boomerang. From what I could tell it went down easy, yet had a nasty habit of coming back on you.

Sitting in bed recuperating from back strain these long winter nights, I started reflecting on how "boomerang" could be a serviceable theme for reflecting on trends in community living…

In the last 25 years something different has been happening in the demographics of intentional community. For the first time in history there are significant numbers of people over 50 years old trying community living for the first time. What has historically been predominantly the domain and twentysomethings and thirtysomethings—sticking your toes in community waters—has widened considerably. Now everyone’s doing it.

It used be that the way to get older folks in community was to recruit younger folks and age them for a few decades. Today though, some people are raising families in traditional settings, retiring from regular jobs, and then trying community.

What’s going on? I think there are a number of things.

Boomerang Hippies

Interest in intentional communities has ebbed and flowed over the entire history of the US. While we are currently riding a long wave that started around 1990 (and featured a secondary uptick in 2005-07), the prior boom to the current one was 1965-75: the Hippies Era. In fact, many of the inspirational and best-known US communities today started in that decade—notably Alpha Farm, Ananda, Camphill Kimberton, East Wind, The Farm, Heathcote, Lama Foundation, Love Family, Madison Community Cooperative, Magic, Miccosukee Land Co-op, Occidental Arts & Ecology, Prag House, Rowe Camp, Sandhill Farm, Shannon Farm, Twin Oaks, and We’Moon Land. Born in that decade of hope and chaos, they survived the lull of 1975-1990 to become mother trees for many of the seedlings that sprouted in the next warm spell and are flourishing today.

The reason I’m highlighting this era is that the people experimenting with cooperative living then were mainly Baby Boomers when they were four or five decades younger. I think one explanation for the greater interest in community among gray hairs today is that there are a number of latent Hippies who didn’t scratch that itch back when Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead were performing live at Fillmore West.

This is a large age cohort, many of whom believe they were young adults at a special time in history. Have you ever listened to commercials for Oldies radio stations? (Go ahead and embarrass your kids, turn up the volume!)

Young men moved to Canada to avoid conscription into an unpopular war; people were questioning whether father really did know best; feminism and anti-racism were on the front burner (the crock pot cooking from which eventually led to Democrats choosing between a black man and a white woman for their Presidential candidate in 2008—something that was very hard to imagine in 1972, when a thoughtful George McGovern was getting crushed by Tricky Dick’s reelection juggernaut).

There was widespread experimentation with sexual mores and recreational drugs, and suburbia was assailed as a cultural wasteland. Those were exciting times and some of us didn’t get it out of our systems merely by following Timothy Leary’s advice to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Many who came of age in 1965-75 went on to lead relatively normal lives, but we didn’t necessarily forget those days of foment and what if…

Golden Girls & Silver (Haired) Boys

It’s pretty clear today that the nuclear family is simply not able to provide a decent quality of life for seniors unless they’re very well off. Kids are expected to leave home and not necessarily return to care for aging parents. In this bleak environment, seniors are increasingly thinking about options for aging in place, where there’s familiarity, dignity, neighbors who know you, and meaningful ways to contribute.

For the most part, this translates to some form of group living. Remember Golden Girls, the critically acclaimed comedy series that aired 1985-92? The premise was four older women figuring out how to make their latter years more vital, more fun, more affordable, and less isolating by living together—instead of alone or in a senior ghetto. They were a little ahead of their time, but not by much. While there are plenty of examples of people today (not just older folks) living together in informal enclaves of unrelated adults, the logical next step is intentional community, with full-spectrum demographics.

In many ways, intergenerational communities harken back to traditional extended families— the very thing we left behind when going nuclear. If you think of intentional communities as families of friends, there you are. To be sure, in recreating neighborhoods with benefits, participants are emphatically not yearning for the stultifying hierarchy and limited opportunities of yesteryear (think education, career, and partners picked out by Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Otto). They’re looking for connection, support, and context.

Information Age

It’s probably not a coincidence that the current wave of interest in community living grew simultaneously with easy access to the Internet and the explosion of inexpensive options in electronic communications. It’s now much easier to find out what’s out there and to learn from the experiences of others, greatly enhancing the chances of avoiding others' mistakes, or locating high-quality help when you don’t.

While community living is still the road less traveled, there’s at least a beaten path these days, as well as GPS and Google maps to help you navigate the road to Shangri-La.

Cohousing as the Missing Link

It happens that 1990 is also the time when cohousing established a foothold in the US. This is significant both because cohousing is the form of intentional community that looks most like traditional housing options (with somewhat denser, smaller houses), which makes it more accessible to people who are ready for something different but aren’t ready to jump off a cliff (which is what moving into community can look like to the immediate family left behind). 

Though cohousing is a growing segment of the Communities Movement, it’s less than 10% of the total. Nonetheless, that concept is drawing a majority of the community virgins who are north of 50. Without the concomitant rise of cohousing it would be hard to project the growth we’re seeing today in Boomers joining communities.

If a Boomer Rang, Would You Answer?

While mostly I see the expansion of seniors seeking community as a solid plus, it is not without its challenges. If a Baby Boomer applies for membership at your community how would you reply?

Overwhelmingly, communities are looking for members who offer the prospect of giving in proportion to what they receive. If a senior waits until this give and take is clearly out of balance, this will not be attractive. To be sure, there are plenty of valued contributions that a senior can make that don’t require a strong back, a strong checkbook, or outstanding lung capacity. Think accounting, legal, planning, organizing, research, correspondence, management, childcare, cooking, marketing, etc.

While community members do an outstanding job of being there for each other in time of need, it’s not very appealing if the prospective member presents as someone needy right off the bat. 

If it’s early in the group’s life (say less than 20 years old) and it was started mostly by younger adults, then there won’t be many older folks in residence yet and seniors will be welcome as a way to help normalize the age distribution. (It was true for me joining 17-year-old Dancing Rabbit last year. In a group of 50+ adults, I was one of a small handful of people over 60 and the welcome mat was out.) However, that’s not usually how it works. Mostly people want to join groups in which peers are already present. If you’re an older person attracted to a group in which seniors are already well represented, there may be nervousness in your would-be home about becoming too top heavy (it won’t work to have 70% of the population in wheelchairs).

There’s delicacy about how much communities can stretch to support those in need, and the first priority is to be there for established members, not for the ones yet to come. For that matter there’s a limit to what groups can do for each other even if no seniors join, since very few communities promise nursing home services, and aging is inevitable. Taken altogether, communities need to exercise considerable discernment about the limits of support, or else risk swamping the boat for everyone—which is an unpleasant kind of boomerang where good intentions come back to knock you in the drink. 

And nobody wants that.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Spirits of Christmas Past

For all practical purposes, I spent my entire childhood in a single home in the western suburbs of Chicago. My family moved into that house a month before I turned four and I have only the sketchiest of memories from before then.

While my recollections associated with that house are rich and varied, today it seems appropriate to narrow my attention to Christmas there, about which I have memories that are rich and varied enough.

The house was a two-story split-level. All the upstairs was given over to bedrooms and bathrooms. Downstairs, the primary living area was a square ring of kitchen, dining room, living room, and hall. Three steps below that was a secondary ring comprised of less public spaces: laundry room, half bath, furnace room, den, and playroom.

The "official" start of the Christmas season at our house was when my mother unpacked the Twelve Days of Christmas ornaments and installed them on the paneling above the living room fireplace. These were colored paper constructions of a partridge, turtle dove, French hen, calling bird, golden rings, goose on a nest, swan, milking maid, dancing lady, leaping lord, piper, and drummer. My mother had handcrafted these yuletide decorations following patterns she found in Ladies Home Journal (or its socioeconomic equivalent—you know Martha Stewart would have been all over this but it was before her time). 

Next, Mom pressed into service the myriad glittering and multicolored Christmas cards we received, turning them into a seasonal frieze taped along the front facing of the valence lighting in the living room. Eventually, of course—somewhere in the vicinity of solstice—we'd buy a tree (always a long-needled Scotch pine), installing it in the corner of the living (right beneath the twelfth drummer).

Gradually, presents would start accumulating under the tree. One of the cherished games among us children was hiding and searching for a small paper mache brown owl (about an inch or so tall) that had been rescued from the packaging for a long-forgotten gift to become a favorite homemade tree ornament that was damn hard to find amidst the many lights and shiny objects on the tree.

My favorite time of all though was Christmas Eve, when the bulk of the presents made their way to the tree. The ritual that evolved at my house involved sequestering the den as Santa's Workshop, such that by eight or nine pm you had to have an appointment to go in there. The 3'x5' table had been cleared of mundane household detritus and given over to scissors; tubes of wrapping paper; boxes of ribbons, bows, and name tags; and Scotch tape in unlimited rolls.

My unflappable mother would be nursing a highball of watered scotch (carefully consumed at a leisurely rate: high enough to maintain holiday cheer yet low enough to avoid dropping any balls when it came to choreographing the dawn raid on the present horde, followed by holiday feasting), and we'd negotiate den times through her, acting in the capacity of the Workshop's majordomo.

In my teen years I liked to take one of the last shifts (circa 2 am), where I relished gathering up my stash of goodies and entering the inner sanctum of the Workshop. There I got to select the wrapping paper for each gift (curling my own ribbons), and trying to concoct word play and obscure references for the name tags. For that night only, wrap music meant Burl Ives.

Christmas morning was always a blur of flying paper and excited voices. While it was mostly a free-for-all when all us kids were under 10, it became more civilized as we grew older and were able to understand the nuance of deferred gratification—where it was OK to open presents one at a time and we could all appreciate the giving, even when it was neither from us nor to us.

I remember Christmas breakfast featuring homemade coffee cake laden with a cinnamon and brown sugar topping—the perfect foil to strong coffee with half and half. The dinner menu would vary over the years. While turkey was a popular choice, it might as well be ham with pineapple rings and hot mustard sauce (Coleman's mixed with a dab of water and honey), or roast beef with Aunt Hennie's red currant jelly. 

I think my favorite Christmas dessert is plum pudding with rum sauce and hard sauce (Hennie, take another bow). This traditional English recipe features: a) a steamed pudding with lots of fruit; b) a sweet roux laced with rum and/or bourbon, poured warm over the pudding; and c) butter with all the powdered sugar mixed into it that your wrist and forearm can stand, served cold. When consuming this delectable you can virtually feel your fillings dissolve in the sugar.

This year Ma'ikwe will cook a ham, and there's just enough time to get the ingredients for plum pudding. While it may not be possible to go home again in all ways, we can nonetheless embrace rituals that invoke memories that bridge the rose-colored days of our youth to loved ones today. 

Merry Christmas to all.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Seven Year Pitch

I started this blog seven years ago (Dec 13, 2007 was my opening entry), ostensibly to help drive traffic to the Fellowship for Intentional Community website.

While I reckon it's accomplished some of that, it's also become a platform for my observations and insights about cooperative group dynamics (distilled from my 27-year career as a process consultant), and a journal about my life in community, as a rural homesteader, and as a husband trying to be a good partner for my dynamic wife. Basically I write about what comes along that catches my attention. About every three days, something does.

Anniversaries and long winter nights (not to mention bad backs) are especially conducive to reflection, and it occurred to me, as I looked back over my career as a contributor to the blogosphere, that my earliest inkling that this might happen coalesced in an FIC committee meeting more than nine years ago, as I listened to my more technologically savvy brethren blue sky about the upcoming communication potentials bubbling up in the brave new world of social media, where the future was rushing in at warp speed to overtake the present.

While I'm by no stretch of the imagination a computer maven, I was able to connect the dots between: a) my being the public face of FIC; and b) social media being forecast as the infobahn of tomorrow. That was the moment when I first sensed a blog coming down the track with my name on it. While that engine took more than two years to actually pull into the station and pick me up, I've been steadily shoveling coal into my blog boiler ever since—to the point where whistling up contributions has become a routine part of my 72-hour circadian rhythm.

One of the most frustrating aspects of what I do in the world—as a writer, as a speaker, as a teacher, and as a consultant—is not getting enough data about how my efforts have landed. Have I offered a valuable insight? Have I altered anyone's life for the better? Have I stimulated a constructive conversation? Have I opened blocked passages? Have I been able to succor someone who felt isolated and misunderstood? Have I helped a group get unstuck and turn a corner? Have I inspired people to realize a bit more of their potential?

Most of the time, I don't know.

But something happened last week that made me smile. I got clear proof that—for at least one person on one occasion—my efforts made a difference. It was the best Christmas present I could get.

Essentially it's a story about customer service, and why it's important that the stream of electrons be connected at both ends to real people. Though not a complicated, as a feel-good story it's just right for the holidays.

As FIC's main administrator, I author quite a few communications written on behalf of the Fellowship to its various constituencies. A typical example of these went out about a month ago to all communities listed in our online Communities Directory. Although it's constant work to keep the information up-to-date, comprehensive, and well organized, listings are free to communities and there is no charge for users to access it. In recognition of this value, we asked groups to consider making a donation—we suggested $20 for every year that they'd been listed—to help cover costs.

The message went out under my signature to 3400 groups, and two days later I got this response from Sue Morris—someone I'd never met—who received my solicitation as a member of Neruda, a forming community in Marshfield VT:

John and I feel, as a founding community, that $20/year is way too much to ask. In our case that would amount to $140. While we are happy to make a donation, we're not sure if you would be content with some smaller amount, say $25 total. How does that sit with you?

I replied:

It’s important to us that all donations are a good fit for both parties, and thus, we don’t want you to contribute any more than you feel is appropriate. While we feel in integrity asking listed groups to consider supporting us at $20/year, we appreciate that the listing may mean more to some than others and will be happy to accept the $25 you’re comfortable with.

While I was fine with this exchange and thought that would be the end of it, last week Sue sent me this follow up:

We now have community-wide agreement to send $25 this year. Should I send a check to your address?

This made my day! Not because it was that much money, but because it was: a) thoughtfully done; b) engaged their whole group; and c) was relational. Sue and John were taken aback by the request, but instead of just hitting the delete button, they reached out to me to discuss their reaction, inviting a personal conversation. Then, based on my reply, they decided to widen the conversation. After the community duly met and discussed it, they let me know the outcome. Thus, I found out in December that my one-paragraph reply in November had landed well, at least in this instance. Not only did we get $25, but, more importantly, we got better connected. Hooray!

This is the very best kind of fundraising, where both parties feel good at the end of the conversation, and the request has resulted in stronger ties. As FIC's Development Coordinator I work hard to see that solicitations are respectful of prospective donors' interests and capacities—even when I get turned down—so it was satisfying to hear that I was able to achieve that with Sue & John.
If every group responded like Neruda, FIC would have all the resources we needed—because our connections with our constituency would be rock solid and we'd be able to harness that to pull together with incredible effectiveness.

The sequence in this story is instructive:
1. I started out with a generic appeal that was sent out en masse.
2. One of the recipients responded with a question, which I answered promptly, personally, and courteously.
3. The individuals brought the issue to their group, which determined its response through a deliberate process.
4. The individuals communicated to me the group's response.
5. Now I'm exploring my reflective response to this sequence, which will be posted en masse.

Think of it as a social media sandwich, where the most nourishing parts were layers 2-4—featuring direct conversations that stimulated Neruda/FIC relations better than a grow light—wrapped in messages that were broadcast to audiences worldwide, where it's uncertain if any seed will fall on fertile ground.

I've been pitching community and cooperative culture for seven years now, and it's satisfying to realize that unlike Tom Ewall in the 1955 romantic comedy, The Seven Year Itch, I've lost none of my original enthusiasm for being wedded to the cause.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stop Spinning Your (Roulette) Wheels When Making Personnel Decisions

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities can think up governance structures faster than they can staff them. It's a problem. 

In my experience, communities generally do a fair job of puzzling out a decent way to set up committees (or teams) to oversee the major aspects of living together—for example, outdoor maintenance, common house management, common meals, budget and finance, celebrations, conflicts resolution, etc.

To be sure, there's a fair amount of variety and personal flair in how each group puts it together, and there's wonderful creativity in the names bestowed on some the committees. (For example, at newly built Durham Central Park, a cohousing group in North Carolina, their participation committee is called Workin' IT—or WIT, as in what they need about them when trying to figure out a good way to get everyone slotted into community tasks.) In the spirit of being WITty, I want to shine the spotlight today on the challenge of filling committee slots in intentional communities, which are filled on a volunteer basis (though in some groups there's a clear expectation that everyone serve somewhere).

In my experience (I've worked with perhaps 100 groups in my 27 years as a process consultant) it's essentially universal that communities have more committee slots than people who are actively and competently filling them. There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Here are five:

o  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
Often people sign up for committees with good intentions, but piling more food on an over-full plate does not necessarily mean you can eat it all. Perhaps people are agreeing to serve on a committee simply to be agreeable, and have no intention of actually doing the work. In any event, it's relatively common for communities to report that some non-trivial fraction of the people who have accepted committee assignments are there in name only.

o  Unaddressed tension arising from uneven participation
Sometimes what starts out well doesn't continue that way. Good intentions often devolve into some members being perceived as not carrying their weight (so-called Slackers), while others (perhaps) are doing more than is asked of them yet complaining of their workload and expect special rights by virtue of their contributions (so-called Martyrs). While it's fairly common that imbalances will occur and that these will lead to tensions, the real question is whether the group has developed a way to talk about the tensions and work through them (Every so often—perhaps every couple years—it's a good idea to set aside time explicitly to tackle this head on. Think of it like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. See the spring 2008 issue of Communities magazine for an article of mine devoted to the Martyrs & Slackers dynamic and how to address it.)

o  Timidity in responding to interpersonal tensions 
This goes well beyond Martyrs & Slackers stuff, to include garden variety interpersonal tensions, style clashes, and personalities that don't mix well, resulting in: a) individuals who attempt to serve on committees together and rue the results; or b) in those so who have gotten off to such a poor start with another member that they don't even care to try to serve with that person on the same committee. 

The larger issue is whether the group offers sufficiently skillful support for members struggling to resolve interpersonal tensions, and whether the members have the courage and humility to ask for help.

o  Weak delegation of authority
If committees are only set up to do grunt work for the plenary, and are given no authority to act without plenary approval, serving on committees is often viewed as scut work, and not very rewarding. The good news is that this can be turned around by creating mandates that give committees clear guidance about the kinds of things they can handle on their own, and when they need to consult. Committees operating on a short leash tend to feel stifled; empowered committees tend to be much happier.

o  Lack of accountability
It tends to be awkward for communities to hold their members accountable for behaving in line with agreements and following through on commitments. While I get it that this can be uncomfortable, it doesn't get less so because it's ignored. And I'm not talking about draconian punishments; I'm just talking about a baseline expectation that it you're perceived to be coloring outside the lines, someone has a right to ask you about it and it's your responsibility to show up for a good faith attempt to sort it out.

• • •
While it might well be worthwhile addressing some of the causes named above, what can you do meanwhile to cope with the fact that slots aren't being filled well? I have five ideas about that:

1. Stop taking volunteers from the plenary floor
Sadly, most communities largely fill committee slots by announcing openings in plenary and gratefully accepting the first people to raise their hand. You can do better than that. While I have no problem with testing the waters for general interest in plenary; please don't make the assignments based simply on who volunteers first. That's committee roulette. 

While I understand the saying "beggers can't be choosers," I believe creating some intentionality and esprit de corps can make a difference. How? Read on.

2. Create mandates for committees (and managerships) that spell out expectations
If you want to be more careful about selecting the right people for assignments, first you have to have a common understanding of what the job entails—so people know what they're assessing candidates for. That means a thorough job description.

While it will take some effort to put all this in place on the front end, once you have it, it will only occasionally need tweaking.

3. Create a list of qualities wanted from people serving in positions of responsibility
Answers here will vary according to the job (because, or course, what's wanted varies by job). For example, you probably want attention to detail as a desirable quality for an accounting position, while sociability may not enter the equation. For someone serving on Conflict Resolution you probably want to rate discretion high, yet not care a fig about their familiarity with spread sheets. You get the idea.

Note: If you're talking about committees, it can be useful distinguishing between qualities that you want some members of the committee have, and qualities you want all members of the committee to possess.

4. Self-assessment
Once the group signs off on 2. and 3. above, ask members to self-assess for suitability on the basis of three questions relative to the job:

a) Do you have the skills needed for this assignment?
Essentially, do you have the qualities the community has decided it wants for this job? Mind you, there's no guarantee that others in the community will agree with your self-assessment, but at least it provides a somewhat objective basis for that conversation (rather than it simply being a beauty contest).

There's also an additional nuance here: is the community committed to providing opportunities to learn skills it depends on? If so, it may make good sense to select people as apprentices to pair with more experienced folks so that there's a larger pool of competency to draw from in the future. If you always select your most experienced person, there's no growth.

Taking this point about opportunities one step further, do you want to set term limits for how long people can serve in a position? Sometimes people can get pretty comfortable in a certain slot and nobody else gets a chance. Is that OK? Continuity and experience are one thing; entrenchment and fiefdoms are another.

b) Do you have the availability needed for this assignment?
The most obvious meaning is are there enough hours left on your dance card after subtracting for employment, commuting, unwinding (recharging the battery), family time, other community duties, spiritual practice, etc, to actually do the work. However, it's more subtle than that. It's not just do you have the time; do you have the psychic bandwidth to engage in this work with grace and good energy? Remember, we're expressly not encouraging martyrdom.

Further, some jobs are difficult to budget for. Where accounting responsibilities tend to be highly predictable and uniform in terms of the time it takes to do the work each month, duties on the Conflict Resolution Team are notoriously unpredictable: one month nothing and the next 20 hours. Do you have the kind of flexibility needed for this job?

c) How motivated are you to do this work?
This is about whether you want the job. Would it be fun, or growthful in ways that attract you? Maybe it makes a difference who you'll be working with—if so, be sure to put that out. It might be a good idea to ask candidates what factors, or changes in the job, would make it more attractive. Maybe there are simple ways to alter how the job is configured to enhance motivation.

Once you've done all this, now you're in a much better position to make committee selections (with the added bonus that people serving on committees are much more likely to enjoy serving).

5. Periodically evaluate performance
Now that you're clicking on all cylinders, don't forget to close the information loop. By building into each job the expectation that there be a periodic performance evaluation, you get to check to see if mandates need adjusting, managers are doing their job, and committees are playing nice with one another.

One last thing: it's a good idea to conduct exit interviews when people step down from assignments. Ask questions like:
—How good was the experience for them?
—Did they get the cooperation they needed to do a good job?
—Were their contributions appreciated?
—Did they get support from the community when they asked for it?
—Did they wish they'd done anything differently?
—Does the mandate need tightening, or revisions made to the list of qualities wanted for people doing this job?
• • •
We're talking about intentional communities, right? Then doesn't it make sense to be intentional about filling positions of responsibility?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Group Works: Shared Airtime

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The ninth pattern in this segment is labeled Shared Airtime. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Everyone deserves to be heard, and everyone has a piece of the truth. Find ways to invite sharing from all, not just the loudest, most senior, or most articulate. Actively draw out the wisdom of quieter or hesitant participants.

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities aspire to develop cooperative culture (in contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream). In pursuit of that, consensus is the most common form of decision-making among communities.

There are two main roots of consensus: Native American culture (witness the Iroquois Confederation) and the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, who have relied on it to reach congregational decisions their entire history. Of the two, the Quaker tradition has had the stronger influence on the way consensus is practiced among cooperative groups today (a tip of the cap here to the trail blazing work done in the '70s by anti-nuclear activists—think Clamshell Alliance and Movement for a New Society—to adapt consensus to secular settings).

Quaker practice (which goes back three centuries and change) happens in a spiritual context, and there is a phrase associated with the Quaker approach which can be traced all the way back to George Fox, the original articulator of Quaker beliefs (circa 1650): "There is that of God in everyone." While George was probably thinking about there being no excuse for wickedness and corruption because God acts as a witness within us all, this phrase has been passed down through the years and is more commonly interpreted today to support pacifism (to kill another is to kill a piece of God) and environmental consciousness (in the sense that God dwells in all living things).

In the case of intentional communities, most rely on a secular adaptation of consensus, where there is no assumption of spiritual alignment among the membership, nor is there an attempt to find the way forward by discerning divine guidance. Instead, many have translated "that of God in everyone" to "everyone has a piece of the truth."

It's important to understand that this does not necessarily mean that everyone has a unique piece of the truth, such that everyone's piece needs to be assiduously solicited and identified before the best response can be formulated. Rather, it means that it's a healthy baseline assumption that everyone has something relevant to contribute to the consideration—though they may not necessarily be adept at articulating what that is, and their contribution may have already been covered by others.

With this in mind, I think it's worthwhile to create a way (or ways) for all participants to contribute what they have on the topic with minimal impedance. This accomplishes two things: a) doing the best you can to see that all potentially useful input has been gathered; and b) enhancing the likelihood of solid buy-in with the outcome—because people who feel heard are much more likely to hear; people who feel stretched toward, are more likely to stretch toward others.

Many groups stumble here because they make the naive assumption that open discussion is an equally accessible format for all participants, just because it's intended to be. The fact is, some people are quicker thinkers than others, some are quicker at composing what they want to say, some are more comfortable speaking in front of a large group. 

Some of this can be addressed by varying formats (Hint: If you're in the habit of gathering input the same way every time, you're susceptible to inadvertently creating dead spots, where contributions from some segments of your group are systematically under-represented because the format doesn't have a clear on-ramp for their input.)

What do I mean? Instead of open conversation, where people simply speak as they are ready and called upon, consider:

o  Rounds
Where you go around the circle with everyone being given a chance to speak in turn, and no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has spoken once.

o  Small Group Work
Having the full group break into smaller circles of 3-5 people where those who find speaking in front of larger numbers daunting can practice what they want everyone to know in a less intimidating setting.

o  Individual Writing
Some people are better able to express themselves in writing than orally. You can cater to that by occasionally giving everyone time (five minutes?) to jot down the points they want to make before speaking begins.

o  Spectrum
Instead of using words, you can ask people to position themselves along a line that indicates where they stand (literally) between two extremes positions (say those who think affordability trumps everything at one end of the line, and those who think environmental impact is supreme at the other, with those who prefer some balancing of the two somewhere in the middle). This is a way that important meaning can be conveyed without using words at all (though it's often helpful to have people explain why they chose their position).

Finally, let's focus on what it means to "draw out the wisdom" of:

—The Inarticulate 
If this is a question of stage fright, changing formats may make a difference (see the options above). It might also help if the facilitator can be their ally: "Take a moment to organize your thoughts and try again, We'll wait for you."

Further, the facilitator may be able to help by offering an educated guess at the speaker's meaning. Even if the facilitator gets it wrong, it will eliminate a possible misunderstanding and demonstrate to the person struggling that there's help in the room.

—The Obscure
Sometimes people have an unusual way of organizing thoughts (perhaps English is not their native tongue). In cases like this translation is often needed. The facilitator (or anyone else inspired) can attempt to paraphrase what has been said such that: a) the speaker agrees that it conveys their point(s); and b) the meaning is now accessible to the rest of the group. Voila—the curtain has been raised and meaning revealed.

—The Overwhelmed
If it's nerves, a different format may help. Another option is taking a break and having the facilitator sit down (or go for a walk) with the tongue-tied for the purpose of helping them gather their thoughts. If it's a pattern, the facilitator may even anticipate this dynamic and spend time ahead of the meeting with persons prone to having their boat get swamped, providing them with a prompt about what to prepare for.

—The Marginalized
When people feel marginalized, they don't experience others caring about their input. Worse, if this is a pattern, they typically go into meetings expecting to not be cared about. The antidote is explicitly working to contradict that. This means making sure that their input is solicited (in a way that's accessible to that person), not moving on until that person reports that they've been heard correctly, and then making sure that their input has been duly considered in developing the group response. (Note: I'm not promising that they'll be agreed with.)

If all of this sounds remedial, that's because it is. It takes effort to repair damage. 

—The Upset
If someone is experiencing non-trivial distress, it's important (even essential) that this be attended to before attempting to connect with, or process that person's input about what needs to be taken into account or how to proceed. The idea here is that upset functions as virtual earwax that distorts what the person hears, and your first order of business is unclogging the ears. Ignoring it simply doesn't work.

The bad news is that most groups are not adept at working authentically and non-judgmentally with distress. The good news is that it can be learned.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken the title of this essay from a World War II book by Cornelius Ryan, which chronicles the story of a failed attempt by Allied Forces in the fall of 1944 to break through the German lines at Arnhem and cross the Rhein River. It is a high stakes example of overreaching in pursuit of a noble cause (in this case, ending the war as quickly as possible).

While taking chances occurs in all cultures, I'm narrowing the focus of today's essay to how this unfolds in a cooperative context.

One of the many facets of leadership [see Cooperative Leadership from A to Z] is aspirational—the ability to pull the group forward into the unknown, especially when the group is unlikely to go there on its own. What makes this a compelling topic is that this can work wonderfully and it can be a disaster... or some of both.

People can stretch—often more than they think they can—but only so far. Where is the limit, and how do you know you're close to it?

Suppose the issue is whether to build a new community center because you intend to grow and the old one is at capacity. The questions are many:

o  How large a group are you aiming to accommodate in the new facility? Partly this is a question of rate of growth (to what extent are you willing to rely on past trends to continue)? Partly this is a question of the life expectancy of the new building.

o  To what extent do you want the new facility to be an enhancement or upgrade from current facilities? Buildings are a long-term highly visible statement of values. Other things being equal, you want to be proud of that statement.

o  How much financial burden are current members willing to accept? If population does not surge forward, or otherwise falls short of projections, that means existing members will have to shoulder more of the debt load. There's a limit to what people can bear and still grin.

o  Undertaking a large project means that money and labor are not available for other projects. Is this facility the group's most pressing need? Is it acceptable that most other projects are on hold?

o  To what extent should you try to fund the building through savings, to what extent through donations, and to what extent through loans? Waiting to accumulate sufficient savings tends to equate with delays; borrowing tends to be easier to secure than donations, but you have to handle debt load. Donations are nice (manna from heaven), yet most groups do not have a robust fundraising program and starting from scratch takes time.

Having witnessed a number of cooperative groups go through the wringer in pursuit of securing and maintaining buy-in for a major building initiative, here's a list of things that leaders might keep in mind:

1. Tracking the Energy
In general, you can expect a certain amount of nervousness associated with any proposal to undertake a large project. For the risk averse this will be knee-jerk scary and you'll need to work through this, not bulldoze over it. That means making sure that you are able to demonstrate to the naysayers' satisfaction that you have heard their reservations and are being responsive in ways that feel respectful to them. Caution: this not about the leaders being in integrity; it's about the leaders being able to successfully build and maintain a bridge to the risk averse.

While this guidance obtains for any group working with consensus, regardless of the issue, the stakes are much higher here and therefore the penalty for getting this wrong is much greater.

2. Knitting Support at Tortoise Pace
There are times to go fast and times to go slow. It is crucial, for example, when you're developing group approval for the initial plan that you go no faster than your slowest thinkers. (Don't mishear me: slow thinkers are not inferior thinkers; they just need more time to process data and know their own minds. If they're pushed to make a decision too fast they tend to dig in their heels and bad things happen, such as gridlock.)

Later, once approval has been secured, you can pick up the tempo during implementation.

3. Admitting Uncertainty 
If you paint too rosy a picture, your credible is out the window as soon as the first surprises emerge. (Of course, if you emphasize is too much on the down beat, you're raining on your own parade.) It's important to disclose the variables and not pretend confidence when it isn't justified. There's reason for the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." By overplaying your hand you train people to discount your projections.

4. Limiting Unknowns to Manageable Proportions
Take careful note of how many critical aspects of the plan require success when you're operating in terra incognita. It's axiomatically riskier counting on success in unknown territory than relying on delivering a modest increase in what you've already proven you can accomplish.

5. Assessing Internal Capacity to Do the Work
Do you have the horses? That is, can you fill all crucial slots with personnel who have the skill, motivation, and availability for the tasks? Hiring outside often increases costs and can result in a crew that isn't well aligned with mission. This can be particularly tricky if the project manager is hired outside the family. On the other hand, it avoids the awkwardness of people who are otherwise in a member-member peer relationship having to navigate the schizophrenia of also being in an employer-employee relationship.

6. Embracing Contingencies
If success depends on everything working well, you're probably stretched too far. Nothing goes perfectly. If your plan has so little wiggle room that any setback means unacceptable delays or cost overruns, then you're in deep doo-doo.

7. Establishing Pause Points
Good plans will identify checkpoints along the way, such that you can either hit the pause button, or—if the signs are bad enough—you can hit the abort button. This means establishing targets for funding secured, personnel hired, materiél acquired, construction accomplished within seasonal (having the exterior enclosed before freeze-up), etc.

People tend to breathe easier if there is a bolt hole established in the event that targets aren't met.

8. Establishing and Meeting Reporting Standards
Transparency can go a long way toward helping people exhale. Good reporting is partly a question of frequency; partly it's depth of coverage. Are you making clear what indicators are important in your report; are you bringing the right information forward? Hint #1: It's more crucial to be forthcoming with bad news than good news. Hint #2: Keep your reports short and to the point, inviting people to ask questions if they want greater detail.

Sometimes project managers try to hide bad news in the hopes that problems will be resolved before the next report. This is a dangerous game—kinda like juggling lit dynamite sticks. Occasionally that works, but more often it blows up in your face and now you have two problems: the one you started with and the loss of trust.

9. Developing a Broad Base of Active Support
This one is a spin-off to 5) above. The more members of the group who are actively involved in the project, the easier it will be to achieve and maintain buy-in—because it feels more like their project than one being done for them, or worse, to them.

This may take some creativity on the part of leaders to manifest, yet you are at grave risk of being isolated and falling into us/them dynamics if only a small number of community members are getting their hands dirty and their sleeves rolled up in service to the project.

The key throughout is making sure that the bridge between the project and the membership is never too far.

Monday, December 8, 2014

When Does a Private Issue Become a Group Issue?

When people create intentional community they are purposefully choosing a culture that is shifted more toward the "we" end of the spectrum and away from the "I" end. People living in community are, by design, opting for a social reality in which their lives will be more interwoven with those of fellow members and less autonomous. In consequence, there will be a number of decisions that you may be used to making solely as an individual (or as a household) that you are now obliged to work out with fellow community members—because your choices may impact others, and you've agreed that you're in this together.

Let me walk you through this.

Suppose you want to cut down a tree in front your house that's getting so high that it's shading the solar panels on your roof. Let's further suppose that: a) the tree is growing in lawn that is within the space immediately around your house that is defined by the community's covenants as yours to control (often referred to in community lingo as "limited private element") and b) there is an explicit community agreement that if you propose to do anything that impacts your neighbors that you're expected to consult with them first and make a good faith effort to find a course of action that's mutually agreeable.

In the mainstream world, so long as the tree is on your property, you'd have the right to cut it down whenever you wanted. Your only risk would be accidentally felling the tree onto your neighbor's roof, car, or (heaven forbid) their children who wanted to get close enough to witness your Paul Bunyan moment.

In community this is much more complicated.

o  First of all, you'd be less likely to own your own chain saw, because community is all about shared living and how many chain saws does a community need anyway? If you're proposing to use the community's chain saw, you be smart to reserve it ahead of time because someone else may want it at the same time you do. What's more, you probably can't count on the chain being sharp, or there being enough fuel on hand, so that means setting aside time to see that those things have been taken care of ahead of need.

o  While few people think it's a good idea to run a chain saw in the dark (visibility being directly related to safety) there's an issue around noise. If your fire up a chain saw at first light, most people will not thank you for substituting Stihl-ness for stillness—waking up to the roar of a chain saw is highly unpleasant and it's prudent to accept guidance from the neighbors about appropriate hours for running noisy machines, and then giving everyone a heads up about the exact time you expect to be doing the work, so that they can get their children, pets, and cars safely away from the action.

o  There is also a nuance around parameters a) and b) above. From a) it follows that it's wholly your call whether the tree should come down. Despite that, however, you could run afoul of b). Suppose, for example, that the tree provides welcome afternoon shade for the neighbor immediately to your east. Under those circumstances it's possible that what you're doing to reduce energy costs for your house (by increasing solar gain) will increase costs for your neighbors (because their air conditioning will have to work harder to maintain comfortable temperatures in summer).

Worse, you may not even know that your neighbor benefits from the shade of that tree, and that you are at risk for stepping on a landmine you didn't know existed if you blithely ignore the basic principle that undergirds b): measure (your neighbors) twice, cut once.

Note in this hypothetical example that you have a good reason for cutting down the tree—one that's directly in line with a core community value of being energy conscious. But that doesn't mean you have the only valid perspective on the issue. Remember the part about being in this together? The fact that you couldn't think of any reason that the neighbors might object to your taking down the tree, doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one.

• • •
Now I want to take this a step further. For some class of decisions, the whole group needs a chance to have their oar in the water. For another class of decisions, the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, yet they are expected to create an opportunity to hear and work through people's reactions.

All Skate Decisions
The kind of decisions that may shift from unilateral in the mainstream to being made by the plenary (or its designate) in community are things like:

o  Anything relating to group covenants or interpretations on common values, all of which can be understood as voluntary limitations on what an individual can do. For example, at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit there are agreements that members will rely wholly on vehicles owned collectively by the community: no private cars.

o  Who is an authorized spokesperson for representing the community when talking with the press.

o  Who is authorized to sign contracts on behalf of the community.

o  Who are check signers on the community account.

o  What color you paint the outside of your house. (Not all communities try to control the outside aesthetic, but some do.)

o  How shared assets are maintained and accessed.

In these kinds of things, the group supplants the individual as primary decision maker. To be sure, the individual still has a say in what happens, but each voice counts the same. The operant shibboleth here is: you're in good hands with all skate. (Either that, or you're in the wrong group.)

Personal Decisions that Impact the Group
That said, there is a second class of decisions where the community may want/need a collective venue to process a choice made by an individual, where there's no intention of asserting a community right to make the decision. Examples of that include:

—Where there's been a break up of an intimate relationship, and both people are trying to continue to live in the community. While no one is suggesting that the community should have a say about who you partner with, changes in intimacy can have a profound impact on group dynamics and it can help enormously if there's a way to unpack those feelings (other than by gossiping in the parking lot). Non-principals can be in anguish about to how to reach out to one party in the break-up without it being construed as taking sides.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents set limits for their children. Though it's highly unlikely that the community will attempt to tell parents how to raise their children, it can be very awkward threading the needle when trying to set limits as a non-parent supervising two children who are being raised in very different ways.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents educate their children. Again, schooling decisions generally remain with the parents, yet children who are homeschooled (or children going to public school for that matter) may not be thriving, with the result that difficult behaviors show up in the community arena. How do you talk about frustrations associated with obstreperous behavior in the group context, in part because the parent has made choices about their child's education out of ideological reasons that are not working well for the child?

—Where there's persistent negativity and low trust between two or more longstanding members. While you can't make people get along, there's a point where the swamp gas of festering enmity poisons the atmosphere in group settings.

—Where there's a clash of personalities and styles that surfaces in the group context. What's loud, obnoxious, and bullying to one person may be exuberance and passionate expression to another. Given that you're unlikely to outlaw certain personalities, you need a way to discuss how you're going to translate your core commitment to diversity into a culture that is home for all.

—Where there's been a major trauma in a member's life (severe accident, prolonged illness, suicide of a loved one). It's not unusual for people who suffer major setbacks to grieve and recover privately. Yet that doesn't mean that others in the group are unaffected by events.

[As a case in point, more than 10 years ago my community, Sandhill Farm, went through a gut-wrenching time when a visitor lost most of the fingers on her right hand when she accidentally got a glove caught in the roller mill we use to crush sorghum cane during our fall harvest. While there's no question that the woman was the person most profoundly affected by the accident, the community still needed to emotionally cope what happened and we made time that evening for people to simply share from their hearts. It was not about assigning blame; it was about staying connected and offering succor to one another in response to tragedy.]

The point of this class of decisions is to acknowledge the need for a way to get information out on the table (ahead of the rumor mill) and to process feelings that get stirred up among non-principals, such as sorrow, joy, anger, and confusion. This is not meant as an opportunity to judge others; it's a chance to tend to relationships that are strained as a result of the stress radiating out beyond the immediate players. This is not about problem solving; it's about nurturing connections, which are the backbone of community.

This is all the more important because it rarely happens in the mainstream (which means that people come into the community experience with little sense of why this might be needed or how to set this up to be constructive), yet it can be enormously beneficial for the community as it strives to maintain cohesion and suppleness through trying times.
• • •
In conclusion, private matters become group matters when decisions impact the group in non-trivial ways. This will happen more often in community living than in the mainstream because community culture is shifted more toward "we" and intertwined living naturally creates more opportunities for the group to be affected by individual actions.

In addition, there is an important distinction between: a) things that the plenary controls instead of the individual (the first class above); and b) things for which the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, but about which the group needs a chance to explore the emotional swirls that surface as a result of being collaterally impacted by those choices (the second class above).

To navigate this territory well, groups need to be able to distinguish between the two classes, and have in mind how to handle each conversation with sensitivity and compassion. I'm not saying that's easy, but it can be done and is well worth the effort to learn how to do it.