The plusses and minuses of consensus

I belong to a cohousing group based in Herefordshire called Mandorla Cohousing. You can find out more about us at http://www.cohousing.org.uk/herefordshire-mandorla-cohousing. We try and take decisions by consensus, both formally and informally. My experience there has made me question the value of and need for consensus, especially in formal consensus procedures. This is the first of several blogs in which I’m going to try and clarify my thinking.

Let’s start with the plusses, which are many. They follow directly from the requirement that everybody consent to a decision. Consensus encourages a group to pay attention and talk to everyone. It encourages people to listen carefully both to the emotional tone and the intellectual content of what others say. It can change the feel of a meeting, to being in a joint search for agreement, rather than being opponents in a competitive struggle. It directs members’ attention to the common good, to the needs of the whole. It increases commitment, because everyone has agreed to everything. And, finally, where members rely on each other, consensus gives expression to an emotional need for unity.

Turning to the minuses, there are various common criticisms of consensus. It needs shared values. It can take a long time – “the democratic process breaks down after two hours [of a meeting]”, said a member of the Mifflin Street Community Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. For the sake of consensus, people may suppress their true views. (Someone involved in the women’s movement talked about “the bottled up egos lost in a mush of niceness”.) This self-censorship, in order to maintain group cohesion, has become known as groupthink. For the sake of consensus, also, disagreements may be blurred or masked, and decisions kept vague. It can give a lot of power to a ‘blocker’ (this is a term used in a formal consensus process). In practice, many organisations that espouse consensus will resort to some form of majority voting if blocks continue. In a situation of deadlock, the only alternative to this is social coercion or exclusion. Last, these difficulties can favour the status quo by making decisions difficult to take (whereas majority rule is neutral in relation to the status quo).

Strangely, though, none of these was my main concern. I’ll tell you what that was in the next blog.

Perry Walker

Co-op culture and conversation

I’m typing this during #coopshour (Wednesdays 2pm-3pm GMT on twitter). Kate at Co-operantics has just tweeted the link to an article on their website about building co-operative culture and not just structures.

And (shows how much attention I’ve been paying of late) I noticed a series of great co-op conversations they undertook for Co-operatives Fortnight. Go and read them. Here’s a taste of the linked article:

“many people’s lives and environments have shaped them in a way that has not prepared them for the co-op experience in the slightest. The idea of a co-op culture is the anti-thesis of how they are used to working. In fact, as much as they might need to learn about co-ops and co-op culture, there’s probably a hefty amount of unlearning that needs to be done as well.” Brian Van Slyke

 

Liberation facilitation

In the facilitator and trainers’ circles we inhabit here in the UK there’s an ongoing conversation on facilitating diversity in groups and movements and supporting those same groups and movements with training to help them deal with difference in all it’s forms. Fortunately it’s more than just a conversation – it’s a living experiment with some successes and some failures and some forums for sharing both.

Various training collectives are offering such training drawing on different sources of information and inspiration and using various names. Some refer to it as “anti-oppression” work, some as “power and privilege” training, others “diversity” training and so on. A lot of the learning seems to be coming from the States or from the States via Australia – organisations such as Training for Change and The Change Agency.

Twice in recent weeks I’ve heard it referred to as “liberation” work – first on the People & Planet website and then again whilst working with Liverpool Guild of Students. A student connection…. I’ve always liked the idea of liberation struggles – whether women’s lib, animal liberation or whatever. They go beyond the notion of mere ‘rights’ campaigns to something deeper, more inherent, profound and not dependent on the permission of other people/species. And in the thinking and feeling of  liberation is the notion of interdependence – that we’re all entwined in the same struggle and that none of us will be fully liberated until we’re all liberated.

For me this allows us to transcend the hierarchy of oppression that much of the power and privilege conversation seems to reinforce – everyone scrabbling to point up the pyramid and blame someone more oppressive than they are, without seeing how divisive and ultimately oppressive that is in itself. It’s more subtle, more connected, deeper, and ultimately more compassionate, co-operative and less violent.

I spoke with Gill for half an hour or so recently and recorded that call. We hope to have an audio file uploaded soon once we figure out whether we need to edit it down to a more manageable size or not. One of the questions she asked as we stopped recording was what happened to the training that was around in the UK 20-30 years ago which, from what I’ve heard and seen, was more in tune with liberation. Good question, and one we’ll explore on the blog in due course. As always we’d like to hear your experience, thoughts and feelings. You know where we are.

In the meantime, here’s to Liberation facilitation in all its forms.

Matthew

71% activist burnout rate!

71%.

Let’s say that again: 71% of activists surveyed by Plan To Thrive report having experienced or currently experiencing burnout.

Read the Burnout: Experiences & Advice post for both personal and organisational strategies to stay sustainable.

For grassroots activists, consider going to Sustaining Resistance which we help facilitate – next dates are in October in the Catalan Pyrenees, repeated in 2015 likely in the spring and autumn, and the early summer in the UK. 

And if we can help your community, whether an organisation, network or single group, change it’s culture of activism and implement those strategies, do please get in touch.

Building your cultural capacity for capacity building

A couple of weeks ago we co-facilitated the first of the Co-ops UK ‘Working with Conflict’ workshops in Manchester, part of an innovative and responsive training programme commissioned by Co-ops UK and being provided by experienced training co-ops across the country. Rhizome is leading on the working with conflict workshops and we’d opted to pitch the training at the level of cultural, attitudinal and behavioural change, rather than just skills building. Skills building is important, but to us changing attitudes and behaviour is where the real, solid and effective change happens.

It was heartening to find that many of the coops attending were very aware of the impact of organisational culture on their ability to function effectively. That’s not something you can always assume – historically cooperative development and support was aimed at structural issues such as finance, legal frameworks and marketing. In this training we gave the participants space to share their struggles and their successes in terms of avoiding, controlling or turning round cultures of conflict. And there were lots of examples of coops doing just that. One coop shared that they now prioritised recruiting for the ability and attitudes to co-operate, not for skills to do the tasks of the business.

This awareness and willingness to work on changing organisational culture isn’t always so easy to find. Through other work we’ve done recently we’ve had reason to ponder the nature of capacity building as an act of growing the culture of activism. Our work often focuses specifically on growing and supporting networks of grassroots activists (and not just growing the numbers of activists, levels of skill, amount of activity or any of the other criteria by which capacity building success are often measured).

Discussing one organisation’s plan to build up an activist network was disappointing. What they said they wanted turned out to be very different from what they’ve ended up going with. In Rhizome we’ve seen this same, flawed, approach so many times – so many assumptions that demonstrate an underlying culture of the organisation which conflicts with their stated aims and plans.

Of course many of us don’t always live up to our aims – none of us are perfect. But to thrive we need to recognise that an organisation’s values and impact are not defined just by their mission statements, their stated aims, but by the attitudes and behaviours of the organisation as a whole, as well as those of the individuals in it. And where there is a substantial difference between what we say and what we do, it fundamentally dilutes our message, compromises our abilities, weakens our capacity. Ultimately it hobbles the organisation and risks its future.

If you want to see the gap between your rhetoric and your reality – check out your work against the Ladder of Citizen’s Participation. Sherry Arnstein wrote:

“There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process… participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.”

Many of us working for social change might read that and heartily agree that that’s exactly what corporations, politicians and states do. We may be less inclined to notice when NGOs do the same through their own ‘democratic’ processes, or when ‘grassroots’ networks do the same through informal hierarchies and unacknowledged oppressive behaviour.

If you want to have a lasting effect then social change organisations need to be honest about which rung of the ladder they aspire to, and which they currently occupy. Our experience is that unless this is firmly out in the open, and groups are actively working towards integrating the rhetoric and the reality, the level of participation will almost always slip downward as other factors assert themselves at the cost of empowerment.

At Rhizome we feel that relating to or working in an organisation or network is all in the attitude. And that attitude needs to be nurtured and held throughout the organisation – in other words be part of the organisation’s culture. It’s not sufficient for a team of paid or voluntary capacity builders to have the right attitudes, if they don’t have the support of the wider organisation, or the power to make organisation-wide change. The right attitude to engagement needs to be part of your organisational culture from top to bottom. Otherwise you risk being seen as milking the networks for more action, more funds, more weight to your campaign, and ultimately your capacity and support will wither.

So if you’re building or supporting an activist network, some of the ways in which a culture of participation and empowerment might demonstrate themselves in your capacity building programme include:

  • Make involving staff realistic and genuine. There’s often an ideal of all staff taking a part in the life of the network through some kind of support or mentoring role, and that’s a laudable way to ensure that the network becomes central to the whole organisation. However, it’s rarely in every staff member’s job description, it’s unlikely to have been a consideration in their recruitment and in reality, they may not have the interest or relevant skills. If you’re going to do this you need to do it properly – check, assess and train them and integrate it properly into the roles.

  • Whatever you’re planning needs enough lead in time. It doesn’t matter how urgent the campaign, the emphasis is on you to get your act together – strategise and plan appropriately, don’t dump unworkably short project plans on your volunteer networks. There’s your own internal bureaucracy, plus giving your activists a genuine chance to contribute, co design and participate at a pace that works for them – which, if they’re volunteers, may be a lot slower than you’d like. Working with the conflicts will take time. Whatever lead in time you were thinking of, double it, and then double it again.

  • Involve activists and potential activists from the start. Check out even your most basic assumptions (that they want a network / that a network will work for this organisation etc) and keep them involved. And by ‘them’, I don’ t mean just the easy to relate to/ ‘onside’ activists. You need to talk to the ‘hard to reach’ and the ‘awkward squad’ as well as the potential & as yet unreached activists. And whilst you’re talking to them, try to understand them better. You might find that they’re not so hard to reach, or so awkward after all.

  • Consider that the networks might be able to be more self-supporting than you first think. Whilst setting up and running networks can be time-consuming and difficult from a distance, if you’re willing to trust people and cede some/all control, supporting people to do it themselves allows you to focus your resources and empowers the networks.

  • Commit to a proper programme of mentoring and training. Give it time, proper resources, and look for depth as well as breadth. Plan to see how it can be made self-supporting; a mentoring programme that turns out new mentors, a training programme that builds the skills and attitudes needed to train others.

  • Don’t just assume it’s just the network folk that need training. Your staff and organisational culture needs to be supported and developed. Training them is a fast and effective way of doing this.

The bottom line is that there’s a need to build the cultural capacity of your organisation for change, which allows you to accept and celebrate diversity, feel safe devolving some or all power to your activists, and co-produce and co-design projects, materials, strategies, campaigns. That needs to be replicated in (and learnt from) the network itself. Without building this cultural capacity no amount of people, funds, webspace, petitions, hashtags or events will build you a genuinely resilient and effective network.

Facilitating in a hierarchy

For many of us that work in grassroots networks or co-operatives, facilitating in a formal hierarchy doesn’t appear to be much of an issue – unlike co-ops or informal networks, the power relations and decision-making responsibilities are clear. But for many of our social change colleagues working in NGOs, facilitating meetings certainly can be an issue. The devil is very much in the detail.

Recently Gill and I were training a group of folk who will do much of their facilitation in the hierarchical setting of a national NGO, and for whom meeting facilitation is a source of potential tension. Factor in that they were relatively junior graded staff in the grand scheme of things and the problem is magnified. So what advice would you offer them? What’s your experience of facilitating in formal power dynamics?

As facilitators who’re often external to the groups we work with, it can be hard to remember what it’s like to be in that position. Our role as ‘outsider’ brings a certain authority with it, so we can feel protected from the hierarchy. Of course, that’s not always the case. Many of us will have done a piece of facilitation work when the brief we’ve been given only works for those with a certain degree of power, but not for everyone we’re working with. Or we’ve facilitated in a participatory way as instructed and then the manager has panicked at the newly empowered responses they are getting. Can you share how you dealt with it?

I stopped doing the washing up last night to make notes of the conversation that was happening in my head. Here’s a slightly more polished version:

Problem 1: Don’t we promote facilitation as about full participation? Good facilitation brings people in from the margins of the group, allows them to be heard, allows the  group to benefit from the full breadth of its wisdom, form plans and make decisions that harness the creativity and energy of the whole of the diverse group. I’m pretty sure I’ve said stuff like that on numerous occasions. But should you go into a hierarchical setting with that as the expectation of yourself as facilitator and then find yourself in tension with what actually unfolds before you?

Problem 2: Don’t we all carry personal expectations about what will happen in meetings with us from meeting to meeting? For some it might be “I have lots to offer but will never be heard”. For others it could  be “I will be heard”, or indeed “I will be heard and the outcome will go my way”. These are just a few examples of the many conversations that are likely to be going on in participants’ heads. Some meetings may deliver those expectations and others may not, especially if those expectations are about people’s power in groups. There’s a challenge there for facilitators to understand and manage those expectations sensitively in a hierarchy, particularly when they have to live within that hierarchy rather than be tourists, like us.

Problem 3: I’ve worked with a number of NGOs that like to see themselves as significantly less linear than, say, many corporations. They often, consciously or unconsciously, cultivate an image of equality, respect, being horizontal and well-connected to the grassroots. This can lead to frustration when the reality of the hierarchy kicks in mid-meeting. It can create a raft of problems for facilitators who’ve been asked to encourage participation and that’s what’s been happening; there’s suddenly a deterioration in people’s behaviour as they begin to feel ignored or sidelined, there may be conflict or more. I feel this tension whenever I’m working around NGOs. It’s a tension of expectations against reality. When you sign up to work in a social change or ‘alternative’ structure it’s easy to take with you notions of participation only to find that they don’t apply when push comes to shove.

Gill was rightly keen that in last week’s facilitation training we spend a while focusing on the purpose of a meeting. There’s a world of difference in what to expect from a decision-making meeting to a consultation for example, and yet the two often get confused. Are we being asked our opinion, which may or may not be taken on board, or are we sharing in the decision-making power? Are we simply receiving information on a project or being asked for our ideas? and so on. So facilitators need to help the group get some clarity on what’s the expected outcome and behaviours (and what may actually be permitted) in any given meeting, and where the power lies to decide that outcome, judge that information, manage those ideas.

In a formal hierarchy different people in the room may have a different role to play. That role may change depending on the meeting or even the item in the meeting; it might be clear that I am used to being the decision-maker when meeting with my juniors, but only be expected to offer opinion when meeting with my seniors.220px-FrostReportClassSketch

And what does that mean for the facilitator of that meeting – how should they acknowledge and manage the different, maybe fluctuating, power relationships? Does that mean that the role of the facilitator in this setting might be to disabuse participants of notions of their own power? How does that sit with notions of opening space for participation? Can these facilitators really facilitate for the margins – isn’t the nature of hierarchy that it will inevitably marginalise some people at least some of the time? Answers on the proverbial postcard, please.

Of course we haven’t talked about informal hierarchies, differences in perceived power, how people present when they’ve been discriminated against, teased, made into a scapegoat, marginalised or how people take authority, take control, assert their power. Many grassroots facilitators will face all of these issues too, only it won’t be so apparent who the ‘managers’ are and who are the ‘worker bees’.

And we haven’t talked about the real purpose of a meeting (as opposed to the stated aim). What are people really trying to get from the meeting? Attention, promotion, asserting dominance, settling scores….. A facilitator may need to bring these things to light or keep them under control and reassert the collective purpose of the meeting.

I’ve used the word ‘assert’ in one form or another several times here. Not surprising as I’m considering the need for more explicit work on assertive communication in facilitation training.

And then, sadly, I no longer had an excuse not to go back to the washing up……

Matthew (thanks Gill, for suggested edits)

 

Middle class standard time and meeting facilitation

I finally plucked up the courage to update all the feeds in my feed reader. Of the 1000 or so new posts (it’s been a while), most are destined to gather dust or be deleted unread. Andrew Willis Garcés happens to be near the top of the pile, but don’t let that fact deter you from the excellent quality of his writing.

So, I’ve just read Recognizing Middle Class Standard Time (MST) and enjoyed it enough to click through to the original post Are You on Middle Class Standard Time?. Let’s just say I’m not going to share my results from the MST self-diagnosis quiz in the former post. But I will share his Principles for Abundance from the latter post – a useful reminder of what many of us already know, but don’t always practice:

Because working class cultures are much more diverse than middle class culture (a result of the middle class value on conformity), there isn’t, in my mind, a Working Class Standard Time – it varies greatly depending on the cultural context. But there are principles that have helped me facilitate from abundance rather than scarcity of time.

Model Working with Abundance instead of adding unneeded urgency or anxiety by referencing a short timeframe, I try to set a tone that communicates the value of pacing ourselves, acting deliberately and maintaining an awareness of the group’s overall quality of participation

Use Check-Ins – “It feels to me like we’re rushing through. My experience is that groups don’t make the best decisions when they’re in a hurry. Let’s take a minute to check-in about that. It’s true that we’ve set ambitious goals for ourselves, but it might not be the end of the world if we need to revise our timeline for reaching them.”

Build-In Long Breaks – all the conferences planned by working class people I’ve been to have included multi-hour lunch breaks or social time. It’s right there in the agenda

Don’t “Stretch” – if you think it might be a little too much in too little time, it probably is – don’t push it

Be Prepared to Narrow Your Goals – if I’m leading a workshop or meeting for a group I’m not familiar with, even if I’ve developed the agenda with people from that group, I assume that they  may need more time than we’ve allotted, and I come with a sense of which items we’ll drop if we get crunched for time

 

Matthew

working with conflict taster/freebie

Hello to the multitudes that read our blog. I am running a taster session for Talk Action on the afternoon of 7th May, in central London, near Old Street tube. The taster will cover elements of a working with conflict programme I’m developing for them. In the taster, specifically, we will explore states of mind, active listening and how to avoid escalating conflict and getting the most, rather than the least, out of a conversation.

I’ve been told I can have a few friends along for free – let me know. Soon.

carl(at)rhizome.coop

Carl

Consensus decision-making in crisis

Consensus decision-making is in crisis. I suspect it always has been and possibly always will be simply because it’s a process used by human beings.

Wherever you look groups, coops and networks are struggling with consensus. Moreover they’re often having to adopt or invent mechanisms to deal with a breakdown in the process. And many of those mechanisms are aimed at exclusion – silencing a persistent minority that is seen as blocking the flow of consensus, sometimes forcing them out of the group. That wouldn’t be the stated intention of the group, but it’s often the reality. When this happens consensus becomes a form of majority voting – even if the majority needed is 70%, 80% or 90% rather than 51%.

That this happens is understandable. When groups are deadlocked and there’s a sense that ‘most of us’ want to move forward and that irritating minority is blocking progress it can seem like the only way out. We can justify excluding people, or restricting the rights of the few. We can find fault with their behaviour and merit in our own.

In essence we default to our factory setting, which believes that we should act in the interests of the majority (it’s probably more accurate to say that it believes we should act in the interests of whichever group we are in, and we try hard to ensure that that’s the majority). It’s a factory setting because we exist in a factory – an education system, parenting, government all aimed at turning out predictable and malleable individuals. What’s natural is a different matter. I suspect we’re born capable of a lot more cooperation and collaboration, but I’ll leave that to the neuroscientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to decide.

And yet most, if not all, of those using consensus don’t see themselves as part of that norm – the thoughtless consumers, the 9-5ers, the reality TVers etc. etc. If you ask people why they work in a coop, live in a cohousing group, take part in political action groups, work for the benefit of their community, it’s usually an implicit or explicit criticism of the norm. Yet we, the minority, solve our problems with our egalitarian decision-making processes by adopting their mentality – majoritarianism – when the going gets tough.

So what’s the answer? I wish there were a sentence I could type that would shift the future course of egalitarian working, lift the scales off our eyes and solve all our problems. Sorry folks! But it has something to do with the following:

Consensus as values not process.

I feel we need to stop assuming we can collaborate just ‘cos we’re well-intentioned people and do the work to embed a culture of consensus into our own lives and our group lives. If we use consensus as a decision-making process it can only take us so far, and we will hit difficulties. If we adopt consensus as part of our values system, and make it part of the culture of our thinking and our group thinking we may still hit difficulties but at least we’ll have a compass to help determine the right direction for the group. We need to live consensus not just do consensus.

But that’s hard work. Constant introspection. Learning to communicate (with others and ourselves) compassionately and honestly. Learning to read the signs that it’s our ego talking. Learning to do something about it once we’ve read the signs. And doing all of that cheerfully so it’s not all sackcloth and ashes. Who has the time, right? There’s a world to save, a co-operative business to run…… so we do consensus up to a point. And then we revert to factory settings.

Acceptance of our flaws

So let’s accept that we’re flawed individuals that come together to make flawed groups and networks, and that consensus is aspirational. No-one gets it ‘right’ first time. But not getting it ‘right’ doesn’t mean getting it wrong, or that we’ve failed as long as we’ve sincerely tried. After all who lives up to their values all of the time? Let’s practice consensus and accept that we all need more practice. Essential to this is cultivating the ability to laugh together, cry together and learn from our mistakes without defaulting to a culture of blame and judgement.

Honesty about our decision-making processes

If we find the demands of consensus too rigorous for our group, if we realise that we do have an element of pragmatic majoritarianism in our thinking, and that that’s OK with us, then let’s not do consensus. Otherwise we set ourselves on a collision course with conflict between what we state we do and believe and what we actually do and believe.

There are plenty of decision-making systems that have elements of consensus in them without demanding the commitment to collective self-awareness that consensus does demand. There’s sociocracy, holacracy, consensus-oriented decision-making. There are systems such as crowd wise and the soon-to-be renamed dotmocracy. These are all far, far superior to the norm that consensus-types want to move away from.

Consensus is in crisis, and as I said at the start, probably always will be. It’s the age-old crisis of living up to our values not just as individuals but as part of a collective. It’s the crisis that makes life interesting and makes consensus both so infuriating and so compelling.

Matthew

Time and money – the impossible balance

Aside

I recently did a short unpaid session on “team-building” or “how to be a good coop member” type of thing for a small animal rescue charity. I’d been asked by a friend who volunteers there to help with some staff issues, and she felt that a day spending time on their working relationships would be beneficial. I had a phone meeting with the woman who runs the charity and is overall manager, who gave me a picture of a group “who would rather set each other up to fail than help each other”, didn’t take a pride on their work and were not team players. We agreed that we needed to develop trust, appreciation, understanding and support for each other, with some communication awareness added in.  I developed a 4 hour session with activities and times for reflection to cover all of those elements.

One of these activities was the Chairs Game, where each person is given a different instruction about what to do with a set of chairs and they have to work together as a group to fulfil all of these instructions without showing them to others, or fail. They completed it beautifully in ten minutes, through making suggestions “How about we move the chairs over there?” ” I’m sitting down, why don’t you all join me?”, listening to each other, compromising “I’d prefer it if the chairs were more like this”, being thoughtful and observant. It was the last exercise of the session and quite a challenging one, but I had not expected it to go quite so smoothly. They laughed and joked and admitted to a great sense of achievement, though one of them was a bit worried she’d been “too bossy” which was contradicted by others  – “No you made suggestions and we did it as it might have got us somewhere, and it did!”

Observing this and other moments during the session I felt that this was not at all a dysfunctional team. Communication issues and lack of clarity about who was doing what, which were causing stress and feelings of being ignored or undervalued, emerged. As so often, there were also issues of power and rank at play, and by accepting the original assessment and request without question I had become complicit in the structure. What I should have done is spent time observing the situation and also insisted that everyone be involved in the training session, as everyone is part of the team. But if a client has decided what it is they want (and are paying you to do), can the trainer/facilitator refuse to do that and offer to do something else which will be much more relevant and effective and will really change things – will be a catalytic intervention?

I’ve been in discussion with another client recently about some work which, when we started talking, was one thing and an hour later had turned into something else completely as we dissected the reasons behind the request. The more time we can spend talking with clients, finding out exactly what is needed, not what they think is needed, the better and more satisfying the work we do and the more substantial the changes we help to make. But time is money and of course money seems to be more important – a quick fix is what is often looked for. If we say, “But you will actually get greater quality and a better outcome if we spend more time talking with you and others, and really the session should be a full day not a few hours”,  people may think we’re just trying to get paid more. Yes and no – we want above all to do a good job, to make real change, to be effective. We can, and often, do it with less time and for less money but the risk is that it will be neither satisfying for the facilitator, nor, in the end, valuable for the client. As a coop which works with small coops, community and grassroots groups we also want to be able to offer our time for what is affordable, to give top quality for less than we need to charge. Last year our income was half what it had been the previous year, as funding and “luxuries” such as training and facilitation are cut. Do we cut our costs and cut down the time and effort we spend on each client’s project? Do we hang on to delivering quality work for a decent wage? Answers please…

Jo

 

Co-operatives skills training: meetings, management, conflict and change

Over the last year or so Rhizome’s been working with Co-operatives UK to assess the training needs of co-ops, bring on board other training co-ops, and agree and design a package of 5 seminars all around co-operation.

For too long co-op training has focused on business start-up, legal structures, financial management. All necessary stuff, but none of it supports us to learn to co-operate better. So that’s where these courses come in. They aim to support co-ops with the skills and attitudes needed to co-operate through conflict, change, meetings, in management, and in developing that deeper sense of what it means to co-operate.

The first courses run soon in Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester and can be booked through the Co-operatives UK website.

The process of co-operating on the course aims and content has raised some interesting questions on what we believe we can achieve through training – developing co-operative skills? Developing co-operative skills and attitudes? Sadly the pressure to get the courses up and running hasn’t allowed us the luxury of exploring these questions fully. But as we run the courses and learn from each other, the answers will become clearer – we’ll cross-fertilise between co-ops and co-develop our own co-operative skills (and maybe attitudes!).

Rhizome trainers will be at work on the Communication and working with conflict and Being a good co-op member courses to start with. See you there.

Our Tottenham – community democracy at work

“Since about 2009 my activism has focused on trying to build towards a better way of running society from the bottom up with full participation and real direct democracy and on a human scale. The first step seemed to be to get everyone who was active in a variety of ways in a local community all working together to resist bad stuff and do good things and to start to make their own power; and then to get the previously inactive people involved and gradually build a new type of democracy – simple !”

 

So opens a post on the Community Democracy blog where James Holland gives examples of genuine people-powered democracy at work in an age of austerity. He’s involved in Our Tottenham and sees the Our XX model as one that can and is spreading. Keep an eye on it.

#OurTottenham

democracy

An interesting take on the word, from the erudite Cunning Hired Knaves.

See http://hiredknaves.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/whatever-happened-to-the-irish-democracy/

As a collective of people with a plethora of principles guiding us, we embrace the edges, the radical and the thought provoking. We are not in a dogmatic ditch.

British Knave of the Week – George ‘Give the peoples’ wealth to the Rich’ Osbourne

Carl

 

No Right Turn – resources to resist the far right

NoRightTurn

Our community development friends Sostenga have created some free session plans and resources to support community development responses to far right groups mobilising in our communities. They’re asking folk to share and contribute.

Here’s what they say:

“The emergence of the EDL (English Defence League) and various splinter groups in the last few years, and their antagonising marches in communities they perceive as un-British adds new importance to us tackling the far right and their politics of hate. While none of the national voluntary sector organisations seem willing to take on this work we think it is important to share tools and resources that can help community development workers and activists do something proactive. These resources are quite basic, and we see them as a starting point. Building on work started in Yorkshire & Humberside in 2010, they are currently being developed in Brighton as a response to the now annual March for England that will be descending once again on April 27th. The aim is to create talking points and engage people around these issues. We would love to hear about and share through the No Right Turn website other similar projects.”

 

Let us (and them!) know how you use the resources, how effective they are, and what innovations you make.

How to – get on a training about working with conflict

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We’re offering, with Co-ops UK, a course called Communication and working with conflict. A bit of a gob full, but nonetheless it’s been tested and evaluated by worker co-ops in the last year or so; and elements of the programme have been used with community and campaign groups for the last 15 years.

We will work with you to (re)discover your own skills at working with contention, differences and arguments in a way which’ll help to solve them, not grow them. It doesn’t always work in solving matters, but everyone gets a lot clearer about what’s going on.

Unlike other programmes in this area we do not follow a dogmatic or branded approach. Our years of talking to and with people, has been stuffed into some easy to use and learn approaches to working with both what’s going on in your head when dealing with conflicts, and some steps to working with other people in conflict.

We like training it, we think you’ll like working with us. Sign up here.

Carl and others

Consensus case study: Helpline

Matthew and I prepared a case study of Helpline for a workshop. We never got to use it, so we thought we’d describe it in case anyone else would like to have a go.

‘Helpline’ was the pseudonym given to a project in Boston, USA, called Project Place when it was studied in the 1970s by an American academic called Jane Mansbridge. She described it in her wonderful book, “Beyond Adversary Democracy”. Helpline at that stage described itself as:

“this city’s 24-hour crisis intervention center, providing counselling and referral information for people with emotional, legal, medical, drug, or life-support problems, plus access to ambulance services, emergency shelters, short and long-term counselling, special programs for teenagers.”

Helpline had a strong belief in equality. Everyone was paid the same and decisions were made by consensus.

Mansbridge described Helpline in great detail. We drew from her description two documents, which together make up the case study. First, we prepared nine character cards. Some drew very directly from Mansbridge’s interviews with Helpline staff. We adapted others a little more freely.  Our aim was that participants using the case study could explore consensus from the perspective of a character who was unlike them.

For instance, there was Deborah, who says about herself,

“I’m the newest member here. I’m more hesitant to say something, or to try to control a business meeting, or try to lead the way in making decisions. I rely on people who have been here longer. I feel sometimes like I should be taking on more responsibility, but I’ve never been someone who speaks out actively in groups. I disagree if I have to, but I don’t like to. I felt quite intimidated for a while….”

Second, we described a decision Helpline had to take. Some members of Helpline wanted to take a $15,000 contract to work with some young Air Force recruits who had asked for help improving the hotline and drug counselling service they had set up at their base. They thought it straightforward: the hotline already existed, it was needed, the volunteers who staffed it were untrained, the work would not be any sort of prop to the military, and the money was much-needed. So they were surprised and offended when others objected, and insisted that the issue be taken to Helpline’s regular open meeting.

We planned to invite everyone to consider Helpline’s consensus process from the perspective of their character. What are their wants and needs? What behaviours are they likely to adopt or support? We then were going to ask them to pair off with someone who is in a different position from them, and discuss how their behaviour and their interaction will that affect the collective ability to do consensus .

Rather good, we thought. Anyone want to have a go? Let us know how it works, and any adaptations and improvements you make

Perry

Skills building with the London Cycling Campaign

A few weeks ago Matthew and I facilitated a one day workshop for the London Cycling Campaign. It was for their newly recruited group of volunteer Campaign Organisers and local group members who will be working hard on the Space4Cycling campaign in the run up to the local elections in May. This aims to get local candidates across every borough committing to specific demands to make cycling safer in their neighbourhoods.

The brief was to design and facilitate a day that built their confidence and skills in lobbying local candidates, communicating campaign asks to their local community and getting into local and social media. Some participants had been involved with LCC for a while, some were new to the organisation and the campaign. Most participants hadn’t met each other, so time getting to grips with the campaign and getting to know each other also had to be factored in.

LCC posted a good summary of what we did and their thoughts on how it went on their blog, written up straight after the event, in a much timelier manner! I thought we’d add a few more reflections from our perspective and a selection of comments from participants.

We designed the day to be very interactive and participant led – lots of discussion and activities in workshops and smaller groups, plus a big chunk of open space. Many participants said this was the best thing about the day – it enabled them to meet other and share experience and expertise. Comments included “my head is buzzing”, “it was intense and I am tired” and “the best thing was ‘doing it’”.

However on reflection we might have leaned too far towards active participation and we didn’t include a presentation about the campaign and their role in it. Although they had all had a written briefing in advance a number of participants felt that a quick update on the campaign at the start of the day would have been helpful and a couple of people still felt confused about what they were there for by the end of the day. This made us ponder that perhaps we can be so determined to do things differently and make things participative that we forget that sometimes a plenary presentation is exactly what’s needed to set the scene.

Plus, while lots of people really valued the open space session and felt they had necessary conversations relevant to their groups, others were less sure. A couple of participants felt that it was a bit “too open”, not structured enough, and that conversations veered off into irrelevant tangents. We’ve been facilitating a few open space sessions recently and having a few discussions about them. Pondering a blog post soon on the joys and challenges of facilitating open space, so watch this space! As always, we’re keen to hear your views.

Hannah

the challenge of democratic co-operative governance

The words ‘co-operative’ and ‘governance’ have rarely been written together in the same sentence, let alone in a headline. But now our democratic organisations are facing scrutiny. Rhizome’s even been asked to help facilitate an open space about it in London on February 8th 2014.

So what makes co-operative governance different? Of course there are the seven principles underpinning all co-operatives, of which democracy is principle 6, but from our perspective in working with co-ops, collectives and social change organisations it also means that:

  • we don’t work for other people who simply profit from our success
  • we don’t give work to people because they are our mates, members of our lodge, or attend our church/ synagogue/ mosque; we trade fairly, only prioritising other co-operatives because we know they also trade fairly
  • we don’t go on strike, we communicate, we work together, we resolve
  • we don’t have a figurehead who is forced to take responsibility for everything, we share the responsibility – and we share the risks
  • we don’t steal from ourselves – what would be the point?
  • we don’t bolt on an ethical policy, we start with one and develop it further; based on respect, we cherish diversity as it brings us strength, we cherish our communities as we live and work in them; we cherish our world – why doesn’t everyone?
  • we don’t declare other interests as an afterthought – they are integral, we have so many; building a movement of radical change means working across borders, making alliances, having interests all over the place
  • we don’t all look alike/ talk alike/ dress alike – we are individual, unique. And though we may make mistakes, we may buckle under pressure, we know that we always have others around that we can trust to support us.

So what might be some of the issues for democratic co-operative governance these days? Here’s a selection of some of the issues that Rhizome get asked to help with as facilitators/ mediators/ trainers:

How do we make time to get the processes right when we have to focus so hard on the business/ campaign/ change we are trying to achieve?

Do our high standards make it hard for everyone to keep on meeting them all of the time?

Does having excellent accountability and transparency mean we are vulnerable, we can’t cover up our mistakes?

If having power corrupts, how can we always acknowledge and manage each other’s power?

Does size really matter?

facing the facts

Rhizome’s on facebook! We’ve engaged with facebook with a speed that makes some glaciers look positively nippy. Odd given that we decided when we started that social media would be our main voice (and ears). We started this blog right at the beginning and finally got around to tweeting a while back.

Speaking for myself it’s a balancing act – we’re determined to meet people where they’re at, where they’re organising. Not easy if you take the moral high ground – observing facebook from a distance through rarified, and somewhat smug, air.

Having said that facebook has been criticised for all manner of issues to do with privacy, hate speech, addiction and more. Hence this post – which will automatically be posted to our new facebook page.

Your thoughts are welcome. See you here. See you on facebook. See you in person.

 

Zombie, dinosaurs and crocodiles

It’s that time of year when everyone seems to review the past year and plan for the next one. Seems an appropriate time for me to blow the dust off a draft post I started near the beginning of 2013 but never quite completed. Why appropriate? Because it’s about looking back and looking forward.

Zombies, dinosaurs and crocodiles? No, not some dynamic new icebreaker game, but a summary of an ongoing conversation Rhizome folk started in 2013. We’re always talking about the role of Rhizome in the wider world and we often find ourselves critical of the social action movement, including, sometimes, those who support it with training and facilitation (and yes, we do include ourselves in that category).

photo: Bob Jagendorf

photo: Bob Jagendorf

It all started with a comparison of the social action movement with a zombie. (Un)dead on its feet but staggering on regardless, moribund. That’s not to say there’s no change or innovation, but it’s often within the same tired paradigm. A bit harsh? Maybe, but there’s a good deal of merit in the argument that it’s a movement that needs to revitalise or become irrelevant

And talking of things no longer alive, as part of the same

Barry Kid Photography

Barry Kid Photography

conversation we paused to ask ourselves whether Rhizome was in fact a collective of dinosaurs. Just a bunch of out of date fossils with a nostalgic view of how change should be made (cue: “in my day we didn’t have t’internet. Our office were in a paper bag in a septic tank and had to weave our own campaign banners out of cold gravel…and we considered ourselves well resourced”…. “Office? You had an office?….”).

After all we talk a language of community building and collective action but not in a ‘Big Society’ way. Our ideas of community might seem a bit pre-Thatcher.We promote face-to-face interaction, and we do so by delivering most of our work face-to-face – no  e-learning, no youtube channel. If it wasn’t for this blog, who knows where we’d be? We put most of our effort into supporting group-work, not building the capacity of individual key mobilisers, or whatever the jargon is at the moment. We champion participatory collective action which seems to fly in the face of ever-increasing individualism. And individualism isn’t something that just happens when we’re acting alone. So many of our group meetings are full of individuals working towards their individual agendas. It’s one big reason why we’re not more effective and one of the reasons we ask groups to take the time to work on their internal processes despite the seeming urgency of the issues they’re working on. We continue to promote consensus decision-making despite the (often valid) critiques of how it has been used by Climate camp or Occupy.

For goodness sake we’ve recently written a document citing the nonconformist movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Isn’t it time we stopped harking on about the past as if it were some kind of utopia and get on with building the future utopia? Do we just need to get with the times or put ourselves out to grass?

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, we settled on an image of ourselves as crocodiles – more or less prehistoric but surviving and thriving to this day where many younger species have failed.

We look at the social action movement and see quite a few babies being hurled out with the bath water as change after change is made in everything but mindset. We see NGOs struggling to find a model that delivers the maximum change – networks of groups, well-resourced individuals, mobilising masses of supporters in 5 minute armchair actions

When I look back on the work Rhizome has done over the past few years, I believe we have a lot to offer present and future change-makers. We focus on changing mindsets, values, and attitudes over giving people skills and tools. Tools without appropriate understanding are next to useless. The inspiration we draw from participatory movements of the past is all about building a new culture of democracy, helping individuals to genuinely co-operate and work collectively for their utopia, whatever that might be. We want to build diverse communities not movement of individuals. You might find that if we build those communities, we’re living utopia long before we’ve “won” all our campaigns. See you in 2014.

Matthew