Democracy starts the day after the election…..Days like today can seem

There’ll be a lot of people in the community activist groups, the campaigning organisations, and the co-operatives that we work with who will be feeling the anger, frustration, disbelief, despondency, resignation, powerlessness and more that an election result like the one we’ve just had here in the UK can bring about. So much time, energy, hope has gone into making change and we’re still left with a government who divide and rule, who pit us against each other – those in work against those on benefits, those from the UK against migrants and refugees, the non-disabled against the disabled and so on.

Here at Rhizome we believe in community and we believe in action. Neither of those things is election dependent. There’s been a lot of talk about promises, pledges and vows this election. Our promise, pledge and vow is to continue to work with you, to the best of our ability, to support you to make change, to build community, and to take action that delivers real democracy.

Support is out there if you want to work by more genuinely democratic processes like consensus decision-making, or to take action despite the political system through nonviolent direct action. Here’s a quick run down – whether it’s for formal advice or an informal chat, mentoring, training, facilitation of meetings, try:

  • Rhizome – that’s us. We can help you with your group and organisational processes to build a culture of cooperative democracy. We can also help you strategise and plan for action, as well as train you in the ethos of nonviolent direct action and its techniques. We have lots of free resources on this website

Then there are our sister organisations who can make a similar offer:

Days like today are hard. But this is where democracy really starts – when we decide to set aside mere formalities such as election results and engage in real democracy – in our workplaces, community groups, families, and neighbourhoods. Relearning and rekindling the values of community, of empowerment and of relentless nonviolent action. Get in touch.


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.


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


Truth and reconciliation in consensus

Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest. Countless words have been written about his life and his legacy, and with good cause. I’m not going to try to add too many more to that count. What’s clear is that he (and those around him) inspired a nation to act against expectations, against self-interest, for a higher ‘good’ – a unified, multiracial South Africa.

Inspiration, acting against self-interest and for a higher purpose are all necessary, central values in any consensus decision-making group. How many groups that use consensus actually, consciously, live and work to those values is another matter.

What most consensus groups need are more Mandela moments. They need to find inspiring, collaborative ways out of seemingly impossible, sometimes ideological, struggles. Positions are taken and fiercely held too. They are reinforced and dug in with the language of values and idealism. The stage is set for yet another conflict in which there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The real loser is our ability to collaborate, our belief in co-operation, our sense of community.

Where’s the truth and reconciliation in all this? We invent truths, fly our standards from them, gather our forces around them, forgetting that they are just one possible view of the truth. And reconciliation, real reconciliation is rare. Feelings are usually strained but never fully repaired. Our groups are weakened, and with that our ability to function as cohesive forces for social change.

It’s tough, but we need more people, more groups, to step up and inspire those Mandela moments – to show the way to processes of truth and reconciliation. And we need more people and more groups to do the work to turn inspiration into consensus.

Of course if we deify Mandela we’ll never achieve that. What we need to remember is that inspiration needs to be channeled and turned into action and behaviour, to be enshrined in cultures, for it to make change. And that’s something that took many, many ‘ordinary’ people to achieve. Mandela provided the inspiration and the example, but tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans took that inspiration and did the work that made change possible.


Of the people, by the people, for the people?

Democracy’s a word that can divide almost any group of people. What does it mean? Is what we do now real democracy? Is there one right way?

Here’s a nice video (4 mins) about one town’s experiment with participatory democracy. What do you reckon?

hat tip to NatCAN

Consensus: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

Over at Organizing Change, Drew Serres is writing about the problems of consensus and how to fix them. It’s good stuff and I’d urge you to read it and join the conversation. He shares some of the problems of contemporary consensus and offers five thoughts on dealing with those problems.

Critiques of contemporary consensus are not new. Movements such as Occupy lead to both a resurgence of consensus decision-making and a new flurry of writing on the weakness and naivety of consensus as a model.

Alternative (competing?) models of consent-based decision-making such as sociocracy and holacracy have emerged specifically to deal with some of the perceived flaws in consensus. At this year’s UK Cohousing Network’s gathering one of the main attractions was renowned US co-operator Diana Leafe Christian speaking on sociocracy as an alternative to consensus decision-making for cohousers.

Personally I’m less sure consensus is as broken as you’d think from the energy that goes into critiquing and replacing it. There’s very little that other systems do that can’t happen just as effectively in a living consensus process. I think there are 2 fundamental problems:

1. The flexibility and adaptability of consensus is poorly understood. Time and again I hear folk talking about the clumsiness of bringing all decisions to the full group for agreement, for example. Time and again I wonder what decision-making process they’re using. Somewhere along the lines we’ve adopted a series of unquestioned ‘rules’ of how consensus must be done, and these rules don’t work for most groups. In recent years mass movements such as Camp for Climate Action  and Occupy may have aggravated these, with the best of intentions, confusing democracy with everyone needing to be present for every decision. There are plenty of other examples we could explore. Rest assured consensus can do whatever you can imagine it can do (as long as that’s referenced to those central values of participation, inclusion, co-operation, empathy and compassion). Consensus can:

  • allow individuals or small groups to follow their own path alongside the path of the wider group
  • mandate working groups to make decisions about their own areas of work
  • mandate working groups to make decisions, accountably, for the whole group
  • make decisions in short periods of time, if that’s all the time that can be given to a decision
  • embrace diversity and conflict and come out stronger
  • break traditions (such as hearing from speakers in the order they indicate they wish to speak) to support the margins of the group to be heard

and so much more…

2. We’re all human. I don’t see consensus as a flawed process. I see it as a living process undertaken by flawed human beings. If we bring the ideals of competition, getting our own way and so on the the process then it will struggle. So isn’t that the flaw in consensus then? It requires us to be perfect co-operators before it will work… I don’t think so. I think consensus supports us to be better co-operators. It helps create a space in which we can risk letting go of our own agenda, of ego, of competition. And when we do that, collectively, it rapidly rewards us with the benefits of co-operation – empowerment, a sense of the rightness of our collective actions. Problem is that most of us are force-fed competition until we start espousing it ourselves and it’s a tenacious ‘value’. So consensus will take us a while to achieve, but it’ll support every step of the way if we let it. The big question is ‘do we let it?’. Do we keep competing because that feeds our ego whilst blaming consensus for our failure to co-operate?

I agree with the critiques of consensus decision-making. What we call consensus at the moment largely isn’t working. I disagree that that discredits consensus as a process; a set of values; an ideal; a model that can deliver just and co-operative decisions, and support the growth of just and co-operative groups and societies.


Crowd Wise brings out the wisdom of the crowd: the case of Transition Town Lewes

The curse of the consultant is to be forever moving on, often never hearing the results of his or her work. So it was a great pleasure to hear from a couple of people who had been involved in something I helped with in 2010, all the more so as they were so appreciative:

  • I still feel very grateful for the process you took us through as a group and how we formed the Steering group from that time.. it was a brilliant process.
  • The steering group process has worked really well as a collaborative group without being in any way directive or authoritarian.  It was well worth doing.


Transition Town Lewes (TTL ) has a number of working groups, including Energy, Waste, Food, Communications, Finance, 10:10 and Heart/Soul. Up to the time of the event, there had been no overall decision-making body. Representatives from each working group made up a steering group known as the forum. But it had no mandate to take decisions. Nor was it clear how much authority the working groups had.  The result was that some decisions that needed to be made didn’t get made, or only were only made late in the day. Furthermore, the lack of a procedure for making decisions put a great burden on those at the centre who got most involved in trying to resolve problems, to the point of burnout.

In October 2010, in order to tackle this, we organised a two hour meeting, to which 23 people came. To start with, five pre-prepared options were voted upon – using preference voting, which is also known as consensus voting. The existing ad hoc structure came last, and was dropped. That left four options, all involving a steering group. There were two that scored well and which drew the members, at least initially, from the existing group contacts. The notion that the steering group should be elected also did well. The last idea, not scoring so well, was that the Steering Group be run as an Open Space: anyone could turn up and contribute to decision making.

In the next stage, small groups discussed the various options in more detail, identifying the pros and cons, refining them if they wished. A further option was put forward at this stage. One of the options involving members drawn from existing group contacts also proposed that they then put out a call for more members from the whole of TTL, and co-opt anyone who was prepared to commit to attending the monthly meeting. The extra option added the proviso that the initial members could then choose who joined them on the steering group from among those who put themselves forward.

After this discussion, there was a second consensus vote.  The two options described in the last paragraph came equal top, a long way ahead of the rest. So it was decided that they would be merged to create the final consensus option. The rest is history….


essentials of conflict resolution


Matthew and I have been doing some work with a food coop; helping voluntary team leaders review and add to their conflict management tools. We’ll shortly be running our third workshop. Here’s what we work with people on –


  • To develop the understanding and application of appropriate states of mind (consensual, non-judgemental, solution focussed)
  • To develop the understanding and application of active listening and dialogue skills
  • To enable participants to know when to apply these skills; and to what degree
  • To enable participants to identify their further learning needs (if necessary)


Approach used in training

  • Using small and large group discussions, activities, role plays and debriefs.
  • Supporting material to back up learning. All participants to get material on State of Mind and Active Listening and the principles of cooperative conflict resolution.
  • No slides – learning by doing.
  • Two trainers – for support, to facilitate skills demonstrations, to maximise feedback to participants, for some variety


Outline session plan

  • Introduction – housekeeping, people, negotiating how we’ll work together
  • What is conflict resolution? Different approaches to this – focus on the models more appropriate to cooperatives – facilitative styles; person and group focussed.
  • States of mind – exercises to build internal understanding of being non-judgemental, consensually focussed, solution focussed, unbiased, people/work orientated.
  • Active Listening – listen, reflect, clarify, summarise, explore, produce ways forward, agree on them, action them. Go through these phases and make explicit why different to everyday conversations.
  • Practise sessions – rounds of work on threes or fours with peer to peer work and peer observers giving feedback, along with the trainers (if needed), on realistic role plays.
  • Review sessions – check ins on understanding of material and its application.
  • Co-designing a process to deal with small scale conflicts and knowing when to refer them to personnel.
  • Evaluation session.

All of the handouts we used, are available on our resources pages. Use and share.


The Beginners Guide to Consent

The following came round an email list I lurk on, so I visited the website and am very glad I did so. Take a look yourselves. I’d redcommend the interview with Oxford based activist and facilitator Clare Cochrane. Any way back to the main business of this post:

“The Beginners Guide to Consent is a zine on consent, consensus and collaboration. Deadline 17 June 2013.

Text (max 150 words) & image submissions are welcomed in response to these questions or related topics:

  • What is missing from current definitions of consent?
  • How can agreement be produced or engineered? What about doubt?
  • How does sexual consent relate to democratic decision-making?
  • Beyond “yes means yes”: what would a radical theory of consent look like?

Submissions will be exhibited at News From Nowhere at V2 Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam during July 2013. They will be democratically edited into a series of print editions during workshops at the exhibition, and published online.”

I’d love to think that Rhizome would have something to say. But judging by how little we’re posting on our own blog nowadays, I have a feeling we might miss that deadline!


Rhizome reviewed – “Decisions, decisions, decisions”

HCP_houses_AWe usually invite those we work with to write a post for this blog. They don’t always find the time. But the folk at Hackney Cohousing Project have reflected on the work Perry and I did with them back in March on their own blog. I’ve pasted it below for ease:

“As an informal group of people working on a very technically detailed project, we’ve realised that in the absence of a clear set of corporate-style organisational processes, we needed to establish a way of working together that would help us make decisions efficiently. And make those decisions in a way that upheld our principles and values.

Not entirely sure of what we needed, we spoke to a number of professional trainers and initially found it hard to identify the right kind of support. They tended to be either really strong on particular tools, but with little experience of working with cohousing or cooperative groups, or to avoid tools altogether and emphasise process instead.

As a group we wanted the reassurance of input based on specific tools from trainers with experience of working with cooperative groups. And then we were introduced to Rhizome, an organisation that offer training and support to cooperatives.

Our trainers, Mathew and Perry offered both specific tools and a background in working with co-housing projects. With Perry and Mathew, we agreed a training outline that spanned Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The planned activities intended to reconnect us as a group to our core principles, build greater understanding of how we engaged in decision-making as individuals and how to work together as a group.

The training gave us the following insights :

1. Spending time together as a group is important. It helps build relationships that are the bedrock of working together in a cohousing community.

2. Approach decisions with a clear sense of what final decision needs to be made.

3. Understanding that decision making has a process. i.e it is a space to check in with ‘outliers’ with dissenting views and recognising that every complex decision will involve a ‘groan zone’. This is where the full range of perspectives make it feel like a conclusion is impossible, but trusting that underneath the sometimes wildly divergent positions that people take, are often reconcilable needs that can be met.

4. The importance of making decisions that are guided by values and vision of the project. And making sure that everyone is aware of the values and principles on which the whole endeavour is founded.

5. Finally, recognising that even where there is a nominated chair, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that everyone can contribute, especially those that are often silent or marginalised.

The day itself was a fun mix of activities, discussion, peer learning and structured teaching. The group as a whole felt that it had really contributed to strengthening the way we worked together. A few weeks later we had to approach difficult financial discussions and we were able to move through the process of making some really quite important decisions far quicker and smoothly than in the past.

We’ve now started to incorporate the lessons that we’ve learnt, though we know that it will always take practice and effort. We also recognise that one of the most important aspects to working well together as a group, is the strengths of relationships that we have.

So, we’ve decided to spend a lot more time together, doing what we do best. If you want to join us, you’ll find us in the pub!”



Exploring Shared Values

Craig Freshley’s latest Good Group Tip popped into my inbox this morning. As ever, a useful reminder of what makes a good group. This time Craig talks about shared values – something we also talk about from time to time. He says:

In principle, values are those things most important to us, the things we value. For most people, they are ideals, beliefs, rules to live by. We are generally drawn to people who share our values. At the core of every defined group of people are shared values.

Practical Tip: Discuss values as a group and make a written, short, agreed-to list of the values you have in common. Simply having a discussion about values helps us understand each other. Deciding which values we share defines our group and helps people decide if they want to join the group and it also helps people decide to leave. A written list of shared values also serves as a code of ethics, a place to turn for guidance when the decision making gets tough.

Shared values are the steadfast ground on which we stand when things are in turmoil.

I agree wholeheartedly, and recent Rhizome work with a number of groups has led them to understand that they need to visit or revisit their vision and values precisely because it’s become apparent that they aren’t necessarily shared. I’d also like to take the tip one step further and suggest that groups don’t just agree values, but take the time to understand the many different interpretations of the words we use to describe values to ensure that they are deeply shared. Values more than some other ideas are hard to pin down in language and the room for miscommunication is significant. I’m sure that’s implicit in Craig’s thinking, but let’s make it explicit.

I might say that a core value of the group is ‘open communication’. You might agree. So far so good. But what if we have different ideas on what that means, and what behaviours demonstrate open communication? If so there’s still plenty of room for conflict. So check out your assumptions and interpretations for a really deep foundation to your group.


Consensus Handbook

consbookcoverOur friends at Seeds for Change have compiled their excellent briefings on consensus decision-making into one place  – a new book on consensus and facilitation: A Consensus Handbook – Co-operative decision-making for activists, co-ops and communities

Here’s what they say about it:

After decades of facilitating, years of planning, months of hard work and days of laying out and proofing, the Seeds for Change book on consensus and facilitation is (nearly) here!
We’ve put a PDF of the book on our website for you to have a look at and if you want, you can get a hard copy (£3.50+p&p) by the end of April (details on how to get it on our website). We’re selling the book at a price which just covers printing costs to make it as accessible as possible – so please help us to spread the word about it… Thank you for all the help so far, and we hope you enjoy the book!


We’ve been promised a review copy, so once it’s in print (30th April) we’ll let you know what we think of it here on the blog. If you download and read the pdf in the meantime and want to share your thoughts, please do – we’re happy to host them here!


Consensus: on being right

Perry like’s stories and uses them to great effect in his facilitation and training. We co-facilitated this past weekend and decided the time had come to post some of them on the blog. So from time to time we’ll add a story or saying that offers insight into the process of coming to consensus. Here’s a couple of quotes on being right to start us off:

“The world is divided into those who think they are right.” Anonymous (popularised by Peggy Seeger)


“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.” Yehuda Amichai

Form an orderly queue (but not a democratic one?)

A few Saturdays ago, Maria and I were at the Springhill Cohousing community facilitating a day on consensus decision-making.

One issue arose a few times in both full group and small group sessions. And I don’t think we addressed it adequately. Other issues dominated – more on those another time, perhaps.

And the issue? How to nurture a real conversation between participants that stays focused on one topic for as long as that topic needs whilst still adhering to notions of democracy and fairness. In this case calling people to speak in the order in which they raise their hand. Conversation versus fairness? Why on earth would these concepts need to be in opposition? Why indeed.

Groups that choose to work by consensus usually have high democracy thresholds. That is, they’re not content that ‘1 person 1 vote’ delivers a really sound and participatory decision. And yet, unwittingly, they can fall into all sorts of practices that limit the depth of democracy and fairness in their consensus process. More to the point many of these practices are adopted precisely because it’s thought they will deepen that democracy and fairness. So what’s going on? Why do practices aimed at supporting participation and equality actually limit it?

“Stacking” is a good example. Stacking is the US term for keeping a list of who is waiting to speak and calling on them to do so in order. It’s not a term I’ve ever warmed to, but UK consensus culture doesn’t have an easy equivalent. Usually “the stack” (the list of who is waiting to speak) is determined by the order in which people raise their hands. Some groups, including Springhill, use coloured cards instead of hands, but the principles the same. I’m sure there are other mechanisms in use too.

The idea is to create a structure that supports everyone to be able to take part. Folk that aren’t able, or are unwilling, to cut across others to have their voice heard, can raise a hand, or card, safe in the knowledge that their voice will be heard as their name reaches the top of the stack. So far so good. That’s fair, right? So what’s wrong with stacking? And more importantly what else can we do?

We’ve written about this before but it warrants more attention.

The problem

Firstly the process doesn’t guarantee inclusion and fairness. There’s still a hierarchy of the quickest, and most confident, to raise their hands – often the same people in every conversation. This may reflect the way they think (quick to form opinions….), their comfort in speaking their mind early in the conversation, and a sense that they have a right to do so (often a product of educational, gender and class privilege). Others, who feel the need to contemplate, reflect, or simply don’t feel they have a right to speak out, for whatever reason, may not raise their hand at all, or in the time allowed for the conversation.

If you keep a list of who wants to speak and analyse it afterwards, as I’ve done on occasion, you’ll almost always note that a small number of people spoke many times and the rest made occasional contributions, and in some case no contribution. So the consensus ideal of fair contribution and full participation isn’t guaranteed by stacking alone.

Secondly it’s an artificial structure that doesn’t reflect the way that we usually communicate. This arose in one of the Springhill practice sessions where there was tension between those who wanted a conversation (with the natural animation and cut and thrust of conversation, including moments in which several people are speaking at once and/or speaking over each other) and those who felt that interruption was an unacceptable form of behaviour in meetings. And being artificial it’s something that newcomers have to learn, which in itself can be a barrier to inclusion – especially as it echoes earlier learning in environments like school, environments in which we didn’t all thrive and don’t all have positive associations.

A third dynamic. and the one Springhill folk complained of, is that sticking rigidly to a list based on who puts up their hand when doesn’t keep the discussion focused. The first person on the list raises one issue, but the second wants to speak to a different aspect of the discussion, and the third yet a different aspect. If the whole discussion is held this way it become fragmented and hard to follow. Not only can that be inefficient, but it’s also a participation issue. A perfectly valid point often gets lost because people are still digesting the point just before it or are distracted by the point that follows. If it’s your point that gets lost, you can feel undervalued and that’s a real obstacle to wanting to participate (as well as a major cause of ‘problem behaviour’ in meetings. Plus it creates a sense that meetings meander, take longer than needed if they were kept focused, which leaves some people turned off. They may withdraw in the meeting, or withdraw from meetings altogether.

The solution

Here’s a few ideas:

Keeping a modified stack. That’s a bit of a mouthful for saying keep a list of who wants to speak but use filters of one kind or another to ‘tweak’ it. You might find yourself saying “I’m aware that Mike, John and Ryan are waiting to speak, but I’m also aware that the last 4 voices have all been male. I’m going to deviate from the list to bring in some female voices”.

I use male/female as shorthand for whatever the dynamic of your group is. It could be long-standing members and newcomers. It could be around class, race, age, or some combination of these factors).

Focusing on one topic at a time. It’s perfectly possible to use a stack and stay on topic. State the issue to be discussed. Invite speakers, let the conversation develop for a short while to draw out what the major issues are, and then focus on them one at a time. Now you’re using the stack differently. Now you’re saying, “OK, so let’s take those issues one at a time. Can I only see hands for those people that want to speak directly to this issue. We’ll come back to the others later in the meeting” or “I’m aware there are other people waiting to speak, but let’s ensure we’ve finished the discussion on this issue first. So if you’re point’s about something else, can you put your hand back down and we’ll come to you later”. Of course the urge to be heard sometimes blurs people’s ability to honestly reflect on whether their point is relevant, and you may need to challenge some speakers “how does that connect to this issue?”. If it doesn’t acknowledge it, but park it for later. If it does acknowledge the connection and hear the point.

Acknowledging conscious or unconscious mainstream culture. The ‘no interruption’ debate highlights this. Interruption is seen as rude in some but not all social groups. It can be a nationality thing, or a class thing, or an education thing. In white middle class circles we prefer one voice at a time (although I’ve noted that we commonly apply the rule to others, whilst willingly deviating from it ourselves. What we’re often really saying is “my voice, uninterrupted”, but I digress). That cultural norm doesn’t apply everywhere and we need to be aware that it might not be the norm of everyone in our meetings. It’s about acknowledging and exploring, and appreciating our diversity. As a facilitator, there may be times when it’s absolutely OK to let (even encourage) the discussion get animated, hear several voices at once and so on. After all it can be a testament to the energy and excitement of the group. There may be other times when we want to ask the group to simmer down so we can hear one voice, especially if that voice is a marginal one that struggles to be heard. It might be as practical as there being people in the meeting who are hearing impaired and can only follow discussions if they are held with one voice at a time.

Group process – servant or master?

At the heart of this is whether our meeting process serves us as a group (and I mean the entire group, not just the mainstream of the group) or whether we serve it. We too often conform to structures, even when they chafe against our personality, our diversity and our values. We need to use structures that serve our values and not vice versa. I don’t think that necessarily means we throw the baby out with the bathwater. More often, for me, it means flexibility. Knowing when to come in and say “things are getting a little heated, and it feels like it’s time for some deeper listening. What would aid that is if we heard just one person at a time, and ensured they were given the time they needed to make their point” and knowing when to let the group have its head.

In short, facilitators, chairs – don’t let the ‘rules’ hinder you in involving the whole group, in welcoming in a diverse range of voices and opinions. Redefine the rules, break the rules. Democracy and fairness aren’t rules. They’re values. And it’s those living values, not some artificial meeting construct that we should facilitate (and participate) to.


You might also want to read our posts ‘Groundrules – empowering or oppressive?’ Part 1 and Part 2

Liberating structures… holacracy and consensus

holacracylogo_nickI sat up late chatting to Nick Osborne last night. Nick’s recently become a certified practitioner in Holacracy and I wanted to get a better sense of the Holacracy model and ethos. According to

“Holacracy is a real-world-tested social technology for purposeful organization. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed.”

There are significant overlaps with formal consensus decision-making. Hence the relevance to our work at Rhizome. There are also significant differences, amongst which is that holacracy has a different relationship with hierarchy. That’s of real interest given the number of times I’ve been asked how formal consensus can be applied to hierarchical organisations. I asked Nick to clarify:

“In one sense Holacracy is not designed to work in hierarchies and in another sense it is. It doesn’t work in hierarchical power structures, and replaces the power structure with a holarchic, fractal, distributed  structure. But it does work with a hierarchy of scale….What that means is that different levels of the holarchy work at different scales, some being more focused on specific areas, some being more general and including those other areas. Like concentric circles.”

When Nick first suggested Rhizome folk look at Holacracy, back in the summer of last year, I found myself with considerable internal resistance – the slick website, trademarked process, and the obvious similarities to formal consensus decision-making. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just another attempt to critique and then repackage consensus decision-making for sale to a new market. Others in Rhizome seemed to share some of this resistance. Having spoken to Nick at length I’m more open-minded, but a long way from being seduced away from formal consensus as a preferred approach.

It seems to me that many of the issues with consensus decision-making that holacracy seeks to address, whilst very real, are possible to fix within the consensus model if the values of cooperation are better supported. But the fact that consensus so often works so poorly may demonstrate that new models are indeed warranted, however unpalatable I personally find that.

Here’s more in video form

I’m struck (and slightly uncomfortable) with the idea of “a governance system that’s not of the people, for the people, by the people but of the organisation, through the people, for the purpose”. I like my democracy to be human, but on the understanding that humans can, collectively, aspire to and achieve great things. And this seems to be one difference between formal consensus decision-making and holacracy. Both are liberating structures, but I view consensus as an aspirational structure that supports a collective to be more than the sum of its parts, to work towards the most inspirational decision it can reach. Holacracy focuses on meeting people where they’re at, warts and all, and setting them within a strict set of rules that leaves no room for ego. When people are attempting to act in the interests of their ego rather than the interests of the organisation, that becomes very apparent and the rules don’t allow egos to dominate. I heard Nick say that perhaps the structure of holacracy restricts people more than that of formal consensus, but if it does it is to maximise the potential for liberation.

Nick and I talked a lot about those rules. After all, how do you get people, especially those into alternative democratic systems, to follow the rules when those rules chafe against self-interest? Nick argued that the rules are liberating. Very quickly everyone sees that they have the same autonomy and the same voice as everyone else. The facilitator upholds the rules rigorously – tolerating no interruptions in any of the various rounds that make up a discussion. But everyone has a voice in that round, and everyone can add their ‘tension’ to the agenda. So I may be silenced if I speak out of turn, but I’m also able to put my issue onto the agenda to b processed in its own turn. The assertive facilitation required to uphold the rules seems contrary to our meeting culture, says Nick, even rude, but is so effective that that’s soon forgotten.

One example of that assertive facilitation is in challenging objections to a proposal. In formal consensus this can be a very tricky moment for participants and facilitators alike, and one we’ve written on before. Many groups stumble here, and poor dynamics are created and repeated. Holacracy equips facilitators with a series of incisive questions with which to challenge objections. If the answers are unsatisfactory the objection isn’t valid – it’s more likely to be about ego than the shared purpose of the organisation.

If I’ve understood it right, in holacracy it’s only in matters of governance, where decisions get made about how authority is distributed, that consent is required, and a process akin to that of formal consensus happens. Nick commented that “It’s a very specific form of consent as defined by the ‘Integrative Decision Making’ process, which doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree, it means that no-one has any objections according to very clear criteria for what counts as objections.”

In most work areas within an organisation individuals are effectively autocrats. Power is distributed rather than shared. This means that no-one has the authority to be able to control how anyone else fulfils their roles.

Liberating structures, not about people, autocrat in role more like consensus in governance, rigour of testing objections to deny ego, strength of the facilitator role in upholding “the rules of the game”

Nick and his colleague Clement Hopking will be taking a 1 day holacracy workshop around the country over the next year. The first event is in London. I hope to join them when they come closer to my neck of the woods.


Cohousing and consensus – in Scotland

There was a time when I thought nothing of spending far longer travelling to deliver a piece of work than actually delivering it. Nowadays my personal sustainability is a little higher on the agenda so it’s far more of a rarity. Last weekend I made an exception and travelled to Fife to run a consensus decision-making workshop for the folk in the Vivarium Trust’s living group.

It’s an exception I’m glad to have made for many reasons. Fife is my old stamping ground – I lived there for a decade or more in the 90’s and early 2000’s. And a very good friend of mine’s living there again, so there was the chance to catch up and spend a little time together.

And of course there was the workshop itself. There are groups that just get it. And the cohousing groups I’ve worked with over the last couple of years seem to number amongst these – open, curious, eager to be challenged and to challenge, and wanting to model a different way of doing things without feeling the need to inflate their egos along the way. Refreshing!

The Vivarium Trust promotes cohousing as a positive way forward, especially in addressing the housing needs of older folk (by which they mean 50+). They also have a living group – about a dozen people coming together to set up a pilot project in Fife.

I say that the group got it – they certainly tackled activities I’ve seen most groups struggle to do with relative ease. Though it may not have felt easy to them! Of course,that doesn’t mean that they’re not without their issues – what group is? Like many cohousing groups, the primary focus may have (understandably) been on the project rather than the process. This workshop gave them the opportunity to be together, to get to know each other better, and to develop a shared understanding of their decision-making process and their group dynamics.

The workshop itself has been developing for a couple of years. Since talking to other trainers about the need to refocus on consensus values over consensus process, I’ve been playing with a number of approaches that explore building empathy and understanding across difference. I’m glad to say that this one seemed to work with Vivarium.

I’m enjoying the chance to work with cohousing groups. So far, at least, there’s a lot less of the competitive mindset I’ve witnessed all too often in some activist groups. Maybe it’s the aspect of cohousing as an intentional community. That focus on community and community building cannot be ignored. In campaigning and activist circles the intention is often more on mobilising around an issue and the community is more haphazard, and less intentional, at least in recent years. There are noticeable impacts on the consensus process.

At a Rhizome meeting this week we mused on the difference between community building and movement building in 21st century Britain. We noted that movements can be full of individuals and don’t necessarily build community. More on that in future blog posts, I’m sure.


The agony of group decision-making

The UK Cohousing Network recently teamed up with us at Rhizome to put on a consensus decision-making training in Birmingham. We’ve extended that relationship by starting to write a column for their newsletter offering cohousing groups the opportunity to share their agony (and their ecstasy!) about any aspect of working and meeting in groups, especially when it comes to decision-making. We’ll then chip in some thoughts, agony aunt style. Hopefully we can use the column to help support them to work together more effectively, to reassure them that they’re not alone in their struggles for effective group process, and to point them towards some useful resources.

Here’s a version of that first column:

One of the topics that emerged in the recent Birmingham workshop was the question of devolved responsibility. It’s a common issue. What’s the balance between individual initiative and the group’s shared responsibility?

Many groups make the mistake of thinking that consensus decision-making means we all have to agree absolutely everything together. Of course there are times when it’s imperative that everyone is actively involved in a decision. Some decisions are that central to the life of a cohousing community. But at other times that’s inefficient and a recipe for long and frustrating meetings.

There’s nothing to say that you can’t agree by consensus to delegate responsibility, even decision-making power, to a subgroup of the community. You can appoint an individual as supreme ruler, by consensus, if you see fit. Wouldn’t recommend it, but it is possible. What’s important is finding the balance between letting a subgroup have room for creativity and initiative and them being accountable to the wider community.

That requires trust. We can’t assume trust. It’s a nice idea and we’d probably all like to think of ourselves as trusting people, but in reality it often needs to be built in groups. So have patience. Much of the time the dynamic at work is that feeling of “how do I know they are considering my perspective properly if I’m not there to advocate it?”. So subgroups need to be careful to take all perspectives into consideration (and to demonstrate that they’re doing so), especially those that are not represented by the members of the subgroup.

For the delegation to work, there needs to be a clear mandate – What are the community empowering the subgroup to do? What are the limits? How will they report back? By when? To whom? And when the time comes to be accountable and to be held accountable there needs to be an atmosphere of supportive learning rather than judgement.

Craig Freshley’s latest Good Group Tip is on accountability. These tips are an excellent resource (and one we’ve mentioned on this blog before). On accountability Craig says, amongst other things, that:

“If you want to hold someone accountable, first ensure that there is shared understanding about the expectation. Write it down. Do not judge against someone for not living up to unclear, or even imagined, expectations.”

Couldn’t agree more. It’s really common for a subgroup leave a meeting with a different understanding of their mandate than the community at large. So check out those understandings to ensure their held in common.

At the workshop I borrowed a simple exercise from my colleague Carl. Think of the colour blue? What are you thinking? It’d be easy to think we all know what “blue” means, right? But in Birmingham people were interpreting it to be as varied as a smurf to the sky. And whilst several people were thinking of sky, they each had different understandings of what that sky looked like – clear blue summer’s day right through to midnight blue night sky. Shared understanding is key to successful delegation in consensus. So check it is shared or you’ll get smurfs instead of midnight skies!

UK cohousers will hopefully send us in some knotty problems to support them in, as well as the odd positive experience that others can learn from. You are of course welcome to do the same.


Conformity and consensus

Just worked through Dave Pollard’s Links for the Month. TheraminTrees YouTube video (a touch under 10 minutes long) summarising studies on group conformity stood out from some other amazing resources. Probably because I’ve been pondering this stuff of late, including in my recent post on certainty:

If you don’t have time to watch, here’s a taste of the author’s conclusions from his review of the studies that show a real tendency to conform to group views:

“Being part of a group doesn’t mean agreeing with every part of that group. We should always feel able to voice legitimate criticisms with any group…. When we stop feeling able to do that we give those groups a status and an authority that they don’t deserve and that they actually don’t possess. If a group can’t handle legitimate dissent it’s not a group I want to be part of”

Immediately the possible impacts on consensus decision-making are apparent. How do we move towards a shared group decision without eradicating minority opinions and dissent? How do we embrace those views and weave them into our decision-making? If we manage this how do we avoid co-option – by which I mean bringing them into the majority fold in order to exert some level of control over them? Hard questions with many, many examples of failure to illustrate the need to ask them.

Dave’s blogged about consensus as a force for the status quo in the past, and this research adds weight to his thinking, even though I’m stubbornly holding out in the belief that whilst it may often be like that it’s not a default setting of consensus decision-making itself, just how groups (choose to) use it. At the time I wrote:

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Maybe the studies quoted in the video answer that question.

This week I met with my Leicester-based Rhizome colleagues. Given we live in and around the same city we don’t meet often enough, and it’s always refreshing when we do. Much of our conversation relates to this post – how we as Rhizome need to explore the diversity that 10 different facilitators with very different backgrounds and approached represent, embrace it and root ourselves firmly in it. When we do that we’re in a much better position to support other groups effectively. We need to model the struggle to have shared values but differing visions of the future which disable so many groups. The inability of people to reconcile their differences seems to be a major contributing factor to conformity. Eventually “the other” (whatever or whoever that might be) is alienated, made unwelcome, or forced to conform for the group to move forwards because there’s an expectation of a very narrow shared vision.

We’ll continue to share our journey into co-operation without conformity with you. Please share yours with us.

The danger of certainty

I used to be certain.  I knew what was right and wrong and wasn’t shy in saying so. Some people might say I’m still that way – very black and white, not enough shades of grey. But to me I’ve changed a lot over the years. I’m positively full of doubt and ambivalence nowadays.  And I like it. That might sound odd – who likes doubt and ambivalence? Well me – whenever I encounter the kind of certainty I once had.

So why this train of thought? I’ve had cause to ponder the effects of certainty on the life of groups over the years. 20 years ago it was the effects of my own certainty that, in part, switched me on to good group process. More recently I’ve been watching the comments on an email list with increasing unease.

I attended an event in July. It proved quite controversial. The participants’ email list has been no less controversial. We’ve heard from some very certain voices. And with the certainty comes that close relative – judgement. After all if I’m right and we disagree, then I’m in a position to tell you that you’re wrong.

I need to declare my interests at this point. A fair amount of that certainty has been directed at me. Some at me personally, some at me by dint of my being a white male. You may think that renders this post worthless. I hope not.

The certainty seems to have created a dynamic. Early certain voices brought out other certain voices. The groundswell of judgement increased. There was very little dissent. Other voices confined themselves to other topics, by and large. Off the list four of the female participants contacted me directly. They wanted to offer some support (thank you). To one extent or another, all four expressed some concern that the dynamic on the list was suppressing dissenting voices, that they were muted. These are powerful women and yet these conversation happened off the list, and I really can’t say I blame them.

So we have one certain perspective being offered. It’s self reinforcing as other similar voices rally around, and dissenters feel unsafe to express their views.

Now take that sideways to the group of your choice. Take it into your consensus experience. How often are we suppressing a diversity of views simply by being certain of our own perspective and articulating it forcefully. It’s hard to be certain without taking a position. And it’s hard to shift from a position once you’ve taken it. Take a look at Penny Walker’s blog on this topic (and her position-interest-need graphic). Certainty seems to stimulate  responses – rallying around, or railing against and finding the middle ground in which to converse, to grow, to change is tough. Give me tentative curiosity or hesitant exploration every time. Certainty is dangerous to groups. Of that I’m certain.



PS: any certainty displayed by the author is a rhetorical device to stimulate a response. Use the comments field – all dissent very, very welcome!

Consensus and cohousing

I spent Friday in the company of 17 folk from 6 cohousing projects in the southern half of Wales and England. We came together for a 1 day consensus decision-making workshop that I was delivering for the UK Cohousing Network.

Those of us who do a lot of work with the activist community can sometimes forget that it’s not the only hotbed of radical democracy. Consensus seems to be the assumed decision-making process for many (most?) cohousing projects. In some ways this is odd, as it’s certainly not the assumed norm for co-operative businesses. Most rules for co-ops assume majority voting. What makes co-operative living different to co-operative working, I wonder?

Whatever the answer to that question, there was no doubt that these cohousers were curious, committed and keen to share their wealth of experience in group decision-making and group dynamics. As is the Rhizome preference we focused on the state of mind that is consensus rather than just the mechanics of the process. I’ve been playing with a few activities that help support exploration of empathy and connection. I trialled a new activity to give us insight into the tension between personal values and shared group values (between the stand aside and the block). These seemed to work well, especially the latter, thanks to the volunteer that shared her story with us.

Of course not everything worked that well – one of the practice roleplays needs a rethink. Maybe the scenario I used needs overhauling and more detail adding, or maybe it needs to go altogether. It’s hard to say – one participant astutely pointed out on their evaluation form that whilst the activity itself didn’t feel like it worked well, it might have played a role in paving the way for the activity that followed, which did work well. Sadly this workshop wasn’t co-facilitated so I don’t have the benefit of a co-facilitator’s wisdom in debriefing the session.

And I’m aware that there was more to be done to equalise the voices in the group. As a group we had conversations about this – that sometimes everyone gets to speak, but that doesn’t mean they all get heard equally. I could have done more to support the group in modelling that dynamic.

There was an immense amount of experience in the room, and it’s always humbling to work in that environment. There were those who have spent years immersed in Quaker Business Method as well as others that have used consensus decision-making in various groups at various times over many years. In many ways it felt as if just bringing them together to talk and share was the most useful contribution. The fact I was there to structure some specific learning was a minor detail (and some might say even an obstacle!).

There was a lot of energy in the group at the end of the day, which I take to be a good sign. Their evaluations were very affirming, though they didn’t steer clear of also confirming what I suspected about the practice roleplay, for which I thank them.