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.



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.


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.