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

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.

Matthew

Is your organisation agile?

We’ve mentioned Holacracy a few times of late and explored how it relates to formal consensus decision-making because Rhizome’s  Nick Osborne has been exploring it in-depth.

He’s now offering a series of one day introductions to Holacracy through Agile Organisation.Over the next 18 months workshops will take place around the UK and Ireland in such places as Swansea, Bristol, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Dublin and more.

You can find out more there, or book your place through their Eventbrite page. And if you go along, don’t forget to let us know how it went.

Matthew

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.org:

“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.

Matthew

Strategy……or evolutionary purpose?

We recently blogged about Rhizome’s internal discussions on strategy. Here’s more on one perspective in that discussion:

Values are obviously very important in helping people make decisions about how to prioritise one thing over another when there are various options. But to continue the metaphor, if you arrive at any place on a map, and you have your compass with you, then your compass will help you find your way- if you know where you want to go. A compass doesn’t help you decide where to go. For me, having values without some sense of direction/purpose/strategy certainly helps in some contexts, but doesn’t do the job for me in terms of helping with all of the many complex and subtle decisions that are made in organisations. It leaves too much open to individual opinion and interpretation, which can then take a lot of time to process, normally in some kind of group context. That’s fine if you want to be in an organisation which spends a lot of time processing individual feelings, exploring interpretations and creating shared understandings about lots of stuff which is undefined- but not so much if you want to get a lot of stuff done effectively! Its like having a map, and a compass, but not knowing where you are going and not having any criteria about how to decide that either.

So I do think there is a need for some sense of organisational purpose, but not in the sense of a traditional ‘Mission Statement’. I find the notion of evolutionary purpose more helpful here than a traditional mission statement. More conventional ways of thinking about mission and vision involve a leader individually, or a group collectively, exploring and sharing their ideas about what they would like to happen/the world to be like/the organisation to do, find what is shared and create a sense of shared purpose around this. One of the problems with this is, as Brian Robertson, one of the founders of Holacracy says, that it can foster a sense of individual and personal attachment to the mission/ vision/ purpose of the organisation which the leader or group comes up with. These attachments can then get in the way of the purpose being achieved, as we can identify with them and this process invites our egos to get involved. Evolutionary purpose on the other hand is about listening to what needs to happen and being in service to that.

And its about a different kind of ‘listening’ too. The more conventional kind of listening to what’s required from the environment is often done in the form of market research, user-consultation, stakeholder engagement etc. These ways use our minds to engage with the world and what is needed, which is important and necessary. There is another form of listening, which is done beyond the mind. Its not rational or evidence based. Its more transpersonal, where we sense into what is looking to pop up next in the evolutionary unfolding of the universe. What is there, not yet manifest, but waiting to be realised? An organisational purpose which coalesces around this can be a powerful attractor. This is an example of where the two domains of personal/spiritual and group development overlap, and is where its helpful to an organisation for the people involved to have meditation and mindfulness practices. This is dealt with in the work of people like Andrew Cohen and Craig Hamilton’s spiritual teachings on the Evolutionary Impulse.

Its about making a distinction between pushing and pulling. If we have an idea about what we want to happen, we can push to make it happen, and our egos can get engaged and this makes getting it done complicated. On the other hand, if we listen to what is needed in the surrounding environment, that will serve the evolution of the whole, we can be pulled in that direction. Values obviously inform this, and so are necessary, but not sufficient. When we listen to what is needed, and an organisation’s purpose can be formed around this, we can then be in service of that. Being in service to an organisation’s evolutionary purpose can help us disidentify from our ego’s getting tangled up in achieving the purpose. And most crucially, it can provide criteria to help people in the making of the hundred’s of small decisions as well as the big ones, that are needed in any organisation which is being effective in getting things done.

And once there is a sense of purpose, values can help in working out how to achieve that purpose (how to get to where you want to go), and a strategy doesn’t have to be a fixed plan about how it happens. It can be a framework which is referred to which help people decide which path to choose from a range of available options in any one moment.

Nick

Rhizome gathering – ten out of ten

It’s not that long ago Rhizome was just Carl and myself. Then last November Emily, Hannah, Jo, Maria and Perry joined as associates. Then there were seven.

We met again for 2 days last week in the straw bale room of Hackney City Farm. It was a dynamic meeting that took in Soma games, an introduction to Holacracy, and discussions on our purpose and our place in the world in which we work, as well as on the details of our governance and co-ordination.

We’re still in that post meeting haze of collecting all the various write-ups, and photos of flipcharts into a set of coherent notes. We’ll share the highlights with you through the blog.

One thing that was decided is that we are now 10. Adam, Gill and Nick have joined the co-op. Their biographies will appear on our Who we are pages as and when we find the time, and their views and learning on this blog over the coming weeks and months. They bring with them a wealth of experience  and practice drawn from co-operatives, eco-villages, the women’s movement, experience of consultancy and management, the Transition movement, community development and much more. That makes Rhizome an even more exciting co-op to work in, and a stronger resource for you.