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March 10, 2011 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Point me to tools for small-group consensus decision making - that includes policies/methods for dealing with irregular meetings/membership?

We're forming a collective for doing performance work and social justice. We're looking to work through consensus based principles, BUT we also need to be able to make decisions at a decent speed despite having folks who are not regular to meetings. Realistically, we can probably gather 2/3rds of the group together at most for a meeting, and most often only 1/2 the members at any time.

We are looking at a variety of things ranging from check ins/votes by email, text and phone, majority votes w/Five to Fist negotiation, etc.

Links, books, etc. would be great.
posted by yeloson to Law & Government (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Okay so I don't have any books to offer you, just advice from long experience living in a cooperative house that makes decisions by consensus, pretty successfully.

I think there are a few keys to making consensus-based decisions that everyone is happy with. There is no magic formula.

1. Everyone has to have the opportunity to raise their concerns and be heard. If their concerns are major, the group should make an effort to address them somehow. In these conversations, it's best to try to get to the heart of why something is important - people's opinions are malleable but they have non-negotiable needs and it's important to figure out what those are.

2. If someone is really not able to stomach a particular proposal, they have the right to block it. This is a hard "no" and it means that the proposal does not go forward. Everyone should explain why they are blocking a particular proposal. There should be room for more discussion afterward, but people can block for any reason - they don't need to have a "good" justification. At our house, even someone who missed the meeting can block afterward within 24 hours. This means it is important for people to read meeting minutes if they are not present.

The biggest danger with blocking is if you get someone who blocks too often, it can prevent anything from getting done. If a group has consistent difficulty coming to consensus, the group should disband.

3. You need to have enough people who are informed and enthusiastic about something before you make a collective decision to do it. At our house we have a different type of "no" vote called "stand aside," which means you are not that excited about something but you are okay if it happens. If half or more of the group stands aside, a motion fails for lack of enthusiasm. You should figure out how many people need to be in favor of something and how they express that favor if they are not at a meeting.

4. All conversations should take place from the perspective of building consensus, not "winning" an argument. People should keep their minds open, be willing to be flexible sometimes, but also be willing to state their needs when something is really important to them and not just let it slide but then feel resentful about it later.

Memail me if you have more questions.
posted by mai at 10:44 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I heartily recommend the book Beyond majority rule: voteless decisions in the Religious Society of Friends by Michael Sheeran. It's a book by a Jesuit about Quakers, but the thrust of the book is about consensus decision-making, a study of successes; not particularly about religion. It goes into the things mai mentions at some more length, and some other conventions or norms that make consensus work better in practice.
posted by hattifattener at 11:03 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't have great suggestions and I look forward to hearing suggestions in this thread. The only possibly helpful idea I have you probably already know and it's pretty general: The Tyranny of Structurelessness.
posted by serazin at 11:58 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here are some thoughts on how to make consensus work well when attendance is irregular:

* Use conference calling and a speakerphone so people who can't be there in person can still participate.
* Take extensive notes. Summarize discussion, not just agenda items and decisions.
* Have a group agreement that members who miss a meeting are responsible for reading the notes and responding with concerns.
* Make a practice of carrying important decisions over to another meeting so members who aren't present will have a chance to weigh in.
* Have an online forum where threaded discussions can take place in parallel with discussions in meetings. Agree that all members are responsible for staying current with forum discussion as well as attending meetings. But be clear that decisions are made at the meetings, not online.
* Have a shared understanding about what blocking is and when to use it. mai has a lot of good points, but the point about anyone blocking for any reason is directly contrary to what I've been taught and seen work.

This set of consensus guidelines (scroll down to the section on blocking) explains it well:

"[Blocking] is a powerful act that is reserved for those rare times when a person believes the decision will likely bring significant harm to the group or community. Blocking is not appropriate when an individual personally disagrees with the decision and feels it will negatively affect him or her....The Quakers estimate that one person has about six blocks in a lifetime of living in community."

* Remember that not all decisions need to be made by the whole group. Identify decisions and areas of authority that can be delegated to individuals or smaller groups.
* Cultivate a group value of trust. Ask participants to trust the group to decide wisely even when they can't be there.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:13 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


The main book for social justice groups I was always part of is "on conflict and consensus" (http://www.consensus.net/ocaccontents.html). I think it covers issues like those.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:40 PM on March 10, 2011


Some thoughts from Karl Fogel's Producing Open Source Software, on how to do consensus-based democracy (including discussion of polls and votes), how to deal with small factions of noisy people, handling difficult people, and getting the most out of volunteers.
posted by brainwane at 8:54 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I should clarify what I said about blocking. Because I live in a cooperative house, it's difficult to separate what's good for the community from what's good for me personally - the purpose of our community is to have a nice place for us all to live. We have to live with each other all the time. If I block it is because I feel that either something is bad for the community as a whole, or I would be unable to live with it personally. If I merely dislike a proposal but could learn to live with it, I will not block.

In a group oriented toward a political or artistic goal, the mission of the group is more readily separable from individual interests and it might make sense to have different guidelines for blocking. Our guidelines are broad for a reason and they work for us, mostly because we trust each other and do not abuse the right to block.

That said, I have certainly blocked more than 6 times and our community is still doing fine.
posted by mai at 4:04 PM on March 11, 2011


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