Consensus, self-organising and clear identity

For weeks (if not months), I’ve been meaning to go back to a post I read on emergence. Today I started the journey, leaping from one stepping stone to another and now have two streams of thought competing for attention – one around strategy and the other around groups and consensus. I’ll stick with this last one here as it’s been a week for thinking about consensus.

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers’ The Irresistible Future of Organizing is all well worth reading, but the following excerpt chimed with a post I wrote on Tuesday:

All organizing efforts begin with an intent, a belief that something more is possible now that the group is together. Organizing occurs around an identity–there is a “self” that gets organized. Once this identity is set in motion, it becomes the sense-making process of the organization. In deciding what to do, a system will refer back to its sense of self … The self the organization references includes its vision, mission, and values. But there is more. An organization’s identity includes current interpretations of its history, present decisions and activities, and its sense of its future. Identity is both what we want to believe is true and what our actions show to be true about ourselves. Because identity is the sense-making capacity of the organization, every organizing effort–whether it be the start-up of a team, a community project, or a nation–needs to begin by exploring and clarifying the intention and desires of its members. Why are we doing this? What’s possible now that we’ve agreed to try this together? How does the purpose of this effort connect to my personal sense of purpose, and to the purposes of the large system? Think for a moment of your own experiences with the start-up activities of new projects or teams. Did the group spend much time discussing the deeper and often murkier realms of purpose and commitment? Or did people just want to know what their role was so they could get out of the meeting and get on with it? Did leaders spend more time on policies and procedures to coerce people into contributing rather than try to engage their desire to contribute to a worthy purpose? Most organizing efforts don’t begin with a commitment to creating a coherent sense of identity. Yet it is this clarity that frees people to contribute in creative and diverse ways. Clear alignment around principles and purposes allows for maximum autonomy. People use their shared sense of identity to organize their unique contributions. Organizations lose an enormous organizing advantage when they fail to create a clear and coherent identity. In a chaotic world, organizational identity needs to be the most stable aspect of the endeavor. Structures and programs come and go, but an organization with a coherent center is able to sustain itself through turbulence because of its clarity about who it is. Organizations that are coherent at their core move through the world with more confidence. Such clarity leads to expansionary behaviors; the organization expands to include those they had kept at a distance–customers, suppliers, government regulators, and many others.

This work of establishing identity and deep connection is fundamental to true consensus, where group cohesion allows consensus to flourish and groups to creatively navigate difficult decisions with relative ease and with that unique combination of autonomy-within-co-operation that consensus offers.

I’ll come back to the strategy stream some other time…