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.