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A Bridge Too Far

Laird's Blog -

I've taken the title of this essay from a World War II book by Cornelius Ryan, which chronicles the story of a failed attempt by Allied Forces in the fall of 1944 to break through the German lines at Arnhem and cross the Rhein River. It is a high stakes example of overreaching in pursuit of a noble cause (in this case, ending the war as quickly as possible).

While taking chances occurs in all cultures, I'm narrowing the focus of today's essay to how this unfolds in a cooperative context.

One of the many facets of leadership [see Cooperative Leadership from A to Z] is aspirational—the ability to pull the group forward into the unknown, especially when the group is unlikely to go there on its own. What makes this a compelling topic is that this can work wonderfully and it can be a disaster... or some of both.

People can stretch—often more than they think they can—but only so far. Where is the limit, and how do you know you're close to it?

Suppose the issue is whether to build a new community center because you intend to grow and the old one is at capacity. The questions are many:

o  How large a group are you aiming to accommodate in the new facility? Partly this is a question of rate of growth (to what extent are you willing to rely on past trends to continue)? Partly this is a question of the life expectancy of the new building.

o  To what extent do you want the new facility to be an enhancement or upgrade from current facilities? Buildings are a long-term highly visible statement of values. Other things being equal, you want to be proud of that statement.

o  How much financial burden are current members willing to accept? If population does not surge forward, or otherwise falls short of projections, that means existing members will have to shoulder more of the debt load. There's a limit to what people can bear and still grin.

o  Undertaking a large project means that money and labor are not available for other projects. Is this facility the group's most pressing need? Is it acceptable that most other projects are on hold?

o  To what extent should you try to fund the building through savings, to what extent through donations, and to what extent through loans? Waiting to accumulate sufficient savings tends to equate with delays; borrowing tends to be easier to secure than donations, but you have to handle debt load. Donations are nice (manna from heaven), yet most groups do not have a robust fundraising program and starting from scratch takes time.

Having witnessed a number of cooperative groups go through the wringer in pursuit of securing and maintaining buy-in for a major building initiative, here's a list of things that leaders might keep in mind:

1. Tracking the Energy
In general, you can expect a certain amount of nervousness associated with any proposal to undertake a large project. For the risk averse this will be knee-jerk scary and you'll need to work through this, not bulldoze over it. That means making sure that you are able to demonstrate to the naysayers' satisfaction that you have heard their reservations and are being responsive in ways that feel respectful to them. Caution: this not about the leaders being in integrity; it's about the leaders being able to successfully build and maintain a bridge to the risk averse.

While this guidance obtains for any group working with consensus, regardless of the issue, the stakes are much higher here and therefore the penalty for getting this wrong is much greater.

2. Knitting Support at Tortoise Pace
There are times to go fast and times to go slow. It is crucial, for example, when you're developing group approval for the initial plan that you go no faster than your slowest thinkers. (Don't mishear me: slow thinkers are not inferior thinkers; they just need more time to process data and know their own minds. If they're pushed to make a decision too fast they tend to dig in their heels and bad things happen, such as gridlock.)

Later, once approval has been secured, you can pick up the tempo during implementation.

3. Admitting Uncertainty 
If you paint too rosy a picture, your credible is out the window as soon as the first surprises emerge. (Of course, if you emphasize is too much on the down beat, you're raining on your own parade.) It's important to disclose the variables and not pretend confidence when it isn't justified. There's reason for the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." By overplaying your hand you train people to discount your projections.

4. Limiting Unknowns to Manageable Proportions
Take careful note of how many critical aspects of the plan require success when you're operating in terra incognita. It's axiomatically riskier counting on success in unknown territory than relying on delivering a modest increase in what you've already proven you can accomplish.

5. Assessing Internal Capacity to Do the Work
Do you have the horses? That is, can you fill all crucial slots with personnel who have the skill, motivation, and availability for the tasks? Hiring outside often increases costs and can result in a crew that isn't well aligned with mission. This can be particularly tricky if the project manager is hired outside the family. On the other hand, it avoids the awkwardness of people who are otherwise in a member-member peer relationship having to navigate the schizophrenia of also being in an employer-employee relationship.

6. Embracing Contingencies
If success depends on everything working well, you're probably stretched too far. Nothing goes perfectly. If your plan has so little wiggle room that any setback means unacceptable delays or cost overruns, then you're in deep doo-doo.

7. Establishing Pause Points
Good plans will identify checkpoints along the way, such that you can either hit the pause button, or—if the signs are bad enough—you can hit the abort button. This means establishing targets for funding secured, personnel hired, materiél acquired, construction accomplished within seasonal (having the exterior enclosed before freeze-up), etc.

People tend to breathe easier if there is a bolt hole established in the event that targets aren't met.

8. Establishing and Meeting Reporting Standards
Transparency can go a long way toward helping people exhale. Good reporting is partly a question of frequency; partly it's depth of coverage. Are you making clear what indicators are important in your report; are you bringing the right information forward? Hint #1: It's more crucial to be forthcoming with bad news than good news. Hint #2: Keep your reports short and to the point, inviting people to ask questions if they want greater detail.

Sometimes project managers try to hide bad news in the hopes that problems will be resolved before the next report. This is a dangerous game—kinda like juggling lit dynamite sticks. Occasionally that works, but more often it blows up in your face and now you have two problems: the one you started with and the loss of trust.

9. Developing a Broad Base of Active Support
This one is a spin-off to 5) above. The more members of the group who are actively involved in the project, the easier it will be to achieve and maintain buy-in—because it feels more like their project than one being done for them, or worse, to them.

This may take some creativity on the part of leaders to manifest, yet you are at grave risk of being isolated and falling into us/them dynamics if only a small number of community members are getting their hands dirty and their sleeves rolled up in service to the project.

The key throughout is making sure that the bridge between the project and the membership is never too far.

When Does a Private Issue Become a Group Issue?

Laird's Blog -

When people create intentional community they are purposefully choosing a culture that is shifted more toward the "we" end of the spectrum and away from the "I" end. People living in community are, by design, opting for a social reality in which their lives will be more interwoven with those of fellow members and less autonomous. In consequence, there will be a number of decisions that you may be used to making solely as an individual (or as a household) that you are now obliged to work out with fellow community members—because your choices may impact others, and you've agreed that you're in this together.

Let me walk you through this.

Suppose you want to cut down a tree in front your house that's getting so high that it's shading the solar panels on your roof. Let's further suppose that: a) the tree is growing in lawn that is within the space immediately around your house that is defined by the community's covenants as yours to control (often referred to in community lingo as "limited private element") and b) there is an explicit community agreement that if you propose to do anything that impacts your neighbors that you're expected to consult with them first and make a good faith effort to find a course of action that's mutually agreeable.

In the mainstream world, so long as the tree is on your property, you'd have the right to cut it down whenever you wanted. Your only risk would be accidentally felling the tree onto your neighbor's roof, car, or (heaven forbid) their children who wanted to get close enough to witness your Paul Bunyan moment.

In community this is much more complicated.

o  First of all, you'd be less likely to own your own chain saw, because community is all about shared living and how many chain saws does a community need anyway? If you're proposing to use the community's chain saw, you be smart to reserve it ahead of time because someone else may want it at the same time you do. What's more, you probably can't count on the chain being sharp, or there being enough fuel on hand, so that means setting aside time to see that those things have been taken care of ahead of need.

o  While few people think it's a good idea to run a chain saw in the dark (visibility being directly related to safety) there's an issue around noise. If your fire up a chain saw at first light, most people will not thank you for substituting Stihl-ness for stillness—waking up to the roar of a chain saw is highly unpleasant and it's prudent to accept guidance from the neighbors about appropriate hours for running noisy machines, and then giving everyone a heads up about the exact time you expect to be doing the work, so that they can get their children, pets, and cars safely away from the action.

o  There is also a nuance around parameters a) and b) above. From a) it follows that it's wholly your call whether the tree should come down. Despite that, however, you could run afoul of b). Suppose, for example, that the tree provides welcome afternoon shade for the neighbor immediately to your east. Under those circumstances it's possible that what you're doing to reduce energy costs for your house (by increasing solar gain) will increase costs for your neighbors (because their air conditioning will have to work harder to maintain comfortable temperatures in summer).

Worse, you may not even know that your neighbor benefits from the shade of that tree, and that you are at risk for stepping on a landmine you didn't know existed if you blithely ignore the basic principle that undergirds b): measure (your neighbors) twice, cut once.

Note in this hypothetical example that you have a good reason for cutting down the tree—one that's directly in line with a core community value of being energy conscious. But that doesn't mean you have the only valid perspective on the issue. Remember the part about being in this together? The fact that you couldn't think of any reason that the neighbors might object to your taking down the tree, doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one.
• • •Now I want to take this a step further. For some class of decisions, the whole group needs a chance to have their oar in the water. For another class of decisions, the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, yet they are expected to create an opportunity to hear and work through people's reactions.

All Skate Decisions
The kind of decisions that may shift from unilateral in the mainstream to being made by the plenary (or its designate) in community are things like:

o  Anything relating to group covenants or interpretations on common values, all of which can be understood as voluntary limitations on what an individual can do. For example, at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit there are agreements that members will rely wholly on vehicles owned collectively by the community: no private cars.

o  Who is an authorized spokesperson for representing the community when talking with the press.

o  Who is authorized to sign contracts on behalf of the community.

o  Who are check signers on the community account.

o  What color you paint the outside of your house. (Not all communities try to control the outside aesthetic, but some do.)

o  How shared assets are maintained and accessed.

In these kinds of things, the group supplants the individual as primary decision maker. To be sure, the individual still has a say in what happens, but each voice counts the same. The operant shibboleth here is: you're in good hands with all skate. (Either that, or you're in the wrong group.)

Personal Decisions that Impact the Group
That said, there is a second class of decisions where the community may want/need a collective venue to process a choice made by an individual, where there's no intention of asserting a community right to make the decision. Examples of that include:

—Where there's been a break up of an intimate relationship, and both people are trying to continue to live in the community. While no one is suggesting that the community should have a say about who you partner with, changes in intimacy can have a profound impact on group dynamics and it can help enormously if there's a way to unpack those feelings (other than by gossiping in the parking lot). Non-principals can be in anguish about to how to reach out to one party in the break-up without it being construed as taking sides.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents set limits for their children. Though it's highly unlikely that the community will attempt to tell parents how to raise their children, it can be very awkward threading the needle when trying to set limits as a non-parent supervising two children who are being raised in very different ways.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents educate their children. Again, schooling decisions generally remain with the parents, yet children who are homeschooled (or children going to public school for that matter) may not be thriving, with the result that difficult behaviors show up in the community arena. How do you talk about frustrations associated with obstreperous behavior in the group context, in part because the parent has made choices about their child's education out of ideological reasons that are not working well for the child?

—Where there's persistent negativity and low trust between two or more longstanding members. While you can't make people get along, there's a point where the swamp gas of festering enmity poisons the atmosphere in group settings.

—Where there's a clash of personalities and styles that surfaces in the group context. What's loud, obnoxious, and bullying to one person may be exuberance and passionate expression to another. Given that you're unlikely to outlaw certain personalities, you need a way to discuss how you're going to translate your core commitment to diversity into a culture that is home for all.

—Where there's been a major trauma in a member's life (severe accident, prolonged illness, suicide of a loved one). It's not unusual for people who suffer major setbacks to grieve and recover privately. Yet that doesn't mean that others in the group are unaffected by events.

[As a case in point, more than 10 years ago my community, Sandhill Farm, went through a gut-wrenching time when a visitor lost most of the fingers on her right hand when she accidentally got a glove caught in the roller mill we use to crush sorghum cane during our fall harvest. While there's no question that the woman was the person most profoundly affected by the accident, the community still needed to emotionally cope what happened and we made time that evening for people to simply share from their hearts. It was not about assigning blame; it was about staying connected and offering succor to one another in response to tragedy.]

The point of this class of decisions is to acknowledge the need for a way to get information out on the table (ahead of the rumor mill) and to process feelings that get stirred up among non-principals, such as sorrow, joy, anger, and confusion. This is not meant as an opportunity to judge others; it's a chance to tend to relationships that are strained as a result of the stress radiating out beyond the immediate players. This is not about problem solving; it's about nurturing connections, which are the backbone of community.

This is all the more important because it rarely happens in the mainstream (which means that people come into the community experience with little sense of why this might be needed or how to set this up to be constructive), yet it can be enormously beneficial for the community as it strives to maintain cohesion and suppleness through trying times.
• • •In conclusion, private matters become group matters when decisions impact the group in non-trivial ways. This will happen more often in community living than in the mainstream because community culture is shifted more toward "we" and intertwined living naturally creates more opportunities for the group to be affected by individual actions.

In addition, there is an important distinction between: a) things that the plenary controls instead of the individual (the first class above); and b) things for which the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, but about which the group needs a chance to explore the emotional swirls that surface as a result of being collaterally impacted by those choices (the second class above).

To navigate this territory well, groups need to be able to distinguish between the two classes, and have in mind how to handle each conversation with sensitivity and compassion. I'm not saying that's easy, but it can be done and is well worth the effort to learn how to do it.

Gift Horse Dynamics

Laird's Blog -

Recently I was working with a community where, one evening, a group was sitting around at Happy Hour in the common house enjoying each others' company. At one point the conversation drifted into the advent of winter and chilly outdoor temperatures, which led one reveler to suggest, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a fireplace where folks could cozy up to in bad weather?"

As that was met with general approbation, one listener was so bathed in the warm glow of inspiration and conviviality, that she promptly went home and purchased an electric fireplace—that she intended to donate to the community to enhance the winter ambiance in the common house. Acting from a spirit (or perhaps spirits, in this case) of generosity and good intention, she was blindsided when her email announcement was met with consternation and push back. What happened?

There's actually quite a lot at play in this dynamic, making it well worth the time to unpack.

1. The donor was fully aware of the community's tight budget and the potential awkwardness of suggesting that the community buy a fireplace. There were probably other things in line ahead of it as priority improvements, and she thought she was saving the group all kinds of process by making it a gift. She had the money, and by proceeding this way she'd get to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace that much sooner and not add pressure to the budget, which was a known concern for those living closer to the edge of their means. She was not expecting to get a heated discussion; just a heated room.

2. Because the fireplace would live in common space, the donor misstepped by bypassing the team that oversees furnishing the common house. Even though it was a gift, it would take up space in a room that didn't have a lot to give, and the point of having that committee was that it was their role to oversee how the space was used. I can't recall if I've ever heard of a team that enjoyed being surprised by unilateral initiatives taken by outsiders in their sphere of influence—however divinely inspired.

3. Because the group has a core commitment to being conscientious about ecological impact, the donor might have anticipated the possibility of objections to operating an appliance that spins the electric meter faster. While the annual cost of such a device—even if used quite a bit—would probably in the range of $50-80 at today's electric rates, there are two concerns: 

a) Any increase in common expenses is borne more or less equally by all members, not just those who are comfortably off, and it never lands well to have a financial burden laid upon you about which you had no say. Even if it's only $2 a year.

b) Beyond dollars, what message does it send to visitors? If the group is trying to be a model of energy efficiency, it may well raise eyebrows that it has a prominently displayed appliance that converts high quality energy (line electricity) into low quality energy (radiant heat). People tend to be more impressed by what you do than what you say, and you didn't need to consult Nostradamus to predict that there would be some soul searching on this one.

To be fair, there is a real issue here: how to balance: i) creature comfort on cold evenings in a way that encourages social interactions; with ii) the desire to contain costs and be a model of wise energy use. I'm not saying how this conversation should go; only that it should happen, and before the fireplace is purchased.

4. There is also the matter of how the appliance will be cleaned, maintained, and repaired. All of those mundane matters invariably add up to an additional cost of a "free" gift, unless the donor agrees to underwrite them as well.

5. While I didn't sense that what I'm about say next was a factor in the instance above, sometimes donors expect to accrue social capital by virtue of their largesse, which amounts to, "Since I donated x, I expect to have a greater say in y." Not that it's generally stated that baldly, but that's how it comes across—and when it does, it's a guaranteed shit storm.

6. In the story above, the donor meant well, and it will be a poor outcome if the lesson she "learns" is to make no generous offers in the future. The trick is how to allow room for reactions and problem solving, while at the same time honoring the good intentions of the would-be donor.

Part of what's imbedded in this is the disparity of assets and income among residents. If the group finds it awkward sharing information about personal finances (at least with a broad brush stroke) then it's hard to hold the benefactor accountable for not taking it into account. It's a good thing that those with more financial ease in their life are willing and able to share some of their good fortune with others—so long as it doesn't come with hidden strings. There are times when free gifts are just too expensive.

Thus, it behooves groups to get savvy about members bearing gifts to the community. When you open the door in the morning and there's a gift horse sitting on your front stoop, I suggest taking a good look in the horse's mouth (despite traditional admonitions to the contrary) before accepting it into the herd:
A. How will cleaning, maintenance, and repair be handled? (Hint: it's not free.) Is the community expected to pick up the tab for upkeep? Is that agreeable?
B. Is it on loan, or a gift that the community can do with it as it pleases? If a loan, what say does the community have in its placement and use; how much advance warning does the community want before it can be recalled by the owner?

C. Are their strings attached (does it need to be available in common space until the donor dies; does the donor expect something in return; are there restrictions on its use)? If so, are the conditions acceptable?

D. Are we being diligent about whether to accept this offer in the same way we would if the community were buying it? If not, why not? 

When presented with a gift horse, remember it's permissible to respond to "neigh" with "nay."

Islander finds a sweet spot in candy making - Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber (subscription)

Cohousing News from Google -

Islander finds a sweet spot in candy making
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber (subscription)
At first, Anderson said, she had been reluctant to work in the food industry with all its requirements, but she set those feelings aside and started slowly, making caramels in a commercial kitchen at the Cohousing Common House and selling only at the ...

Coming Back

Laird's Blog -

In my previous blog (Laid Back), I reported on my lingering back pain triggered by an intemperate bout of improper lifting the first weekend in October.

Yesterday, at the encouragement of my doctor and my wife, I had a CT scan done of my abdomen—mainly to check for the possibility of more serous complications, including kidney stones or worse, cancer. Happily, I have neither. Whew! This was definitely a case of no news being good news.

Other than a simple benign cyst (1 cm in diameter) on my right kidney (which is apparently common as people grow older—something I am wholly prone to), all I have is back pain. While that's complicated and debilitating enough, it's a relief to know that's "all" I'm trying to recover from.

The main problem is getting ahead of a vicious negative bio-feedback loop. In response to the original strain I've been involuntarily holding myself rigid to protect myself from re-injuring, or even tweaking, the muscles in my lower back (just above the hips and coccyx). After a couple of weeks of that I started experiencing secondary pain as my defensive muscles got tired of being on duty all the time, to the point where the secondary pain was equal to or greater than the original pain.

While my body has not yet recovered from the original trauma (read no sit-ups) and it's too early to start physical therapy to rebuild strength and resiliency, I'm going through cycles of secondary pain as all the muscles in and around my abdomen have been taking turns filing complaints with my central nervous system.

The only position I can be in with no pain at all is flat on my back, but staying in bed all day drives me nuts, and I don't want my muscles to completely atrophy. So each day I get up and try moving around a little (with my engine set at "all ahead slow")—going to the bathroom, getting a bite to eat, refilling my water jug, recharging my laptop, etc. (I am getting a lot reading done.)

When I walk more than 100 feet, however, the intercostal muscles at the lower end on my rib cage start to spasm, even when I have 10 mg of cyclobenzaprine on board, a prescription muscle relaxant. Thus, even with careful, minimal movement and no lifting I invariably clench the very muscles that I'm trying to calm. So I have a ways to go yet.

The good news is that after canceling my planned trip to New England (that was supposed to start today), I have no trips planned until Jan 13, which gives me six glorious weeks in which to come back all the way. And there's no better place to have this occur than at home, where Ma'ikwe can play Florence Nightengale and I can learn to type propped up at a 15-degree angle.

While I've never been very patient with being a patient, apparently that's the lesson I'm working on right now.

Laid Back

Laird's Blog -

In general, when people talk about being laid back, you get the image of relaxed, at ease, coasting. And while Thanksgiving weekend is a terrific time to be laid back, it turns out that I'm taking this to an extreme. As in laid (flat on my) back.

I limped home just after midnight Tuesday after completing a 29-day road trip that I conducted while coping with lower back pain that I sustained in early October. I made it through on grit, ibuprofen, and Traumeel (a topical analgesic cream that features calendula, arnica, echinacea, hypericum, belladonna, and other homeopathic goodies). While you might think that the worst would be behind me after eight weeks, I've been locked in a battle with secondary pain that shifts fronts (or backs, in this case) every few days.

After the original strain in my lower back I was (understandably) very cautious about how I moved. If I held myself awkwardly or turned too abruptly I was susceptible to tweaking my injury such that my muscles would contract involuntarily and it felt like someone was jabbing me with razor blades. It didn't take many of those experiences to dread their reoccurrence. In consequence I was tensing the muscles near the trauma so much that I started experiencing secondary pain in the fatigued defensive muscles that was as much a problem as what I started with. Yuck!

As soon as one set of defensive muscles started complaining I'd adjust how I defended myself, with the result that the secondary pain would migrate to a new location. The last few days it's risen to the level of my ribs, such that I can't inhale fully without feeling like someone is jabbing me in the side with a sharp stick. It's hard to walk (and don't make me laugh or cough).

Ma'ikwe stepped in yesterday and took me to see a doctor. She's concerned both with my suffering and that there may be something more going on than a slow healing back. I gave a blood sample which showed that I'm slightly anemic (could it possibly be that I'm not eating enough sorghum?) and a urine sample which suggested the possibility of kidney stones. I'll be back into the clinic Monday to have a CT scan to get more data.

Meanwhile, the doctor prescribed a muscle relaxant (cyclobenzaprine) and a pain killer (hydrocodone), both of which provided immediate breathing room (literally) and I was pleasantly surprised with my vitals: 
pulse: 64
blood pressure: 120/80
weight: 187 dressed, which is down 20 pounds from two months ago

While I don't recommend lower back strain as a weight loss regimen, apparently it's effective. It's certainly taken my mind off eating.

Though the band of pain encircling my rib cage eased up a bit after an awful start this morning, I haven't thought about dancing once all day and I've got a ways to go before feeling spry enough to board a train at 6 am Tuesday to conduct a facilitation training weekend in Vermont that begins Thursday evening. I really want to go, but things will have to improve dramatically for that to make any sense.

If I stay home it will mark the first time I've failed to keep a commitment as a process consultant since I hung out a shingle in 1987. Ordinarily, when it comes to process gigs I'm not laid back at all, but maybe next Tuesday I will be. Stay tuned.

Cohousing: viviendas colaborativas como alternativa al modelo tradicional - Inarquia

Cohousing News from Google -

Cohousing: viviendas colaborativas como alternativa al modelo tradicional
El cohousing o covivienda es una de ellas. Se trata de un sistema de vivienda que combina los espacios privados y públicos dando el protagonismo a las relaciones intervecinales, potenciando el factor social, tan importante para una vida en comunidad.

Google News

Giving Thanks 2014

Laird's Blog -

Thanksgiving isn't until tomorrow, but I'm starting early. Let me count the ways that I'm thankful.

1. After 29 days on the road, I was thankful to wake up in my own bed this morning. Not only is it good being next to my wife for the first time in a month, but my sore back is weary of the strain of travel. I'm hoping that a week of R&R at home will ease the pain and accelerate my slow healing.

2. This weekend celebrates the completion of Ma'ikwe's and my first year of living together, which we're enjoying every bit as much as we'd hoped we would. While it was sad for me leaving Sandhill, I'm happy with my choice.

3. I enjoyed taking the last leg of my train ride home last night—from Chicago to Quincy aboard the Illinois Zephyr—with my stepson, Jibran, who is joining us for his first break since starting college last August. It was fun hearing him describe all the new things he's been exposed to the last three months and see how much he's thriving. I was concerned about his going to a rigorous academic school (Shimer College) a year ahead of his age cohort and with no time spent with peers through his high school years (he was tutored at home), but I needn't have been. It's clear he was ready.

The most satisfying piece for me was his disappointment that his fellow freshmen are not (yet) that accomplished at listening carefully to what those who disagree with them have to say. Learning how to think and how to listen are not necessarily skills picked up prior to college, but Jibran, apparently, had a good start.

4. I just completed as solid a stretch of work as I've ever had. Bad back and all, over the course of four weeks I worked every weekend: three with cohousing groups and a fourth at the NASCO Institute (Nov 7-9), where I conducted a pair of workshops. Satisfyingly, everything went well. Woohoo!

5. My Amtrak travel has been extensive enough that I just reached Select status for 2105. That means expedited reservation service, three passes to the first class lounge in Chicago or DC when I'm traveling coach, three free upgrades to Business Class on intermediate-distance trains, and a 25% bump on tier qualifying points for next year. As someone committed to train as his preferred mode of transportation, this cornucopia of amenities and bonuses is a blessing.

6. I'm also thankful for a major life change that's just ahead. At the fall FIC organizational meetings (held Oct 23-26) the Board agreed—at my request—to move forward with shifting me out of the center of things. Though I've been happily up to my eyeballs with Fellowship affairs ever since it was launched in 1987, it's time for a change. We'll be dividing my current job into two parts: Development Director (DD) and Executive Director (ED). 

We have completed an overhaul of the DD job description and are poised to start the search for candidates soon. In addition, we have a promising ED candidate already in hand. With luck, by the end of next year I'll have turned over both roles to worthy, younger successors without a glitch.

I'm pleased to be making these changes from a position of strength. While I expect to continue to play a supportive role in the Fellowship for some time to come (after all, I represent an incredible wealth of personal relationships that cannot be transferred as easily as a Vulcan mind meld), it's time to bring in fresh horses.

While I'm simplifying my life, I'm not sailing off into the sunset. There will still be plenty for me to do as I redistribute my time among the four remaining never-a-dull-moment major interests in my life: my marriage, my cooperative group consulting, my teaching, and my writing.
• • •So I'm sitting at my desk at home, thankful for a great deal. All of this and I've got roast turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, orange-cranberry sauce, homemade minced meat pie, Famous wafers and whipped cream, and spiked eggnog directly on the horizon—which I'll be consuming with consummate enjoyment amidst family and friends. 

How much better can it get?

Why Conflict Resolution Committees are Like Maytag Repairmen

Laird's Blog -

As a consultant to cooperative groups. one of the most common things I'm asked to demonstrate is how to work constructively with conflict. 

Illustrative of this point, I'm just wrapping up a four-week swing through the Eastern time zone in which I've worked with three different residential communities. In all three instances, a portion of what I did was explain my thinking about conflict, and then demonstrate its application with a live example of some festering interpersonal tension where the protagonists volunteered from the floor. Think of it as theater in the round.

While all groups have conflict, only some have a commitment to engage with it when it surfaces. Fewer still have agreements about how to engage with it and members trained in delivering that support. Some groups (less than half) have a Conflict Resolution Team (in one version or another) whose job it is to be available to support members having trouble extricating themselves from the mud all alone.

While I'm always happy to hear that such support is in place, it turns out that Conflict Teams tend to be like the apocryphal Maytag repairman: grossly underused. Why? Here are half a dozen reasons that explain what I think is going on:

1. Is the team authorized to be pro-active?
When groups first stick their collective toes into the swirling waters of distress there is a tendency to take baby steps rather than full strides, with the result that the team is expected to not engage unless asked in by one or (hopefully) both protagonists.

This caution will definitely choke the amount of work that comes the team's way in that there are all manner of reasons why people needing help don't ask for it—including pride, embarrassment, uncertainty about whether it will make a difference, and lack of confidence in the members of the team. Further, people in distress don't always make good assessments about what's happening and what they need, all of which complicates case loads for the Conflict Team.

Better, I think, is to authorize the team to step in whenever it has the sense that there's unresolved tension and it's spilling over into group functionality.

2. Lack of a baseline commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve conflict if named as a player by another member
This is an important understanding that's missing in most groups. Thus, if Chris is struggling with Dale and asks Dale to discuss it (in an attempt to work it out), is it acceptable for Dale to say, "No"?

Mind you, I'm not saying that Dale needs to agree with Chris' story about what happened, to admit culpability, or to accept blame; I'm only suggesting that they have an explicit obligation—by virtue of being a member of the group—to make an honest attempt to sit down with Chris (perhaps with third party help from the Conflict Team) and sort it out.

Lacking this agreement, many people named in a conflict are leery of getting together with someone known to be upset with them, for fear of being the pin cushion in a wrestling match with a porcupine. Who needs it?

3. Lack of clarity about what support looks like
Often, groups empanel a Conflict Team without being clear how they will conduct their work, what options are available to protagonists regarding formats, or what support and safety will be extended to "customers."

Ambiguity about these things amounts to signing a blank check and it's understandable that there will be hesitancy about committing to an unknown process to navigate volatile territory. Juggling live sticks of dynamite is dangerous on any occasion; is it any wonder that being asked to do so in an unknown dark room is not appealing?

4. Lack of confidence in the skill of the team
Even if the process is fairly well defined (addressing the previous concern), there may be serious questions about whether Conflict Team members are sufficiently proficient at managing it. Who wants student doctors in charge while you're undergoing open heart surgery?

5. Confusion about whether team members facilitate all conflict cases that come their way
One reason why members don't approach the team for help with a conflict is that they may not have the impression that any of the team members are sufficiently neutral. Team members may be known to be close friends with the person you're conflicted with, or highly sympathetic to your antagonist's viewpoint. When those conditions obtain it's understandable that would-be customers try to get their needs met elsewhere.

The remedy, I think, is to spell out the expectation that the team is responsible for finding a facilitator (or team of facilitators) who is skilled enough and neutral enough to be mutually agreeable to all parties. There is no need to limit who is eligible for filling this important role to team members or anyone else—including the possibility of securing help from outside the group. The prime directive here is having a successful meeting between Chris and Dale—not generating work for people wanting to facilitate conflict.

6. Casualness in how team members are selected
For the Conflict Team to be used a lot, great care needs to be taken in how team members are selected. This is not an appropriate occasion to simply accept the first four people who volunteer for the job. While desire to do the work may be a factor, it isn't nearly enough.

First you'll want to delineate the qualities wanted from people serving in this capacity. The list might look something like this:
o  Discretion
o  Empathy
o  Fair-minded
o  Good listener
o  Ability to work constructively with emotions and in the presence of high distress
o  Ability to collaborate well (with fellow team members)
o  Good communication skills
o  Trusted
o  Approachable
o  Skilled at facilitation
o  Has time in their life to make the team's work a priority when a conflict arises

Second, you'll want a selection process that gives the whole group adequate opportunity to indicate which members rate high for these qualities.
• • •It's one thing to know enough that you need a tool and make the effort to have it on hand. But that's not enough. You also have to make sure the tool is used when the occasion for which it was secured arises. A garden hose that's left untouched, coiled neatly at the side of the house when a fire starts among the leaves in your side yard, is not much different than having no hose.

Cohousing offers many benefits, but interested developer a must - Medicine Hat News

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Cohousing offers many benefits, but interested developer a must
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Sometimes Money Is Not the Right Currency

Laird's Blog -

There's no doubt that money matters. But not always.

I recently worked with a group that was struggling over how to find an equitable settlement with its developer (who was also a member of the group) over promised facilities that never materialized, and one of the key challenges was coming to agreement about constituted "equitable."

Here's the back story:

o  The project was started about a decade ago when the developer bought a piece of land and promoted it for a community location. He sold lots for a certain amount of money, with the understanding that some of the purchase price would go toward paying off the land, some would go toward infrastructure (roads, sewer, and utilities), and some would be set aside for building common facilities. While the exact nature of the common facilities had not been delineated, everyone agreed that the promise had been made.

o  The project was to be developed in two phases: roughly two-thirds of the lots were in Phase I, and the remainder in Phase II.

o  When the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008, it put an unanticipated squeeze on the master plan. It was hard to sell lots, interest payments were piling up, and the cost of infrastructure development spiraled upward. The net result was that after Phase I lots were sold there was only enough money to pay off the mortgage and to complete the infrastructure. Nothing was left over to build common facilities.

o  Further complicating matters, it turned out that the Phase II lots were in a more remote location such that there were serious questions about whether it would be revenue positive to develop them. Thus, it was by no means certain that completing the development would actually yield any additional revenue with which to fund construction of common facilities.

o  As long as this issue remained unresolved, the developer was stuck in no man's land: halfway between being a real estate professional who hadn't kept a promise, and being a fellow member of the community. It was awkward. Everyone wanted to get beyond this limbo, to the point where the development phase was complete and everyone was just a member of the community, yet they needed a pathway that would both protect the rights (and dreams) of the community to common facilities and didn't bankrupt the developer in the process.

o  By the time I got there, the group had been gnawing on this bone for more than two years and there was serious fatigue over the time and energy it was taking to untangle this Gordian Knot.

Now what?

There were a couple ways to look at this.

Option 1: The Financial Solution
Under this approach the group could assign a dollar value to the empty kitty for common facilities and then compare it against what the developer offered as compensation. While there would undoubtedly be some serious numbers to crunch, there are known methodologies for getting all that accomplished. In the end you could compare the value of the proposed remedy to the value of the debt and adjust as needed.

In many ways, that's the point of money: to facilitate fair exchange between apples and oranges.

However, fair market value does a notoriously poor job of taking into account mental anguish, good will, and the importance of ongoing good relations among the players. As all the folks involved in this decision were going to continue to live together after the settlement, this mattered quite a lot.

Option 2: The Energetic Solution
Under this approach, the group would purposefully skip the step of conducting a careful financial analysis and go for the gestalt. That is, once both sides were satisfied that the offer is reasonable, the group could decide to accept it because it was close enough and the most important thing is to get the problem resolved and move on—not extracting the last nickel possible.

While money is a tool, and not inherently good or evil, focusing on financial equality as the prime directive has a way of devaluing intangibles—such as relationships, the lifeblood of community—rather than supporting them.

In the end, the group chose Door #2, and the relief in the room was palpable, as weight was lifted from everyone's shoulders and the sun came out from behind the clouds.


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