Bored with Consensus

I was recently selected to join a nonprofit board and attended my first meeting via teleconference. Although the bylaws stiplated that decisions would be made by consensus (I’d done my reading), the meeting was full of calls for votes, motions, and seconds. Uh oh. Had I wandered into the wrong meeting? Unfortunately, I hadn’t.

I tolerated the ghost of Roberts Rules for about 30 minutes until I couldn’t stand it any more and spoke up. There was a certain amount of awkwardness and mea culpas until I realized that none of the 10 or so people on the call had a clue how consensus worked.

In fact, one board member grew impatient with my digression, because “how we function” wasn’t on the agenda. Oh boy. Of course it wasn’t on the agenda: no one else was aware that there was a problem. I wondered briefly if that was that why I had been asked to be on the board, but then I realized that they wouldn’t have been looking for something that they didn’t know was missing. In any event, now they have me, and it looks like board training in consensus is in our future (or it better be).

It’s interesting to me that this board has been around for decades and the decision to operate by consensus goes back to the beginning. Even though the people who put that in place are long gone, how did practice drift so far from intent? There must have been a lot of meetings where people who knew better simply let consensus slide. How else could the board arrive at the state where no one understood what it meant (it’s not as if all the board member were band new)?

Who knows, maybe they were bored with explaining it. Or perhaps they relied on that old broken-down standby: passing along group culture by osmosis. (“Just watch; you’ll figure it out.”)

While there are other choices in decision-making and group process that could be made—including majority rule and Roberts Rules of Order—I like that the bylaws stipulate consensus. However, as someone who has been using it for 40 years and teaching it for 28, I think that consensus will not be a happy choice unless it’s accompanied by some basic commitments, all of which appear to be absent in the leaky boat I just boarded.

1. Train people in its use

In addition to the obvious—training new people—it’s likely not a bad idea for the veterans as well (think of it as continuing education). Among the key points to be covered is making sure that everyone groks the fundamental concept that you need to be making a shift from competitive culture to cooperative culture (if you want consensus to thrive), and that culture change is not easy. People need to be drilled in this at the outset, not in mid-struggle.

2. Define the process

As there is not a single definition of consensus, you will need to make clear how you’ll practice it. This includes what constitutes the legitimate grounds for a block and the process by which you’ll test for legitimacy. Does one block stop a proposal, or will there be provisions for a super-majority override? How will delegation work? How will meetings be run (do you default to the board president or the executive director doing double duty as convener—bad idea—or do you choose a neutral facilitator)?

3. Set standards for minutes

I was appalled that the board minutes were nothing more than a list of topics and decisions. There was no sense of the discussion., which meant that they were practically worthless for two of the main reasons that minutes exist:
a) To provide a collective memory of how the decisions were reached. This is important when someone comes along later and wants to revisit a topic. In my book, that should only be allowed if something significant has changed (otherwise why re-plow old ground?) But you can’t make that assessment if there’s no record of what was taken into account.

b) Good minutes allow the people who missed the meeting to catch up. That includes current members who were sick, on vacation, or had a schedule conflict, as well as future board members trying to inform themselves on the background of issues. It’s trivial knowing that the topic was last discussed in July, 2011, if the minutes don’t tell you what was said.

4. Work with energy as well as content

In a previous call with the executive director and board president to orient new board members, I had suggested that the board spend time sorting out its mission and priorities (before making decisions on budget proposals). When this was supported it led to the idea of a board retreat which would include strategic planning. When someone (not me) suggested that we hire an outside facilitator for that, I was all in favor. However, when I made a point of selecting a facilitator who has skill in working with energy, not just content, there was a long pause. I’m not sure anyone had a clue what I was talking about.

When cooperative groups make the commitment to work at a deep level (which many do not) and embrace the heart of consensus, this absolutely brings you into the territory of energy. Thus, it’s not enough to know someone’s position or viewpoints on an issue; you need to know what it means to them and why it matters. You need to know how it touches their heart or soul—because that’s where the magic happens.

If you are simply trying to find the middle ground between positions, you’re looking for compromise (kissing your sister). If, however, you’re trying to find a solution that honors the core interests of everyone, that weaves together their central values and enthusiasm, then we’re talking about a family reunion where everyone is out on the dance floor.

There are professional facilitators who are quite adept at working content, yet essentially tone deaf when it comes to hearing energy. I know because I’ve met a number of them, and it’s painful to watch them struggle in community groups where their mainstream expertise is not enough.

It will be interesting to see what skills our outside facilitator brings to our board retreat. I don’t expect to be bored.

Category: Consensus

Tags: Consensus, Group Process, minutes, Policy-Consensus/Decision Making

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