Thursday, May 12, 2016

Voting, consensus, and the tyranny of structurelessness

I am in a new organization with growing pains.  We all want to work together but nobody knows how to make decisions in this organization.  The funny and frustrating thing is that everybody is mature, experienced, smart and well-intentioned -- but their experience making group decisions is mostly limited to pre-existing institutions or small groups making  simple decisions.  In a medium sized group, members can do all the right things to propose a vision or launch a project, the things that would work in a pre-existing institution with processes for decision-making, but fail to close the deal.

It's everybody's fault and nobody's.  We are all hesitant to push forward decisions or to suggest processes that may seem like taking over or being bossy.  We are seduced by the idea that we should just be able to agree, that we don't want to become "process-heavy".

Many of us have worked in and been unconsciously formed by organizations where decision-making is disguised.  I've worked in companies where many of the outward signs of consensus are there, where engineers suggest and criticize freely, but the team unconsciously looks to the boss for ratification of the plans that have emerged.  Often the boss  encourages one direction or another all along.  Many engineers in these organizations claim they are consensus-based.  They're not.

Similarly, we often think of small groups picking a spot for dinner as a consensus process.  What commonly happens is the instigator or organizer becomes the tacit decision-maker, making a choice based on input such as one diner's suggestion of French food.  Tacitly, the person who hates French food knows to appeal to the organizer for a different decision.  One person may opt out without crippling or destroying a complex undertaking with lots of individual investment.  In small-group simple-issue decisions, the organizer may ratify a consensus, but it's not a consensus-based process, it's a single-decider process which happened to arrive at a consensus.

In this new organization with growing pains, we don't know who to look to for official encouragement or ratification so proposals tend to wither.  The members who listen to a proposal are participating in this withering.  We listen politely and give feedback and ideas but we don't give the same kind of stamp of approval that a nod from a corporate manager would give.  We don't help form or push the decision because we're too busy, or it might seem like taking over (being bossy again).

After a while, we all finally agreed we need more process, but few of us have experience building that from the ground up without a boss.  The idea of a consensus-based process is both appealing and scary.  It's appealing because it seems like it would be lightweight process with few rules.  It is scary because we fear that one person can block a consensus and the group would either fail or at least be injured by the bad feelings that would emerge.  Both the appeal and the fear are based on deep misapprehensions.

The fear of a consensus process failing is because only one of us has spent much time working in a true consensus process with enough structure to avoid destructive failures (a proposal may properly fail but the organization succeed; however if the organization fails that is destructive).  The appeal of consensus as being a lightweight process is also wrong, because a working consensus-based system is a lot more work and process than most of us know.  Some of the structure we would need in a medium-sized group, 10-50 (1):

  • Define how to bring an idea to the group and get approval that it's worth putting effort into.
  • Define how the group demonstrates enough approval.  Nods, hands up, hums? Approval votes? 
  • Define how to put effort into an idea to make a specific proposal to get consensus on.  
  • Define how a proposal is documented and put to the group, reviewed and commented on, for how long, and how to iterate versions of the proposal.
  • Define how somebody can raise a serious objection before a consensus call, to modify the proposal before it becomes too solidly formed.
  • Define who makes the consensus call, when, with how many members.  Can subgroups make some kinds of  decisions?  How are agreement, indifference and objections registered? 
  • Define what the consequences of a sustained objection are.  If a full consensus is required, then how are hold-outs dealt with? Can hold-outs be kicked out?  Does that require consensus?
In addition to structure, the group would need good consensus habits, such as showing encouragement of somebody with an idea that they should turn it into a proposal, and helping build the proposal; helping stay focused, helping objections be raised early and honestly.  Without this much structure, good habits and shared practices, a consensus-based process without a tacit leader is not strong enough to avoid the tyranny of structurelessness.  

Take a look how old that article is, and how resonant today.  I really want to copy some points out of it: 
  • 'The "structureless" rap group was an excellent means to consciousness-raising [paraphrased]. The looseness and informality of it encouraged participation in discussion, and its often supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight. If nothing more concrete than personal insight ever resulted from these groups, that did not much matter, because their purpose did not really extend beyond this.'
  • 'There is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion'
  • 'The inevitably elitist and exclusive nature of informal communication networks of friends is neither a new phenomenon characteristic of the women's movement nor a phenomenon new to women.'
  • 'Structures of decision making are a boon to the overworked person'
Having arrived in our own generation and in our own group at some of these same realizations, we are now in the process of defining a voting and representative leadership process.  Voting processes, like consensus processes, need definition -- but most of us are more experienced with voting so the habits and practices are already there.  When we get over this process definition hump we'll be better able to figure out what we want to get done, and start getting stuff done.

(1) I could say much more about rough consensus and large groups, and if I have any IETF readers of this blog left they'll know what I mean.

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