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August 25, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 3)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

The past two days I've been writing about the nitty-gritty details of doing activism. After 23 pages, apparently I still have more to say! I'm seeing several threads in this material that I might later pull out and hone into more succinct essays.


The two main options for how to make decisions as a group are either use a "consensus" process or to vote. Personally, I favor voting.

The idea of "consensus" is that a group can talk about a decision that needs to be made until everyone is in consents to a particular option. This can be an extremely long, convoluted process. It can take 3 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours or more to arrive at a decision... And often there will be long tangents, talking about other matters that seem to have a bearing. Nonetheless, this is a process that can work -- even with very large groups (e.g. 50+).

Making decisions by a vote is a way to arrive at a decision more quickly. The downside is that you may be skipping the work that brings about a sense of unity, which ultimately leads to rifts in your organization.

Consensus and voting don't have to be at odds. When I'm facilitating a meeting, often times I get the impression that our discussion has led us to a point where everyone pretty much agrees. At this point it's useful to speak up with this observation: "I think we've reached a consensus. Does everyone agree that what we want to do is __________?" [It's important at this point to echo back to the group what it is that you think they all agree about.]

Another important thing to understand about consensus is that you don't have to be 100% in agreement to move forward: a person can decide that while they don't entirely agree, they're willing to let a decision pass. This is perhaps one of the most important things I know about participating in decision-making -- that I don't always have to get my way. I can decide that my differences of opinion really aren't all that important: "I don't entirely agree, but I'm satisfied enough with the current solution to let this pass." I can also have very strong differences, and decide that it's OK if the group goes forward nonetheless: "I have to say that I strongly disagree with this decision, but for the sake of moving forward, I can let the group go in this direction."

In an organization that votes, you can create complex rules about who gets to vote. Usually it's easier just to go with a simple majority. However, if the vote is extremely close, a facilitator might want to suggest further discussion, to try to hammer out some more differences.

If you've got a legal status as a non-profit, your by-laws may require that you have a certain quorum of members present to vote. It's very frustrating if you don't have enough present to move forward! If you are a small group, I recommend having a policy that whoever is present at a particular meeting constitutes a quorum, so decision-making can move forward. Even so, if only two of you show up, it probably behooves you not to make any drastic decisions without more people present.

In order for a vote to occur, someone actually has to say "I think we should vote on this now." As a facilitator, part of your job is to notice when a vote is appropriate and make that proposal. People can say that they don't feel they're ready for vote, and discussion continues -- but there's nothing wrong with making the proposal.

Oftentimes there seems to be more disagreement in a room than there actually is. It can be very useful occasionally to ask people for a "straw poll". Ask: "So if everyone was going to vote right now, how many people would say yes? I just want to have an idea of where we stand." The results of the straw poll lead to new options. You can decide that discussion needs to continue, or that the group really is ready for a vote -- or if there's only a small minority of dissenters, you can either ask them if they're willing to step aside, or what would quell their concerns.

There are several ways to run an actual vote. You can write your decision on a slip of paper and put it in a hat. You can get complicated and print out ballots, making sure that only people who are qualified to vote are allowed to. You can ask people to verbally say "aye" or "nay". You can ask people to show thumbs up or thumbs down. You can ask people to raise their hands. Personally, I find raising hands tends to be easiest. Most decisions don't need the formality of writing on slips of paper; it can be confusing to count votes when a vote is verbal; and it can be difficult to see people's thumbs (especially if they want to wave them sideways to show that they're ambivalent!).

A nicety of voting that I recommend is to not simply ask "all in favor?" -- but to also ask "all against?" and "all abstaining?" If you're not going to win a vote, it's nice to feel like your vote is being counted, rather than just stopping when it's clear that the majority agrees. Also, a person may have reasons to remove themselves from a vote -- they should be allowed to show that, rather than being accidentally counted as a vote against.


It's very easy for one leader to stay in power for a long time. This can lead to feelings on the part of other group members that this leader really owns the group, and if you disagree with them frequently... Then what's the point of being involved?

Leaders are often the persons who do the most work. To an extent, the fact that you're willing to do a greater share of the work of an organization is what gives you the right to lead it. It can be extremely frustrating to be criticized for having too much power by persons in the group who want a say, but refuse to do any of the work.

Oftentimes, leaders don't want all that power, anyway. They would rather that other people would do more work, so that it's not all on their shoulders. This can lead to resentment towards the other participants. "Why am I the one who has to do all the work?"

One strategy for sharing power that can be effective -- especially in youth-led groups -- is to have a rotating chair and co-chair. The chairperson has a term of two or three months, during which the co-chair learns from them how to the job. Their most important meeting outside of the general meeting is probably the one where agenda items are brainstormed. [This is something that can sometimes be done over the phone rather than in person.] At the end of the two or three month term, the chair steps down, the co-chair comes into power, and a new co-chair is elected.

With regards to people brainstorming what the group should do without offering to do any work... An important thing to understand about organizations is that it is impossible for an organization to do anything. An organization is an illusion, the fiction that a group of people are actually one more powerful person. In reality, there is only you and the individuals sitting at the table with you. It is an important practice to get into, to stop talking about what the group should do, and instead talk about who in the room can do what.

As a facilitator, when I hear a discrete task that needs to get done -- for instance putting up posters -- I pick someone who I think might be willing to do that job and I ask them directly if they'll do it: "Morgan, can you take care of putting up the posters?" It's may be a little uncomfortable at first, feeling like you're singling someone out -- but when you ask lots of people during the meeting to take on tasks, it seems less so -- and people start to volunteer to take tasks as soon as they've been identified.

Many organizations start out by creating positions that they think should be filled: publicity director, political director, social director, etc. In my experience, this is an ineffective way to run a group. A person may take on a position without really knowing how to get the job done. They will feel isolated and guilty for failing. If, instead, you discuss what concrete tasks need to get done in the group, then people who know how to do the task and have the energy to do it can identify themselves. A leader does NOT have the right to force a task on anyone, even if they said they'd take a position. Everyone has the right to say "no" when asked to take on a task. People also have a responsibility to say "no" if they aren't going to have time to take on a task. For the sake of having realistic expectations, it can be very useful to talk about what's actually going on in people's lives -- find out who has time and who doesn't.

When a leader feels overworked, they're often told "you need to learn how to delegate!" I find that this is fairly useless advice. The best way to share work around is to talk about the work in a meeting, and ask specific individuals -- not the room as a whole! -- if they're willing to do certain jobs. How many people seem to interpret "delegation", however, is to think that committees should be formed.

I recommend against creating committees. People think that what you should do is brainstorm all the tasks that there are to do, and then create a committee for each of them. You quickly discover that there are far more tasks than people in your group. Instead, if a task really does seem like too much to do during your regular meeting time, then suggest that there be a special meeting to deal with this topic later. Ask who would like to attend such a meeting; if no one does, then there simply isn't will to pursue the project at this point in time; if more than one person wants to attend such a meeting, then they're in charge.

...This resolves a potential conflict that committees raise. Suppose you have a committee whose job it is to come up with a T-shirt design. What if they spend a long time making their design -- and then when they bring it back to the group, everyone else hates it! Does the T-shirt committee have the authority to make a decision, or do they need an OK from the rest of the group? If they put in a lot of work, it can be crushing to find out after the fact that the group gets to veto their work. ...By working with meetings rather than committees, you either attend the work meetings or you give up your right to have a say in the decisions being made. It's a general principle: for the most part, the people doing the work have a right to control their project.

The idea that a group shouldn't have committees applies in formal non-profit organizations, too. I was on the board of the Portland Women's Crisis Line for about a year and a half. Originally the group had seven or eight or nine committees that we were supposed to keep staffed. However, we only ever had between nine and fifteen board members. The solution that was recommended to us by an outside consultant -- which worked out well -- was to have just two committees: the executive committee and the development committee.







Posted by Sven at August 25, 2005 12:00 PM


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