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Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus
For 25+ years I’ve been a community networker & group process consultant. I believe that people today are starved for community—for a greater sense of belonging and connection—and I’ve dedicated my life to making available as widely as possible the tools and inspiration of cooperative living. I’m on the road half the time teaching groups consensus, meeting facilitation, and how to work with conflict. This blog is a collection of my observations and musings along the way.

  • The Relationship of the Subgroup to the Whole
    One of the trickiest things for cooperative groups to get right is the relationship between the plenary and its committees (which are variously styled teams, subgroups, task forces, circles, or thingamajiggers). In a well-functioning group both the plenary and the committees have dynamic and complementary roles. Each knows what they're doing, everything is covered with minimal duplication, and they know when to consult with each other.

    Unfortunately, it ain't always that way.

    Basically the plenary/committee relationship can play out in four flavors. Let's walk through them:
    • Weak plenary and weak committees
    This is your worst nightmare. Does anything get done? While I don't see this very often (whew), it does occur. Typically it's the result of: 

    a) weak leadership—no one wants to be decisive or to suggest a more robust structure because they don't want to be perceived as pushy or dictatorial (who appointed you God?); and/or 

    b) a weak understanding of consensus (where people mistakenly believe that disagreement is an indication of a system failure or that the wrong people are in the group).

    When the group doesn't know how to work constructively with differences, it can become paralyzed (instead of edified and energized) in its presence. Thus, voicing disagreement essentially becomes a pocket veto, derailing whatever work was underway when the dissent surfaced. Yuck. This is no way to run a railroad.

    • Strong plenary and weak committees
    I encounter this phenomenon quite a bit. In this scenario committees do grunt work for the plenary, but are not allowed to make many (any?) decisions on their own. Everything (more or less) needs to be run by the plenary for approval, and it often happens that group members who are not on the committee use the plenary approval process as a chance to redo the committee's work, or raise objections at the 11th hour, with devastating impact on the committee's morale (why bother to invest in developing proposals that will just be trashed in plenary?).

    It is a misunderstanding of consensus that everything needs to be approved by the plenary. While it's true that the ultimate authority rests with the plenary, some portion of that should be deliberately handed off to committees, lest the plenaries get bogged down in minutia (have you ever been in plenaries where you felt trapped by the agenda—where the group was ready and willing to discuss what color to paint the common house bathroom and you wanted out of there?).

    In this dynamic it's hard to get people to fill committee slots and there's considerable fatigue with all the plenaries needed to cover everything. The meeting junkies run the plenaries, attendance drops off, and there's tension about the increasing number of members not participating in governance. What's more, every time a committee doesn't function well, its portfolio winds up being added to the plenary's already overfilled plate. This model is unsustainable and leads to leadership burnout or martyrdom, both of which are expensive.

    • Weak plenary and strong committees
    This is the obverse of the last scenario, and I'm starting to see this more. In its zeal to avoid the pitfalls of the prior example (which abounds) groups occasionally go too far the other way. They delegate so much to committees that there isn't much left for plenaries to tackle. In some cases they shut down the Steering Committee—because all issues are assigned to committees, and the committees are happy with their license and don't see the need to use plenaries to gather community input. This leads to fewer plenaries and the phenomenon of balkanization, where each committee is a power unto itself. 

    If a committee struggles (which is bound to happen) it can be difficult to get at, as the plenary is too weak to step in and there may be no opportunity to evaluate how well a committee is functioning (or evaluations are so perfunctory that the problems are not named or addressed). So either the committee asks for help (which is possible, but not something you can count on) or it languishes.

    If there is tension between committees (perhaps because an issue straddles the mandate of two) the whole is at the mercy of how well the committees play together. Sometimes this goes beautifully; other times not so much.

    • Strong plenary and strong committeesThis is the sweet spot. In broad strokes you want plenaries tackling issues that require whole group attention (interpreting common values with respect to issues, establishing process agreements, conducting strategic planning, creating an annual budget, defining member rights and responsibilities, approving committee mandates—those kinds of things) and you want committees handling aspects that fall below the level of plenary attention.

    Sometimes an issue has features that are plenary worthy (do those first) and levels of detail that can be handed off to a committee (do those second). When the group is clicking on all cylinders it will tackle the issue in the appropriate order and at the right level.

    In a healthy group the plenary honors the work of its committees, yet reserves the right to regularly assess how well committees are coloring inside the lines of their mandate, and is not afraid to make adjustments when there are problems. At the end of the day, committees serve at the pleasure of the plenary; not the other way around.
    • • •
    Now let's look at recurring dysfunctional patterns that feed into some of the problem children I described above, and what you can do about them. I want to focus on four.

    1. Unclear or Incomplete Mandates
    The foundation of a good relationship is defining the roles well. That's what the mandate is supposed to do, so it's important to get that right. For a template of what to consider when crafting a thorough mandate, refer to section F) Delegation in this blog entry from 2010: Consensus from Soup to Nuts.

    Essentially, this is the committee's authorization; the box within which it should be operating. Being sloppy about this is the single biggest root problem I encounter with the plenary/committee relationship.

    2. Not Being Clear about the Qualities Wanted for that Committee
    While this may sound a lot like that last point, it's different. After you've drafted the mandate (and before you've filled slots on the committee,) it's worthwhile to articulate what qualities you want on people serving on the committee, so that candidates can better assess themselves and others for a good fit. 

    As an example of what this might look like, see my 2015 blog Qualities Wanted from Members of the Conflict Resolution Team. While this list is for a specific committee, the concept easily generalizes.

    3. Not Being Careful Enough when Filling Committee Slots
    In most groups there tends to be more committee slots than there are willing and able members to fill them. In consequence, committee selection often devolves into the first folks who put their hand in the air when there is a request for volunteers.

    While this quick and dirty process may work OK for some committees, I do not recommend it for subgroups where it's important that there be high trust, high balance, or high discretion. Rolling the dice on who volunteers the fastest and hoping for the best is not a smart way to fill committees.

    Instead, I recommend something more deliberate. See section 3) Selection of Committee Members in this blog from 2017 for an example of what I mean: Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

    4. Being Qualified to Do the Work Does Not Necessarily Mean Being Qualified to Run a Committee
    Committees are often comprised of people who are knowledgeable about the work of the committee or are excited to learn. While this is well and good, it doesn't necessarily mean that they know how a committee should operate. In particular, there it is a skill to organizing and managing a group, and a skill to being able to work deftly with group dynamics. These are demonstrably different than being good at cooking, plumbing, or companion planting.

    In essence, committees need both expertise in their work area and expertise in group process in order to function well in the group context, and this reality is often overlooked when deciding who will serve on the committee. If your group suffers from this, there are two ways you can think about a remedy:

    a) You can rethink the qualities wanted from those serving on the committee (point 2 above), adding the desire that at least some committee members are savvy about group dynamics and are able to work with tensions arising in the committee context (either internally or externally).

    b) You can make clear that the Steering Committee (or its equivalent) has the authority to step in if the committee is struggling, to help the subgroup sort out tensions or to develop a committee structure that will work better for all concerned. The point of making this explicit is that I believe it will work better if Steering cannot be turned down if they approach a committee in trouble. While you very much want a collegial (not adversarial) energy between Steering and the committee in question, any system that depends on individuals or groups self-identifying as needing help tends to get grossly underused.

    To be clear, I am not proposing that Steering have the authority to impose solutions or changes on the struggling committee; I want Steering and the committee to make a good faith effort to work out a response that both entities believe are worth trying.

  • Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me
    I should have known what was coming when I started needing to pull in my belt another notch to keep my pants from falling down.

    At my monthly oncologist visit last Thursday I weighed in at 161, which was down about nine lbs from January. While precipitous weight loss is not necessarily a good sign, I like this new weight better (who needs to schlepp around an extra nine pounds?) and it seemed a natural consequence of my suffering through respiratory troubles in January, during which I didn't have much appetite.

    Given that I was tipping the scales at around 210 lbs on the eve of discovering my multiple myeloma two years ago, this is a much smaller me, and I like it.

    Also, I'm breathing much better this week, my cough (the lingering residue of a cold in mid-December) is almost gone, and I am otherwise feeling fine. And that includes visiting a dermatologist (Dr Brown) the other day to look over a variety of skin oddities that my primary doctor (Dr Mast) thought were prudent to examine. I directed Brown to five spots on my body, all of which he judged benign (whew), though in the process he found two other spots that weren't even on my radar that he felt uncertain enough about to biopsy. (While he suspects they were most likely benign as well, why take the chance?) With skin cancer it's almost always treatable if you catch it soon enough, so I feel I'm in good hands on that account.

    Dancing with Medicare Part D
    More in my health consciousness right now is a switch I'll be making in chemotherapy protocols, going from infusion therapy (Kyprolis) to oral therapy. This will allow me to stay on course while on the road (infusion therapy requires visits to my local hospital and that's been difficult to choreograph when I'm out of state two weeks per month). In addition, I was experiencing some slippage in effectiveness with Kyprolis, so it was time for a change. From a health and quality-of-life standpoint this is a step forward. From a financial management standpoint, however, not so much.

    My infusion therapy has been 100% covered by my insurance, because it was viewed as a medical cost (covered under Medicare Part B), but oral therapy is seen as a drug cost, (covered under Medicare Part D) and is subject to a 20% copay. Because the list prices for my drugs (Revlimid and Ninlaro) are through the roof I anticipate going through a sequence where I first have to pony up for the copay, until my out-of-pocket costs reach $3750. After that I go into "gap" coverage, which means I have to survive an additional $5000 in out-of-pocket payments before I get out of the gap. Following that I fall into the protection of catastrophic coverage, where my copays will drop to little or nothing, depending on the drugs.

    Thus, I'm looking down the barrel of $8750 in health care costs to get through the rest of 2018 (none of which I faced last year, when all of my treatments were through infusion). Then next year, if I continue with oral therapy, I'll go through it all over again. It's quite the gauntlet.

    Under Obama there were plans in place to gradually close the gap (also known as the "donut hole") for Part D coverage, but there's no knowing what will happen under Trump and his Republican majority. They have lusted after dismantling the Affordable Care Act, but have so far been unable to do more than chip away at the edges. So we'll see what 2019 brings. It may be a better deal for me, or it may be worse.

    Fortunately, even though I have cancer, I've recovered enough stamina and all of cognitive ability—such that I've been able to return to work as a process consultant and teacher, and—wonder of wonders—work has come my way! Although I now have to earmark the first $12,500 of income for health care (counting premiums and what it'll take to get to the safety of catastrophic coverage) I feel very fortunate to have a pathway where it's at least possible—all the while doing what I love.

    Maybe there will not be as much disposable income left over for Susan and I to play with, but we'll do what we can, and we have each other. It's a pretty good deal.

  • Reflecting on the Ghost Train West
    Today I'm riding Amtrak's Empire Builder westbound from St Paul to Portland, Oregon. Monday I'll make a connection to Eugene. There's hardly anyone on the train (maybe 15 percent ridership, tops). The weather is bleak outside (we're stalled somewhere east of Rugby ND as the dawn has caught us from behind. The temperature is dancing around zero and I have absolutely no desire to venture outside the warm cocoon of my coach car. 

    This is one of my favorite times to travel by train. The low passenger load is not good for Amtrak's bottom line, but I cherish having two seats to myself (to create a nest for the 38-hour trip) and being liberated from being trapped in the acoustical envelope of inane cell phone conversation (where bored passengers while away the hours running down their stockpiled minutes nattering about what they had for breakfast, or what color pickup they noticed driving by). I enjoy how the quiet of the dormant winter landscape is matched by the library-like solemnity inside the car. It's peaceful.

    As my readers know, I'm on the road a lot (have talking stick will travel, trying to put out the brush fires of competitive culture wherever there's a willingness to call in the fire brigade). You also know I have a decided preference for traveling by train. 

    While Amtrak is only a skeletal train system compared to what existed before World War II, it's still a national rail system and I can mostly figure out how to get to where I need to go, and get there on time. As I reflect on it, my ability to rely on the train is peculiar to my unusual line of work and my specific constitution. I get it that it doesn't work for everyone.

    •  Because I overwhelmingly work with cooperative groups in situ, that means my prime work time is Friday evening through Sunday afternoon—when members of client groups are home from M-F commitments. I work when they aren't.

    Thus, even when I have back-to-back jobs, I typically have four days to get from the first one to the second. Not only does this protect a precious window to write up reports before they start to pile up, but I have time to take the train—even in the extreme case of traveling from coast to coast.

    •  I don't suffer from motion sickness and have no trouble typing at my seat (or at a table in the lounge car) while rumbling across the country at 79 mph (where Amtrak engines are redlined). So my transit time is productive, unlike what I experience sardined into a plane seat at 30,000 feet.

    •  I enjoy travel, do not have allergies, and can sleep anywhere. Very handy when it takes two overnights to get from Duluth to the West Coast—which is what I'm in the process of doing right now. For those who need a non-moving horizontal mattress to get decent sleep, the train is a poor choice.

    • I don't take the train because it's fast, or because it's particularly on time. When you depend on tracks owned by freight companies and dispatchers whose salaries are paid by them, there are just too many occasions when weather surprises, equipment malfunctions, and freight train snarls lead to unscheduled stops of uncertain duration. And when you have a dead freight in front of you on single track, it's not like you can switch to an alternate route. You have to wait.

    • Finally, I enjoy the train because it's slow. It protects reflective time that I am otherwise susceptible to giving away. Time to look out the window, read, take a nap, write, and think. [See more on this below.]

    So there's an appropriate mind set when you ride the train. You have to embrace the journey and not the clock. You don't schedule things that depend on an on-time arrival, because you can't count on it. You have to surrender to the iron rooster. It's the zen of train.
    • • •
    Interestingly (I'm not sure I understand it), I live in the Central time zone, but the vast majority of my client base is perversely located elsewhere. Thus, when I journey to a client it almost always means a substantial schlepp and at least two train connections. Sometimes three. Here's a snapshot of my current workload, in chronological order, January through April (one or two of which may not require travel, but that's not clear yet):
    —Massachusetts (2)
    —Oregon (2)
    —Michigan (1)
    —Colorado (1)
    —Tennessee (1)
    —California (1)—Virginia (1)
    —Washington (2)
    —BC (1)
     From this docket the job in the Volunteer State is the only one in the Central time zone (and it's the only one I can't reach via Amtrak, though I'll likely wind up flying in and out of southwest CO to avoid two eight-hour round trip car rides to catch a train in Albuquerque).

    So even though I live in the icebox of the country, on the remote shores of Lake Superior, I enjoy a national consulting business, and the choo choo gets me around. It's a rather odd arrangement, but it works for me. I love Duluth and I love living with Susan there. Sometimes I'm even home to enjoy them. 

    Mark, the guy who handles the 4:15 am Skyline Shuttle run from Duluth to St Paul every morning knows me by name. On average I'm catching the 8:00 eastbound Empire Builder to Chicago at least once a month, so I've become a regular and he tries to reserve the front passenger seat for my comfort.
    • • •
    Last week I caught a feature on NPR radio about deep thinking and the ways in which today's culture, with its heavy reliance on social media and email, has led to lifestyles that allow easy interruption. Many of us no longer protect chunks of concentrated time in our daily routine. While that may not have been a conscious choice, the result is that our minds rarely drop into depth or significant creativity. Instead, we hover near the surface and dance, somewhat frenetically, from one bright shiny object (or blinking light) to the next.

    This seems a questionable trend. Does anyone, for example, want to make the case that we're better off with a President who can't resist tweeting provocations at 4 am? Wouldn't it be better to spend more time in reflection and less in reflex (or acid reflux)?

    This reflection about deep thinking, and its value as an anchor for sorting out who we are and who we intend to be rings true for me, and reinforces the point I made above about protecting reflective time on the train. As an Amtrak passenger I tend to not socialize. I'm not rude; I'm just quiet. I stay within the envelope of my seat (my laptop) and my consciousness. I just try to be, and reconnect with who I am. 

    Ghost trains are good for that.

  • Facilitating in My Dreams
    This past week has been a rough one for me healthwise. 

    I contracted a cold in mid-December and have been trying to shake a residual cough ever since. While I had the presence of mind to get a flu shot back in October, there has been a lot of respiratory distress in and around Duluth (maybe everywhere) and my coughing degraded into pneumonia after a weeklong trip to Boston that ended Jan 18 (at 2:30 am).

    Last Saturday I felt crummy and didn't eat anything solid. When Susan popped a thermometer under my tongue that evening I was up to 100.5 and she was concerned. (Because of my multiple myeloma I'm somewhat immune compromised and therefore more susceptible to catching crud.) Prudently, she called the on-call oncologist (which has a nice ring to it) at St Luke's Hospital where I get my cancer treated and was advised that I was probably OK if the fever didn't go higher.

    My temperature was down Sunday morning, but so was I. After another desultory day of moping around (Susan was struggling as well—though she didn't run a fever, she was later diagnosed with bronchitis and the house sounded like a tuberculosis ward), she tried my temperature again and I'd spiked at 101.6. Uh oh. Time to go to the ER. 

    While my natural inclination is to think I can handle sickness on my own (and stay out of hospitals), I didn't fight Susan's firm guidance and it was good that I didn't. I arrived hypoxic (low on oxygen), with diarrhea, and with pneumonia in both lungs. No wonder I was weak and coughing so much. They immediately started me on oxygen and respiratory treatments to begin clearing the fluids out of my lungs. I was admitted to the hospital and happy to give myself over to their expert ministrations.

    Fortunately, I responded strongly to the treatments and my symptoms starting moving in the right direction immediately. By Tuesday morning I was off oxygen and doing laps in the hallway to regain muscle strength after lying abed for 40 hours. They gave me a double round of antibiotics, a prescription for an inhaler, and sent me home.

    Today—four days out of the hospital—I've recovered enough that I'll be departing in a few hours for a 12-day road trip to the West Coast and work with back-to-back clients. Fortunately, work is energizing for me, it's not aerobically straining, and I expect to be fine.

    When I return (Feb 8) I'll start a new protocol for treating my multiple myeloma, switching from infusion therapy (with Kyprolis) to an oral treatment (a combination of Dexamethasone, Revlimid, and Ninlaro). My oncologist thinks this will be more potent in suppressing the cancer, which is creeping back, and will allow me to continue my active travel schedule without treatment interruption (I have to be in Duluth for outpatient infusion therapy, but can take pills with me wherever I go).
    • • •
    Meanwhile, I want to share an interesting phenomenon that I discovered this past week while trying to make it through the night with minimal coughing. Whenever I get prone there's an adjustment in my lungs to the lower angle and I cough more. Obviously, that's not very restful (for either me or Susan) and it can take a while to find equilibrium. 

    I don't breathe as deeply while lying down, to avoid triggering a cough reflex, and that contributes to the hypoxia and shortened REM cycles as my lungs gradually accumulate fluid and another coughing round is set off. Ugh. This means that I go through a shallow sleep/dream state throughout the night which is somewhat like hallucinating.

    I was amused to discover that I go through a pattern. First I go over the work ahead of me in the next day or two. By virtue of "seeing" my schedule and making a rough plan for how I'll handle things, I calm down. Where others count sheep, I rely on logistics. 

    Next, as I start to drift off to sleep, I start thinking about issues in my life or imagining work ahead of me and what it will take to deliver excellent product for that client. (As it happens, I'm juggling work with 10 clients right now—all to be delivered in the next three months—so there's plenty to chew on.)

    While this imagining of future work may or not be insightful, it tends to be restful. But the most interesting part is that is that I'll next drop into something deeper and create a dream in which I'm actually facilitating—not thinking about facilitating. Maybe it's what all facilitators do at night—who knows. In any event, my tendency is to create scenarios in which I'm wrestling with something sketchy and cantankerous, and I wake up disoriented and with an elevated heart rate. I'm having a facilitation nightmare! And it takes me a few moments to realize that I don't have to be there. I get up, have a drink of water, and consciously back myself out of the mess I awoke in. Then I lie back down and start another cycle.

    What am I doing? What am I trying to work out? In what universe does this pattern help me heal? I realize that I'm so deeply associated with facilitation now (after 30 years) that I can't actually turn it off. It's who I am.

    This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But who's in control? What a fascinating thing our brains are.

  • When Committees Don't Function Like Plenaries
    As a process consultant I'm asked to assist groups in a variety of ways. One is by helping them learn how to facilitate better meetings. Another is how to set up committees to function well. Both of these are common requests, and I get plenty of practice at each. As odd as it may seem, however, sometimes these two objectives land at cross purposes, and that's what I want to explore in this essay.

    As a consultant, my work is overwhelmingly focused on plenaries—meetings of the whole. Almost always that's the messiest arena (where there are the most variables) and the place where I can do the most good. However, success at that level doesn't always permeate to all corners of the group culture.

    I. Even when the group gets religion about the need to invest in facilitation skills, and shifts the meeting culture about how plenaries are run (praise the lord) that does not guarantee that those advancements will trickle down to the committee level.

    Most groups allow committees the latitude to determine their own process (rather than expecting them to mirror the way plenaries are run), and most committees default into the Roberts Rules of Order standard of expecting the chair to run meetings—without giving a moment's thought to whether the reason a person has been selected as chair (perhaps administrative skill, expertise in the committee's domain, organizational diligence, facility with details, or just plain willingness to take a turn in the barrel) has anything to do with qualities needed to run a good meeting (good communication skills, neutrality on the topics, a knack for at bridging differences, unflappable in the presence of reactivity).

    Thus, even when the group adopts the practice of carefully selecting a facilitator to run plenaries, committees often don't. Worse, they often don't ask for help—even when they desperately need it. And if the community has offered committees carte blanche when it comes to how they'll operate, they are loath to go in after the fact to suggest that they up their game.

    II. In a typical group it's not unusual for the enthusiasm for process to be held on a gradient. While some see it as the second coming, others consider it a necessarily evil that has to be tolerated to quell the navel gazers. This spectrum is often characterized as the tension between Process People and Product People. 

    Not surprisingly there tends to be certain committees (maintenance and landscaping, for two) that attract more than their share of the Get 'Er Done folks (aka Product People) who want to spend minimal time in meetings and maximal time doing stuff.

    While this is not necessarily a problem, it can be. If a committee has an underdeveloped sense of process and low tolerance for talking through dynamics, it can come across as inaccessible when other community members have a beef with them. When process isn't in your consciousness, or you have a low opinion of its utility, issues tend to get shunted to the side or ignored (I'd rather be weeding) and that just pisses people off. They can appear as a rogue committee that doesn't give a shit about anyone else. I'm not saying that's true, but that's how it can look.

    The committee can feel like martyrs (unfairly vilified and under-appreciated for all the work they're doing for the community) while appearing as prima donnas to others (going about their merry way doing what they please and ignoring complaints). Can you see the train wreck?

    III. I believe the antidote is crisper mandates. In the plenary agreement that authorizes each committee, it's important to spell out what latitude the committee has about how it operates and the rights retained by the plenary to step in if there's the perception that the committee is not functioning well—one of the tests for which should be whether good faith attempts are being made to resolve complaints in their field of operation with alacrity and openness. No siloing.

    I'm all in favor of giving committees latitude for self-determination, but you need to accompany that with a clear pathway for dealing with problems. Otherwise you're betting on the weather and praying it doesn't rain—which is a very bad plan, because it always rains eventually.