Collaborative decision-making

As I watched a political debate on a news program here in Finland last night I was struck by how the participants not seemed unmoved and unchanged by what the other participants were saying. They had all come to the debate with set minds and had no intention of changing them.

A year ago I initiated a sort of a think-tank workshop (in Swedish Tänk-talko) and am now involved in planning a dialogue-based community forum in my home town of Ekenäs in Finland. The process in itself is interesting, a little scary, at times frustrating and a great learning experience. I became interested in creating a community forum last year after having experienced some very frustrating community meetings. These meetings led nowhere and resulted in even more frustration and bad feelings in our little town.

My friend and architect Lars Jadelius would call the current process in our community forum workgroup a “combined design and learning process”.

NODE Lars Jadelius

We are venturing into a type of social design process – designing and learning in a spiral movement. The planning of the community forum has given me a chance to reflect on decision-making processes and methods. Since I grew up in a Quaker family I was more or less socialized into a form of consensus decision-making. Therefore I dove into its history.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is often mentioned as a reference when researching the consensus decision-making heritage. Most archaeologists and anthropologists seem to believe that this confederacy was formed sometime between 1450 and 1600. This is what they today write about their history:

The confederacy, made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas was intended as a way to unite the nations and create a peaceful means of decision-making. Through the confederacy, each of the nations of the Haudenosaunee are united by a common goal to live in harmony. Each nation maintains it own council with Chiefs chosen by the Clan Mother and deals with its own internal affairs but allows the Grand Council to deal with issues affecting the nations within the confederacy…

Often described as the oldest, participatory democracy on Earth, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s constitution is believed to be a model for the American Constitution. What makes it stand out as unique to other systems around the world is its blending of law and values. For the Haudenosaunee, law, society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role.

One of the other most widely cited historical roots for consensus decision-making is the Quakerswhose model has been tested for 350 years. It is quite amazing to see how this process allows individual voices to be heard while at the same time dealing with disagreements. This consensus model has inspired others to adopt consensus methodology in a variety of secular settings (read more).

The following suggestions are prepared by Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana which was founded in 1847 by Quakers.

– Multiple concerns and information are shared until the sense of the group is clear

– Discussion involves active listening and sharing information

– Norms limit number of times one asks to speak to ensure that each speaker is fully heard

– Ideas and solutions belong to the group; no names are recorded

– Ideally, differences are resolved by discussion. The facilitator (“clerk” or “convenor” in the Quaker model) identifies areas of agreement and names disagreements to push discussion deeper

– The facilitator articulates the sense of the discussion, asks if there are other concerns, and proposes a “minute” of the decision

– The group as a whole is responsible for the decision and the decision belongs to the group

– The facilitator can discern if one who is not uniting with the decision is acting without concern for the group or in selfish interest

– Ideally, all dissenters’ perspectives are synthesized into the final outcome for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts

– Should some dissenter’s perspective not harmonize with the others, that dissenter may “stand aside” to allow the group to proceed, or may opt to “block”. “Standing aside” implies a certain form of silent consent. Some groups allow “blocking” by even a single individual to halt or postpone the entire process (Read more). 

The fact that Quakers have a special commitment to peace, justice, simplicity, and co-operation over competition may of course make this process easier. The facilitator’s role (“clerk” in Quaker-speak) is to serve the group rather than acting as a “person-in-charge”. All members have an opportunity to be heard, which often makes it easier for all to support the final decision.

The donkeys below decide to cooperate instead of compete and the result is that they get to enjoy two piles of hay instead of none. Like the folks at Rhizome (who inspired this blog text and research), I think we have to at least strive to hold the higher good as the central goal rather than our own interests. That is, after all, what makes consensus so transformational and powerful.

donkey hey

Some related articles:

Occupy movement 

A Brief History of Consensus Decision Making 

Lars Jadelius Learning Nodes in connection to En Världsby i Angered.


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