Tree Bressen: The Top 10 Most Common Mistakes in Consensus Process

Facilitation

Earlier last month, New York City saw the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. What started out as a small group of people camping out at a local park in downtown Manhattan has since gained a lot of momentum and spread to dozens of cities across the US. From Wikipedia:

Occupy Wall Street is an ongoing series of demonstrations in New York City based in Zuccotti Park, formerly “Liberty Plaza Park”. The protest was originally called for by the Canadian activist group Adbusters; some compare the activity to the Arab Spring movement (particularly the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, which initiated the 2011 Egyptian revolution) and the Spanish Indignants.

The participants of the event are mainly protesting against social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of corporate money and lobbyists on government, among other concerns. By October 9, similar demonstrations had been held or were ongoing in over 70 cities.

For anyone interested in things such as democratic process, group decision making, or dialogue, I recommend you follow these developments closely. There’s lots to learn as things unfold!

Of particular interest to me is the use of consensus decision-making as a core design principle to guide the local general assembly meetings that, in most locations, are held daily or even twice daily. Again, Wikipedia:

Consensus decision-making is a group decision making process that seeks not only the agreement of most participants but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections. Consensus is defined by Merriam-Webster as, first, general agreement, and second, group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It has its origin in a Latin word meaning literally feel together. It is used to describe both general agreement and the process of getting to such agreement. Consensus decision-making is thus concerned primarily with that process.

In the words of the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly Guide (PDF):

NYC GENERAL ASSEMBLY | HOW IT WORKS

The General Assembly is a gathering of people committed to making decisions based upon a collective agreement or “consensus.”

There is no single leader or governing body of the General Assembly – everyone’s voice is equal. Anyone is free to propose an idea or express an opinion as part of the General Assembly.

Each proposal follows the same basic format – an individual shares what is being proposed, why it is being proposed, and, if there is enough agreement, how it can be carried out.

The Assembly will express its opinion for each proposal through a series of hand gestures (see next panel).  If there is positive consensus for a proposal – meaning no outright opposition – then it is accepted and direct action begins.

If there is not consensus, the responsible group or individual is asked to revise the proposal and submit again at the following General Assembly until a majority consensus is achieved.

I was able to stop by the Occupy San José camp site a few times over the past ten days to experience first-hand how this process works in practice.

In general, I’ve been quite impressed with the quality of listening that I’ve encountered on site so far. Both during the general assemblies, which have attracted groups of more than 100 people here in San José, as well as throughout the day, when protesters and campers mingle with regular citizens and passers-by, I’ve noticed an overall dialogic atmosphere that brings together people from various backgrounds to engage passionately, yet civilly in deep conversations around the future of society and their community.

People will share personal stories, air their grievances, ask tough questions, brainstorm solutions. They may agree or disagree, but most seem to be able and willing to listen carefully and patiently. And so they connect and support each other. From a civic standpoint this is quite refreshing to see, to say the least.

So far, the consensus model used during the general assemblies seems to be working well overall. From what I’ve seen, the process is very inclusive in that it actively encourages participants who disagree to share their opinions and concerns so that they can be discussed with the larger group.

However, I did noticed a few issues as well. For example, getting the group to reach unanimous consent can be painstakingly slow. Even a three-hour meeting may not get you past a handful of issues. A couple of times, the facilitator could have been more precise in describing the various options that were under consideration. And the fact that the group may be composed of different people day-to-day and a lack of an overarching (multi-day) agenda pose additional challenges.

Most importantly, though, participants seem to genuinely enjoy the approach despite the occasional messiness. It will be very interesting to watch how the model evolves and how the group will adapt as it grows in size.

To help people involved with organizing these grassroots meetings, facilitator and group process expert Tree Bressen just published a handout on consensus decision-making that’s worth sharing in this context. In an email, she writes:

I was inspired to write this especially in support of the current Occupy movement, which has bunches of people participating in consensus decision-making who may not be experienced. A two-page quick handout can’t replace a training, but it can help in the meantime.”

Here they are (please download the document to read the full text): The Top 10 Most Common Mistakes in Consensus Process and How to Avoid Them (PDF)

  1. Inappropriate blocks
  2. Enabling bad behavior
  3. Poorly planned agendas
  4. Having the same person facilitate and present topics
  5. Starting from a proposal, instead of an issue
  6. Too many details
  7. Rushing the process
  8. Spending all your meeting time in open discussion
  9. Attaching proposals to people
  10. Fuzzy minutes

I’d be interested to learn how protests in other cities are setting up their decision making infrastructure. If you have first-hand experience or know of any references, please share in the comments. Thanks!

About the author: Tim Bonnemann is the founder, President and CEO of Intellitics, Inc., a digital engagement company based in San José, California (USA).

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