External Resources & Links

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  • Articles Tree's Been Reading
  • Book List
  • Book Reviews (from 2000)
  • Consensus Manuals Online
  • Descriptions of Consensus in Use at Various Organizations
  • Games & Exercises
  • Organizations
  • Other Sites
  • Policy Sample Libraries

Hierarchy is Good. Hierarchy is Essential. And Less Isn’t Always Better (January 12, 2014) by Bob Sutton, Stanford professor and co-author of Scaling Up Excellence.  For years i’ve been hoping to see people move beyond “hierarchy bad/egalitarianism good” dichotomy to a more realistic, complex, nuanced understanding of what approach to use when and how to do each well.  For me this article is a sign that that conversation is moving forward, yea!

Social Innovation From the Inside Out by Warren Nilsson & Tana Paddock (Winter 2014) .  What can be learned from organizations that sustain institutional change with ongoing creative momentum?  “The organizations that we have worked with and learned from don’t resemble each other much at the level of strategy, structure, or leadership. Yet they have in common one apparently simple practice: They pay a great deal of attention to the inner experiences of the people who work in them.”

Board/Executive Director Tensions by Governance Matters.  Offers clearheaded analysis and advice.

When G.M. Was Google (the art of the corporate devotional) by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker (December 1, 2014). Fun comparison between these 2 companies.  While companies tend to attribute their own successes to uniquely wonderful leadership and management, in reality (a) environment and conditions determine a lot of the outcomes, and (b) much of the wisdom of good management is perennial, not unique.  (For example, many virtues touted by Google’s top management were similarly touted back in 1982’s bestseller In Search of Excellence, while some companies the same book lauded have long since disappeared.)  Furthermore, scale matters:  no company can be the same at 100,000 employees as it is at 1,000.  Oftentimes, the innovation of one era creates the problem the next generation needs to solve, part of a history that is both cyclical and developmental.

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team by Charles Duhigg in the NYT Magazine (Feb. 25, 2016).  Turns out the best teams foster psychological safety, through people listening to one another (sharing roughly equal speaking turns) and showing sensitivity to each other’s feelings and needs. Not exactly a surprise! Nonetheless it’s good to see the business press acknowledging the primacy of social intelligence in getting things done.

“An-arrgh-chy” and Pirate Ships.  Seriously worth looking at as a governance model!  Short overview in the New Yorker (2007), longer original research article by Peter Leeson.

CONSENSUS

Building Consensus: Conflict and Unity. (2001) Monteze Snyder, et al. Basic overview from a Quaker perspective. Earlham University Press, $15.00

Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making. (1981) Michel Avery, et al. Explains why, when and how to use secular consensus process effectively. This book, originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, has been reprinted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community (see below). $19 ppd.

Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Social, Political, and Environmental Groups (2006) Peter Gelderloos. The examples drawn directly from typical activist groups are nice, but overall i found this book too weak to recommend. For something of this kind, go with On Conflict and Consensus or Consensus through Conversation instead. See Sharp Press, $10.95.

Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making (2011) Tim Hartnett. Somewhat akin to Roberta’s Rules of Order below, this book advocates using a bunch of consensus techniques to refine proposals without necessarily using consensus as a decision rule. New Society, $29.95.

Consensus through Conversation. (2004) Larry Dressler. Straightforward information clearly presented; misses some nuance but its simplicity makes this short book very appealing as an overview. Berrett-Koehler, $15.95.

On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking. (1987) CT Butler & Amy Rothstein. Formalizes procedural steps for decision-making method. Full text available for free on the internet. Food Not Bombs Publishing, $14 ppd.

Sharing Consensus: a handbook for consensus workshops. Sweet, homespun booklet filled with Quaker anecdotes, written by a man who uses no name. Available c/o Nova Land, 128 Hidden Springs Lane, Cookeville, TN 38501. $5.00 suggested donation for copying and postage.

FACILITATION

The Art of Facilitation: How to Create Group Synergy. (1992) Dale Hunter, Anne Bailey & Bill Taylor. Good, solid nuts and bolts info on facilitation (including the importance of working on yourself and staying clear), though the short section on consensus is ill-informed. Fisher Books, $17.95.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter (2007). Marvin Weisbord & Sandra Janoff. Clear principles, well applied, practical.  Highly recommended. Berrett-Koehler, $20.95.

Extreme Facilitation. (2005) Suzanne Ghais. Well-balanced, solid, realistic. Jossey-Bass, $40.00.

Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. (1996 & 2007) Sam Kaner. Lots of handouts, information presented visually. Community at Work, $24.95.

Great Meetings! Great Results. (1997) Dee Kelsey & Pam Plumb. Nice overview, very accessibly written. Hanson Park Press, $29.00.

A Manual for Group Facilitators. (1977) Brian Auvine, et al. Clear writing, practical approach, covers many key topics. This book, originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, has been reprinted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community (see below). $19 ppd.

Meeting of the Minds: A Guide to Successful Meeting Facilitation. (2001) Daniel Iacofono. Includes nice illustrations and a great section on graphic recording. MIG Communications, $29.95.

The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches. (1994) Roger Schwarz. Thorough, well thought out; very useful information if you don’t mind the dry analytical style. Jossey-Bass, $34.95.

Standing in the Fire (2010).  Larry Dressler.  Emphasis on the internal work a facilitator must do inside themselves in order to stay clear in their group work. Berrett-Koehler, $19.95.

OTHER RELATED TOPICS

(Community-Building, Group Dynamics, Conflict Resolution, Etc.)

The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems (2007) Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, Steven Cady. Tightly written profiles of more than 60 different whole system change methods, incredible. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $59.95.

Creating Community Anywhere: Finding Support and Connection in a Fragmented World. (1993) Carolyn Shaffer & Kristin Anundsen. Chapters 14-16 on communication, governance and conflict provide useful information and examples. Tarcher/Putnam, $15.95

Democracy in Small Groups: Participation, Decision Making and Communication. (1993) John Gastil. More solid basis in theory and research than most books on these topics and still very readable; has fantastic footnotes. New Society Publishers, $14.95.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. (1999) Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen. Clear information for laypeople, variety of examples, realistic—highly recommended. Penguin, $14.00.

The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups (2011) Starhawk. See also “Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings”, a free 59-page bonus chapter that was edited out of the book. Overall an excellent overview.

Head, Heart & Hands: Lessons in Community Building. (2004) Shari Leach. Specifically geared toward cohousing groups. Wonderland Hill Development Company, $20.00 ppd.

Nonviolent Communication … A Language of Compassion. (1999) Marshall Rosenberg. Outlines a particular approach to conflict resolution that has been successful in a variety of contexts. Center for Nonviolent Communication, $15.95.

Playing Along: 37 Group Learning Activities Borrowed from Improvisational Theater. (1997) Izzy Gesell. In most books of this type i find only a few useful exercises for groups; in this book i marked over a dozen. PO Box 962, Northampton, MA 01061; 413-586-2634. $24.95.

Roberta’s Rules of Order. (2004) Alice Collier Cochran. As the subtitle says, “Who is Robert and why do we still follow his rules anyway?” This book is about what is sometimes referred to as “agreement-seeking,” that is, using a bunch of consensus techniques to refine a proposal, and then voting if needed. It is targeted at nonprofits and includes sections on bylaws and board functions, but don’t look here for sophisticated info on group dynamics. Jossey-Bass, $26.95.

Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity. (1995) Arnold Mindell. Lao Tse Press, $15.95.

The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All. (2003) Tom Atlee. Inspiring and practical methods for applying consensus principles at a national or state level. Co-Intelligence Institute, PO Box 493, Eugene, OR 97440; www.taoofdemocracy.com, $15.95.

Books on Participatory Decision-Making

by Tree Bressen

Thirty years ago, during the big ’60s wave of community-building, there weren’t a lot of resources out there on how to make decisions together. Brave groups of people plunged in with good intentions, high hopes, and a fair dose of naiveté. Some folks resisted having meetings at all, and even those who recognized a need for groups to come together at an appointed time to make decisions often weren’t fully prepared to do it effectively.

Fortunately the past three decades have seen the emergence of excellent written resources on how to have meetings that are upbeat and productive. The books described here are loaded with helpful information on everything from what to do when a decision is blocked to how to deal with a crying baby. Some selections are specifically oriented toward consensus methods, while others broadly discuss facilitation or other relevant topics. Many of the books listed are available through the Community Bookshelf service of the Fellowship for Intentional Community.

* * *

For basic information on how to do consensus, the book many facilitators recommend first is Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making, originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Madison, Wisconsin. Sample chapters include “Structuring Your Meeting,” “Working With Emotions,” “Communication Skills,” and “Common Problems: What To Do About Them.

Chock-full of useful knowledge presented in an accessible manner, Building United Judgment also includes fascinating insights and opinions by individual authors and commentators, set off in boxes next to the text. For example, on paraphrasing: “This technique is tricky and often mis-used. . . . Gotta be tuned in to the speaker emotionally for this to work.” The chapter on blocking includes an engaging description of the actual process the authors went through when they couldn’t agree on what to write about the topic! Overall this book has a very down-to-earth feel; while the extra bits give it the sense of being a work-in-progress, it’s clear that the information has been “field-tested” through real experiences.

The other consensus manual in use by many communities is On Conflict and Consensus, by C.T. Butler. This booklet is simple and clear, providing a step-by-step procedure for using consensus decision making complete with flow chart. There is a section on how to evaluate meetings (something many groups overlook), and descriptions of possible roles (such as Agenda Planner, Advocate and Doorkeeper). Criticisms of the “Formal Consensus” approach that some communities have voiced are first, that it expects all issues to be raised in the form of a proposal, instead of allowing for raising of a question or situation followed by collective development of a proposal, and second, that it focuses a lot on concerns, which can lead to a negative atmosphere in meetings. However, communities can choose to tweak the Formal Consensus guidelines to allow for more flexibility in these areas.

In addition to these well-known works, there are several other guidebooks that bear mentioning here. Introduction to Consensus, by Beatrice Briggs of Huehuecoyotl ecovillage in Mexico, is less dense than Building United Judgment, while including much basic information on the standard secular consensus approach. In contrast to the two manuals listed above which include one chapter on facilitation, a full half of Bea’s booklet is devoted to facilitation, including sections such as “Supporting the Shy,” “Silencing the Verbose,” and “When You Don’t Know What to Do Next.” Plus it’s the only book here that’s also available in Spanish.

Finally, a colleague recently introduced me to Sharing Consensus: a handbook for consensus workshops, by a man who uses no name. A sweet, home-spun booklet filled with exercises, suggestions for posters, and Quaker anecdotes, the consensus approach outlined here is very different from what most of us who teach consensus are used to. For instance, the author believes that reliance on facilitators is too authoritarian–the only reason the “clerk” (Quaker term) should repeat back the sense of the meeting to the group is to make sure it’s correct for the notes. Here’s an excerpt, to give you the sense of it:

“Consensus is more a set of attitudes than a set of rules. It works best when done informally, avoiding jargon and simply doing the talking together necessary to build understanding. In their 300-year history the Quakers have never written down an official set of rules for their meeting process. Actions such as checking to see if there is strong objection to a proposed course of action should occur naturally as a part of discussion, not as empty rituals or steps on a check-list.”

While some might say that his approach is overly idealistic, it seems to me an important balance to the lists and techniques in other books. There’s an evolution taking place in consensus, as groups like CCR and Movement for a New Society reacted to the “Tyranny of Structurelessness”* of the 1970s with structured agendas and facilitators to keep things on track. The nameless author of Sharing Consensus advocates for using those structures at most as training wheels, letting go of them as soon as the group is ready. Meanwhile, on a different track, three of the four facilitation books profiled below arise from the corporate or community organization context that’s growing up alongside the alternative culture of activist politics and intentional communities.

A Manual for Group Facilitators, CCR’s facilitation handbook, was published four years before Building United Judgment and can be taken as a companion work. Like the other books on facilitation listed here, it’s oriented toward working with groups of which you are not a member, but almost all the information is quite useful for facilitating in your home community too. A Manual for Group Facilitators is a thorough overview, including my personal favorite chapter, “What Can Go Wrong: What To Do About It,” which includes highlights such as: “When an Exercise Flops,” “What Do You Do About Your Own Feelings?” and “Someone ‘Freaks Out.'” Good advice abounds, with CCR’s trademark field-tested feel.

Beginning our segue from alternative to mainstream books, something to notice right away is that the latter works don’t treat consensus the same way. They tend to include consensus on a list of qualities that good decisions should consider striving for, rather than giving it a central and defining role.

Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making is a child of the movement started by Michael Doyle and David Straus in 1976 with How to Make Meetings Work: The New Interaction Method (the classic book for mainstream, hierarchical organizations on how to do participatory meetings). I was put off at first by the format, which is a series of handouts rather than a “normal” book. But the handouts are actually more accessible than straight prose for many people, and enable a group to focus attention on a specific process issue.

Central insights of Kaner’s book for me included that gaining structural clarity on a group’s decision-making process can prevent conflicts that will otherwise appear as interpersonal difficulties; the “Groan Zone” that groups go through on the way to creating shared understandings; and “Gradients of Agreement”–the concept that how much enthusiasm is enough for something to count as “agreement” can vary by group and occasion.

Among businesspeople, Roger Schwarz’s The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches is considered a landmark. The most intellectually based of the books listed here, it has lots of great information if you can handle the dry, analytical style. Schwarz is particularly sensitive to how to intervene in groups of which you are not a member, while also including a section on what to do if you are a member. He also distinguishes between “basic” and “developmental” facilitation: the latter has the explicit goal of supporting a group’s further development of process skills (thus working yourself out of a job).

Finally, Great Meetings! Great Results, by Dee Kelsey and Pam Plumb, is a wonderful overall book on facilitation. Easy to read, covers a lot of territory, what’s not to like? Especially check out the chapter on “Tools for Problem Solving,” which describes half a dozen varieties of brainstorming, along with brain mapping, force field analysis, and a bunch of other techniques. Other sample chapters include “Managing Conflict” and “Integrating Graphics.” If you’re only going to read one book on general facilitation (as opposed to consensus facilitation specifically), this is probably the one to choose.

Taken collectively, the books reviewed here contain an enormous amount of information about group process. I find myself referring to them year after year, picking up new bits on every reading. Ideally groups will take time to read around, and experiment to see what best meets the needs of the community.

*”The Tyranny of Structurelessness” was a landmark article that addressed how the lack of explicit structures in feminist groups of the 1970s was keeping decision-making processes hidden and shielding covert manipulation. Written by Jo Freeman, it was reprinted in the 1990 and 1995 editions of the FIC’s Communities Directory.

BOOKS REVIEWED HERE:

Auvine, Brian, et al. (1977) A Manual for Group Facilitators. Originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, reprinted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. 90 pages. $19 ppd.

Avery, Michel, et al. (1981) Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making. Originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, reprinted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. 124 pages. $19 ppd.

Briggs, Beatrice. (2000) Introduction to Consensus. Also available in Spanish. Beatrice Briggs, POB 25, Black Earth, WI 53515. 62 pages. $15 ppd.

Butler, CT and Amy Rothstein. (1987) On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking. Full text available for free on the internet at http://www.ic.org/wiki/conflict-consensus/. Food Not Bombs Publishing, 61 pages. $14 ppd

Kaner, Sam. (1996) Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Community at Work, 1 Tubbs St., San Francisco, CA 94107; 415-641-9773. 255 pages. $24.95 plus $6 shipping.

Kelsey, Dee and Pam Plumb. (1997) Great Meetings! Great Results. Hanson Park Press, PO Box 3883, Portland, ME 04104; 888-767-6338. 175 pages. $29.00.

Schwarz, Roger. (1994) The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches. Jossey-Bass Inc., 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104; 415-433-1740. 314 pages. $34.95.

Sharing Consensus: a handbook for consensus workshops. C/o Nova Land, 128 Hidden Springs Lane, Cookeville, TN 38501. 80 pages. $5.00 donation for copying and postage.

Seeds for Change (UK) is one of my favorite websites on consensus decision-making. Their writing is straightforward, thorough, clearly values-based, and includes a historical and multicultural perspective.

See also this excellent series of posts on consensus by former “Seed” Matthew Herbert currently of the UK-based Rhizome Co-op.

Kevin Wolf’s The Makings of a Good Meeting, based on the classic booklet by Berit Lakey of Movement for a New Society with a bunch of other stuff added:

CT Butler & Amy Rothstein’s Formal Consensus method.

Consensus Basics, shorter paper by Rob Sandelin. Written for cohousers, but applicable to other groups.

Shared Path, Shared Goal, consensus “fingerbook:” written by organizers of the Direct Action Conference in Berlin in 1995.

Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Handbook from the Alliance to Stop First Strike, Santa Cruz, CA, 1987

ACT-UP New York Civil Disobedience handbook

Collective Book on Collective Process is largely a critique of bad habits that groups who purport to use consensus sometimes fall into, but it also contains useful suggestions.

Champlain Valley Cohousing used to have a nice manual posted for their sociocratic consensus system. Feel free to try contacting them to see if it’s still available?

Burning Man : Consensus, Hierarchy, Authority and Power

Caspar, California: This town on the California coast makes its decisions by consensus! Read about it on their website, or stop by to see a meeting.

Guelph, Ontario (Canada) Participatory Budgeting: Inspired by Porto Alegre, Brazil, citizens of this city of 100,000 allocate more than $1 million annually through neighborhood associations.

Heartwood Cohousing: Excellent documentation of policies on decision-making, facilitator’s guidelines, and so on.

Kommune Niederkaufungen, a longtime intentional community in Germany, has developed a booklet of cute face cartoons each person in a meeting can use to indicate response to a proposal (similar to the colored cards that many cohousers use, but perhaps a little more fun). Scroll down past the steps at this link to see “Using Face-Expression Symbols to Sample Mood and Opinion“; another version of the wording is posted here.

Quakers (Religious Society of Friends)

  1. An Introduction to Quaker Business Practice by Eden Grace. Intriguing description of how the effort to discern a Sense of the Meeting in harmony with God’s will makes Quaker process different from secular consensus practice.
  2. Quaker Business Meetings: How Friends Make Decisions. From Glasgow Meeting, Scotland. Oriented toward newcomers to such meetings.

Policy Library includes documents related to consensus from cohousing and other intentional communities.

Tulsa Symphony Orchestra Four years after the Tulsa Philharmonic went bankrupt, a core group of former musicians reorganized as a worker co-op operating by consensus,  now playing to rave reviews and strong community support.

See also Policy Sample Libraries

Bernie DeKoven’s DeepFUN site offers many group games.

Encyclopedia of Improv Games has a zillion of ’em, indexed by title and category.

Outdoor Education Research & Evaluation Center link leads to other game sites.

Training for Change. Wonderful collection of tools and exercises, includes topics such as diversity, strategy, nonviolence, and more.

Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC). North American network for people interested in cooperative living. FIC’s Process Consultant Clearinghouse lists facilitators and trainers who have experience with intentional communities. Their Community Bookshelf offers books and articles on decision-making, leadership, and consensus and facilitation specifically. FIC, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545; fic@ic.org; www.ic.org.

Friends Meeting. The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers, have been using consensus decision-making methods for over 300 years. At Eugene Friends Meeting, for example, newcomers are welcome to sit in on Meeting for Worship for Business, usually held after Meeting for Worship on the 4th Sunday of the month. 2274 Onyx St., Eugene, OR 97403; 541-343-3840. Quaker worship groups exist in many locations around the world.

International Association for Public Participation (IAP2).  Also has regional chapters that offer classes and other events.

International Association of Facilitators (IAF). Sponsors an annual conference, publishes a journal. 7630 W. 145th St., Suite 202, St. Paul, MN 55124; 612-891-3541.

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). Do you want to build a world based on dialogue? So do the people at NCDD, and they are providing networking and resources to make it possible.

Alpha Institute lists some organizations using consensus.

Autumn Brown’s site has a timeline of consensus use in the U.S. and a map of consensus use around the world.

Co-Intelligence Institute. Tom Atlee’s fabulous website on how our society can work more wisely for the good of all also includes summaries of over a dozen group process methods at www.co-intelligence.org.

Center for Voting and Democracy. If you are going to vote on something instead of using consensus, first check out this site with information on proportional representation, instant run-off, preference voting, and other systems.

Community at Work has an excellent resource list with links to bunches of professional networks, collections, other websites, etc.

Group Skills Page at the Free Management Library

Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA). Maintains resource pages on meetings and group process at their website, http://www.ic.org/wiki/running-effective-meetings/.

Randy Schutt, long-time activist, has a dozen short papers (1-12 pages each) on cooperative decision-making, many downloadable as PDF documents over the web and the rest available for the cost of copying and postage. See the list at www.vernalproject.org/RPapers.shtml. Contact Randy at PO Box 608867, Cleveland, OH 44108; rschutt@vernalproject.org.

Service-Growth: Contains links to specific items on effective groups and training, as well as spiritual growth and other topics.

Policy Database administered by Coho-US

Heartwood Cohousing in Durango, Colorado, US

IC Wiki:  Sample Legal Documents:  Bylaws and other agreements from several communities.