…when I first came I couldn’t believe the meetings. They were something like the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland. Literally everyone spoke at once. It was quite novel. There was no structure at all. They started and ended spontaneously. Everyone else there seemed to be able to tune in to two or three conversations at once… Laura
If you had asked me in the past what our decision making process was at People in Common I would have said we used consensus, or more correctly I would now say we used the unanimity form of consensus process that was prevelant at the time. But having now revisited various bits of the communal archive it is becoming less clear that that was the case. At least not all of the time.
Clearly from Laura’s comments above meetings could be pretty chaotic affairs – or seem so to newcomers. The PICHC Model rules specified that the group should use simple majority voting for ordinary decisions, or super majority;.for expelling a member or for winding the group up. My understanding is that this is most likely to be because the Registrar would not allow any sort of consensus decision making to be incorporated into the rules at the time. The only record I have come across that implies that an actual vote was taken. Is a minute that the, fairly momentus, decision to buy the Mill was agreed with “five votes in favour and four absentions”.
In the time I was at PIC I don’t recall us ever going to a vote. As a relatively small group (6 – 15 adults) we used an informal consensus process most of the time – though we did try more formal meeting techniques, like coloured cards, now and then. Mostly we went round the room getting everyone’s views/thoughts and tossing ideas around until we reached an agreement. This could take a frustratingly long length of time to come to a decision – or in some cases not to come to a decision. Using ‘unanimity’ consensus tended to make us lean towards going at the pace of the slowest most risk averse member of the group. Often to the aggravation of others – and possibly contributing to some members eventually leaving.
Derek once gave a wonderful explanation of consensus that sort of sums up the potential highs and lows of the process. He made an analogy with clothes shopping where voting is like going to a department store and asking for a suit in a certain style, size and colour – and you either get what you want, because they have it ,or you don’t. Whereas consensus is more like going to a jumble sale – where there is still a very,very slim chance you may get a suit that is the style, size and colour you are looking for, but it is much more likely you are going to come away with a big wooly jumper, a pair of jeans and a really cool hat.
We also made quite a few decisions over communal dinners – or at least chewed ideas over round the table over food. So that when we did come to a meeting we had already done a whole load of the pre-thinking that consensus requires to make it work smoothly.
We had our difficult moments. There was a very clear; logic vs intuition divide for a few years. I recall one meeting when a proposal to instigate ‘feelngs meetings’ and spend ‘work’ time trying to understand each other better was blocked by one person insisting that no figures had been supplied to show that we could afford to do this…… after that meeting I vowed to myself that I would never go into a meetng with an ‘intuitive proposal’ without having a set of figures in my back pocket to back it up. And from that moment I took an interest in how things were financed, despite finding figures essentially tediously boring.(I still do – but at least I can read and understand a spreadsheet now and I even spent some time later as the PIC group treasurer.)
…all sorts of things can go wrong with consensus decision making. It can favour those who like to function in meetings, or conversely, those who are reluctant to change. It’s often difficult for a group to be effective, dynamic. Often those who ‘innovate’, have ideas, create change, can feel too attacked and blocked, and may eventually leave; others may feel trampled on. People are emotionally attached to their ideas – often new ideas come out of strong feelings. We can be scared of suggestions which threaten the status quo which represents some equilibrium. There can be currents of emotional blackmail or alternatively of attempts to blind with facts.
Tess – Working Collectively in Undercurrents 41 1980
I have become more relaxed/sceptical about consensus these days. It can be great and produce really good decisions – it can also be a pain and there are definitely situations when it could be better to make decisions some other way.
When NOT to use consensus decision making.
When there is no group in mind
When there are no good choices
When a group gets bogged down trying to make a decision
When they can see the whites of your eyes
When the issue is trivial
When the group has insufficient information
Starhawk ‘Truth or Dare’ 1991
There were a couple of occasions when we were stuck as a group trying to decide what to do that we tried decidely left-field solutions to come to a decision. One time when we were working on the Mill and the weather was so bad; below freezing and snowing, that we couldn’t imagine carrying on and we had another indoor building job that we could have started. But we really wanted to work on the mill – we had been saving up and planning to do it for the last six months or so. In the end Kate threw the Tarot! And the cards told us to “Take a holiday!”. Which we duely did for two weeks after which the weather had improved and we went back to working on the mill. The other time was when faced with trying to decide when to finally move from our terraced houses in Burnley to live out at the Mill in Altham. Below is an article I wrote for the 1990/91 edition of Diggers & Dreamers. explaining how we eventually decided what to do.
Star Struck Commune
In the summer of 1988, after some fifteen years, People In Common was born again...
We moved house, from the terraced houses that we bought during the mid to late seventies as a short term measure and a stepping stone towards the Mill that we had been renovating for who knows how long.
The problem was: What day to move – officially that is (We’d been moving bits and peices of ourselves here for years.) After consulting our diaries and not coming up with a date we could all agree on, we decided to go the whole hog and look for an ‘auspious’ Day – and so we asked an astrologer if he could come up with the most auspicious day for a commune to be reborn.
This is our re-birth chart:
Altham Project:(53o48′ North; 2o20’East)
14th July 1988, 12.27(BST) = 11.27(GMT)
The new moon in cancer bodes well for creating a new house, as it is the sign of the home, safety and security. It’s position in the tenth house suggests your home embodies a career and amibition and that you seek public recognition for your achievements.
The moon’s close link with Jupiter in the Taurus in the eighth house of joint finances and resources suggests the possibility of public funding to cover some of your costs. Borrowing may also be easily facilitated.
Pluto in the second house of moveable possesions and assets hints at the need for very tight security and insurance against criminal damage, not so much to property, but removeable items.
Communication modes (post, telephone, advertising and address) may need to be double-checked and worked at as the three retrograde planets in the third house suggest unexpected delays and potential confusion in such matters. These are only potentials. However Saturn demands effort somewhere in every chart.
Structural safety should be checked prior to the end of January 1989, particulary if the foundations are close to water. Any water/gas systems should also be checked for leakages. Further structural work may need to be carried outaround 20th Febuary 1989, 27th June and 20th November. Again Novemeber could be the right month to safeguard against leakages and structural contact with water.
As your project approaches its seventh birthday, public recognition seems likely for your efforts. This also seems the most likely time for receiving help, financially, from public organisations, or mergeing with a body of likeminded organisations.
Please treat these comments as speculative.
Rather unfortunately some of us were on holiday on this particular day. Still we entered into the spirit of things and moved a whole series of symbolic items and possesions in at 12.27 July 14th 1988.
And since then we’ve not had any of our stuff nicked, we checked the roof, etc in January and nothing was amiss. But we did have all sorts of problems letting people know we’ve moved, getting the telephone put on and getting the postman to put letters through the right letterbox…
Is there anything in all this astrology lark we ask ourselves? Maybe, maybe not – anyway why not take a chance… What I say is roll on our seventh re-birthday.
Article from Diggers & Dreamers 1990/91
More recently I have used a decision making system or aid called Oblique Strategies. Created by Brian Eno, along with artist Peter Schmid, the Oblique Strategy cards bring an element of inspired randomness into decision making.I use them personally when I feel stuck on a problem, or can’t think where we should be going as a group on a particular topic or issue.If you fancy trying out your own Oblique Strategy they are now available on line at: http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html