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3 advantages of consent-based decision making

Note: this builds on my earlier post about consent.

I’ve worked for a number of organisations over the years, in various different industries and sectors. Looking into an organisation as a consultant, though, is interesting because you begin to notice things that you’d perhaps miss if you’re trying to fit in and be there for the long-haul.

One of the things I notice is that there’s a direct correlation between how good an organisation is at making decisions, and how effective it is in achieving its goals. Organisations that have structures and processes for making good, timely decisions thrive. Others stutter and fail.

Many organisations default to hierarchical decision making: whoever is most senior in any given situation makes the final call. That can work, and it’s absolutely the quickest way of getting things done in an emergency. However, the downside is that it breeds resentment: do what you’re told or get out.

The opposite of the hierarchical approach is consensus-based decision making. This is usually seen as the ideal approach if your group has got time to mull things over and get everyone on board. It’s difficult to do well when you’ve got more than 10 people, though, and it’s easy for one or two people to derail the process.

In Sociocracy, groups (‘circles’) are encouraged to instead use consent as an approach to decision-making instead of the hierarchical or consensus-based approaches. In Many Voices, One Song, a book I’ve been reading recently, the authors explain why:

If we ask for unanimous decisions, we ask “do you agree?”, this question tends to focus people on their personal preferences. In consent, we ask “do you object?” and this question includes both the range of tolerance and the personal preference.

We don’t see consent as a watered-down version of consensus. In our experience, consent shifts the energy towards doing, instead of convincing others of our own viewpoint. To focus on the range of tolerance instead of personal preferences means to acknowledge that people’s experiences and perspectives are different and might remain different. With consent, we can still operate together, guided by a shared aim. (p.138)

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.138

The ‘range of tolerance’ is something which the authors explain as the difference between someone having a personal preference versus them objecting to something.

For example, let’s say there’s a vegetarian who doesn’t particularly like Brussels sprouts, so she never cooks them at home. However, she would eat them if served at a friend’s house for dinner. She has a personal preference rather than an objection.

Of course, business decisions tend to be bit more high-stakes than this, so let’s look at three advantages to consent-based decision making that the authors of Many Voices, One Song outline in their book:

1. Consent balances groups and individuals

With consent, individuals will not have as much power as they have in decisions requiring unanimity. On the other hand, with consent, a majority will not have power over a minority.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

2. Consent allows for forward motion

It is easier to find common ground when working with the overlap of our ranges of tolerance. Once we have made a decision, we can carry out our plans and evaluate whether the changes bring improvement. Since we learn with every decision made (and we do not learn from decisions not made), every decision made gives us more options to learn and adapt to outside and inside changes. We use the slogan “good enough for now” to encourage groups to innovate and prototype quickly.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

3. Consent is safe

Like a safety net, consent makes sure that no one can be ignored. If someone objects to a proposal, that person will be heard and the objection addressed. Thus, consent secures equivalence. The slogan here is “safe enough to try” which emphasizes that we only move when it seems safe – but then we don’t hold back.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.135

I’m finding this approach increasingly valuable, and would encourage anyone interested in finding out more to come along to an introductory workshop run by Outlandish. They run them regularly, and beginners are very welcome!


This post is Day 38 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Giving consent

At the moment I’m working two days for Outlandish, a fellow member of CoTech. They’re big believers in, and practitioners of, Sociocracy.

When I wrote about Sociocracy in a previous post I neglected to use the word ‘consent’, but I’ve come to realise (partly through reading Many Voices One Song) just how fundamental it is to a harmonious workplace culture.

Consent is the default decision-making method in sociocracy.

[…]

By consent, a group can decide to do anything. We often jokingly say, you want a dictator for your organization? We can decide that by consent. (We recommend that the dictator role have a term end, however!) Groups can decide by consent to vote. Groups decide what their governance system looks like at all times. The only thing one cannot do is ignore reasoned objections.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.25-26

Many of the problems I’ve encountered in my career have been directly related the abuses of power that come with the ‘default operating system’ of hierarchy thoughtlessly adopted by most organisations.

Rather than the politics of the playground, Sociocracy is an grown-up approach to organisational power-sharing based on consent.

The assumption of sociocracy is that sharing power requires a plan. Power is everywhere all the time, and it does not appear or disappear – someone will be holding it. We have to be intentional about how we want to distribute it. Power is like water: it will go somewhere and it tends to accumulate in clusters: the more power a group has, the more resources they will have to aggregate more power. The only way to counterbalance the concentration of power is intentionality and thoughtful implementation.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.17

The authors recognise the limits of the water metaphor, but continue with it to help make their point:

One can think of a sociocratic organization as a complicated irrigation system, empowering each team to have the agency and resources they need to flourish and contribute toward the organization’s mission. We avoid large clusters of power, and we make sure there is flow. Water that is allowed to flow will stay fresh and will reach all the places in the garden, nourishing each plant to flourish. Sociocratic organizations nourish and empower each team to have the agency to flourish and contribute toward the organization’s mission.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.17

Consent is a great place to start without having to commit to overhauling your entire organisation overnight. It will improve decision-making and make your workplace environment more harmonious. You can simple as using the following structure in your next meeting:

  1. Someone makes a proposal
  2. Whoever’s chairing/facilitating the meeting gasks for any clarifying questions (which are then answered by the proposer)
  3. The facilitator asks for a show of thumbs (up, down, sideways). If it’s all thumbs up, the proposal is passed, if not…
  4. Participants are asked by the facilitator for ‘critical concerns’ (i.e. not just preferences). These are noted down.
  5. The group address the critical concerns by trying to find a way that the proposal would be agreeable.
  6. A new proposal is made (and the process is repeated through several ’rounds’) until the proposal is accepted, or you run out of time to discuss it.

I will, of course, have simultaneously over-simplified this and made it sound more complex than it is in practice. For that, I apologise. However, it’s definitely worth thinking about consent within the context of your team and organisation.

I’m helping Outlandish with the productisation of their offerings around Sociocracy at the moment, so am probably biased, but you might want to check out their upcoming workshops to find out more if any of this interests you


This post is Day 29 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

How to build an architecture of participation

Back in 2014, when I was still at Mozilla, I wrote a post entitled Towards an architecture of participation for episodic volunteering. I bemoaned the lack of thought that people and projects put into thinking through how they’re going to attract, retain, and encourage the volunteers they crave.

‘Architecture of participation’ is a term used to describe systems designed for user contribution. It’s a term I use relatively often, especially at events and thinkathons run by our co-op. Not only is it a delightful phrase to say and to hear, but (more importantly) it’s a metaphor which can be used to explore all kinds of things.

In my 2014 post, I made some suggestions for ways to improve your project’s architecture of participation. I’ve updated and improved these based on feedback and my own thinking. Based on my experience, to build an effective architecture of participation, you need:

  1. A clear mission – why does this project exist? what is it setting out to achieve?
  2. An invitation to participate – do you have an unambiguous call to action?
  3. Easy onboarding – are there small, simple tasks/activities that new volunteers can begin with?
  4. A modular approach – do volunteers have to commit to helping with everything, or is there a way which they can use their knowledge, skills, and interests to contribute to part of the project?
  5. Strong leadership – do the people in control of the project embody the mission? do they have the respect of volunteers? have they got the capacity to make the project a success?
  6. Ways of working openly and transparently – does the project have secret areas, or is everything out in the open? (this post may be useful)
  7. Backchannels and watercoolers – are there ‘social’ spaces for members of the project to interact over and above those focused on project aims?
  8. Celebration of milestones – does the project recognise the efforts and input of volunteers?

Most of the links I can find around architectures of participation seem to be tied to Web 2.0 developments pre-2011. I’d love to see a resurgence in focus on participation and contribution, perhaps through the vehicle of co-operativism.

If you’ve got another couple of features that lead to a positive and effective architecture of participation, I’d love to hear them. Then this can be a 10-point list! As ever, this post is CC0-licensed, meaning you can do with this whatever you like.


(Image drawn by audience members during a keynote I gave at Durham University in 2015)

On ‘Kit Builder’

Kit Builder

Note: this is one of those blog posts where I use one thing as a convenient hypocrisy to talk about another thing. Kind of like Jeremy Clarkson’s car reviews, I guess. If you just want to get to the meat, check out my very talented colleague William ‘FuzzyFox‘ Duyck’s new pre-alpha Webmaker prototype: Kit Builder. The rest is tangential, to say the least.


I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a gaping hole that someone will soon fill when it comes to organisational effectiveness. Before I describe that, I need to talk about some of the basic technology-related things that organisations need in this day and age in order to be effective.

OK, so I’m simplifying massively for rhetorical effect, but here’s three things I think you can’t do without – no matter what size of organisation you’ve got. These may be more formal or less formal, but you need them unless you plan to descend into chaos.

1. Issue tracker

I wrote about this in a bit more detail in a recent post, but basically what I mean is that you need some way for people to raise ‘bugs’, ‘issues’, ‘tickets’ or whatever you want to call them, and get the whatever the problem is fixed.

Examples: Trello, BugZilla, GitHub

2. Resource tracker

Much as I hate the term ‘human resources’, I’m going to use it here because it’s useful. Other people in your organisation should know where things and people are. Or, if that’s not possible for whatever reason, they should at least know you (or a room’s) free/busy status. It’s all about co-ordination, really.

Example: Google Calendar, Basecamp

3. Knowledge base

The best organisations I’ve worked in have had wikis. It’s all very well knowledge residing ‘in networks’ but that does build new knowledge. That only comes when a community (not a network) of people come together to intentionally build something. That’s where the magic happens. You don’t have to use a wiki, of course, but that’s what I’ve seen work best, time after time.

Examples: PBworks, Mediwiki


So, coming back to the ‘gaping hole’ I mentioned earlier, what do you do when one organisation has all of this in place, and another one doesn’t? Or… even if both organisations have adequate systems, but those systems don’t ‘talk’ to one another. At the moment, that’s where the friction comes, and that’s why there’s well-paid people all over the world who are friendly ‘go-to’ people and help paper over the cracks of relationships between organisations potentially fraught with misunderstandings.

You’ll not hear me say this often, but what we need is a technical (but simple) solution to this mess. A way in which organisations can work together for unspecified periods of time without causing problems, resentment or internal issues for their own setup. I guess it’s a kind of souped-up version of what Jon Udell was trying to achieve with the Elm City project.

What we don’t want are de facto standards like “let’s just all go 1:1 with iPads!”. Or, why don’t we all use Microsoft Office! Or even, “everyone should use Google Apps!”. We tried that, folks. It fails.


But what on earth has this got to do with Kit Builder, a pre-alpha prototype for educators who want to make teaching kits? Well, I’m getting to that. Let me just make a quick point about ‘means of production’ first.

As Marx didn’t write, but someone on Wikipedia helpfully did:

The means of production can be simply described as follows: in an agrarian society the soil and the shovel are the means of production; in an industrial society, mines and the factories; and in a knowledge economy, offices and computers. When used in the broad sense, the “means of production” includes the “means of distribution” such as stores, the internet and railroads.

I’m butchering Marx’s work here, but the point I’m trying to make about Kit Builder is that it’s not just another capitalist company offering you a proprietary silo. Even in pre-alpha, it’s a pretty straightforward way to create high-quality resources. You’re in control of everything. You can copy and paste the HTML into Notepad, for goodness’ sake.

Once you’ve created a resource using Kit Builder (or Webmaker in general), you get all of these benefits:

  • Hosted on the web (accessible everywhere)
  • Remixable (by anyone)
  • Open format (can be used on any system)

I wasn’t sure how to put this as a bullet point, but you also don’t get the crazy situation where Sue has one program which spits out files that are incompatible with Bob’s program. And, because there’s no downloading/uploading of files, we don’t end up with filenames like:

Billy's presentation FINAL (use this one!) NO THiS ONE (final version) v2.ppt.docx.pdf

At the moment the text boxes in Kit Builder require you to use Markdown to format your text. I’d suggest we keep this as a feature. Markdown is a human-centric way to enter text that is then rendered as a web page. It’s easier to understand if you realise that HTML stands for ‘HyperText Markup Language’ and is machine-readable code for rendering web pages. Markdown on the other hand, is much more human readable, and allows you to include arbitrary HTML if necessary.

I’d very much encourage you to explore Kit Builder. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my 18 years on the web so far is that open wins the long game. Shiny, pretty closed things come and go, but if you’re in it for any period of time, bet on open. And if you need to level-up your skills, don’t just sit on your hands, join in with Webmaker Training.


And finally, if you’ve got a way to build something that talks to lots of different systems and provides a human-readable layer, please do it. Do it now.

 

Minimum Viable Bureaucracy: Scale, Chaordic Systems & Trust

Recently I came across Laura Thomson’s excellent talk on Minimum Viable Bureaucracy. This is the first in a series of posts writing up Laura’s ideas. Everything in this post should be attributed to her, not me (except if I’ve made any mistakes!)

Posts in the series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Scale, Chaordic Systems & Trust
  3. Practicalities
  4. Problem Solving and Decision Making
  5. Goals, scheduling, shipping
  6. Minimum Viable Bureaucracy: Why have managers?

I chopped up the audio from her talk; you should find the two parts relating to this post below. Slides are here and it’s all backed up at the Internet Archive.

[display_podcast]

Scale

As organisations grow you experience pain.

(Laura Thomson)

When you’re working on your own you don’t need formal processes or things written down. The first pain point you experience is when you’ve got one other person working with you. The second pain point is at around 50 people: that’s when you stop knowing what everyone else is doing. A third pain point comes at 150-250 people where you don’t know everyone’s names. Then around 1,000 there’s a pain point where you say “should we behave like a big company or not?” That’s kind of where Mozilla is now.

Minimum Viable Bureaucracy - Scale

Organisational growth is a like scaling a Web app in that the technology you use depends on the number of users you have. Every so often you get to a phase change point and you have to rethink the way that you do things.

Dunbar’s Number is the cognitive limit on number of people with whom you can effectively maintain relationships. It’s supposedly based on the size of part of the brain, with a relationship between species and the size of their minimum cultural unit. Dunbar’s Number says that humans can maintain relationships with around 150-230 people. Laura thinks there’s tools and practices that can increase this number – structuring your organisation so it’s remote and distributed makes that number “a whole lot higher”. Mozilla has ‘dodged’ Dunbar’s number until it reached about 500 people.

Chaordic System

A ‘chaordic’ system is:

any self-organizing, adaptive, nonlinear complex system, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which exhibits characteristics of both order and chaos.

(Dee W. Hock)

Chaordic systems have order, but this is not imposed. It’s emergent order from the way we do things and very typical of Open Source projects. Chaordic systems tend to be robust, distributed and failure-tolerant. In fact, chaordic organisations mirror the Internet itself.

People from more corporate organizations than Mozilla say they need processes, paperwork and meetings to “get things done”. Laura says she always asks those kinds of people how many Open Source projects they’re familiar with and what processes they use. It’s usually a lot lighter – e.g. Apache.

Instead of having ‘all your ducks in a row’ the analogy in chaordic management is to have ‘self-organising ducks’. The idea is to give people enough autonomy, knowledge and skill to be able to do the management themselves.

Minimum Viable Bureaucracy - Organisational charts

The above is a cartoon version of organisational charts, but Laura says “there’s a lot of truth in this”. Mozilla, she believes, sits in amongst this – “we’ve been more Facebook-like but are getting more Google-ish.”

Trust

If you want self-organising ducks you need to start with trust. Laura mentions that an interesting book about this is The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error by Sidney Dekker, which is actually about plane crashes. Dekker focuses on post-mortems and how to discover how things go wrong when they go wrong. One thing he talks about is how pointless it is to assign blame. No-one goes out of their house in the morning trying to do the worst job they possibly can. They might do a bad job, but they don’t set out to do one. We should start with that, says Laura: when people behave that way at work, they do so for a reason. People don’t act randomly, and tend not to act in an evil way. We should assume that it’s the best they could do with the knowledge and skills they had at the time. That’s the basis of trust in your organisation.

Trusting people helps you stop saying things like “I’d be able to get this done if it wasn’t for IT”. It’s best to step back and ask why IT is acting like that – is it (for example) because they don’t have the resources?

The key thing for building trust is time. We tend to like people to ‘earn’ trust, but Laura encourages people to step back and get people to earn trust in the hiring process. “Once you’ve decided you want to hire someone, you should by default trust them,” she says. Once you’re in, you’re in. You can build trust “by making many small deposits in the trust bank” which is a horse-training analogy. It’s important to have lots of good interactions with people so that one day when things are going really badly you can draw on that. People who have had lots of positive interactions are likely to work more effectively to solve big problems rather than all pointing fingers.

There are two things Laura recommends you can do to build trust in your organisation:

  1. Begin by trusting others
  2. Be trustworthy

Don’t commit to things you know you’re not going to be able to do. Be reliable. Show up on time.

Trust should scale within an organisation: if you’ve hired someone then I should trust your decision instead of trying to second-guess them. Once you’ve got trust in an organisation you enable autonomy. This means you don’t feel like you have to micro-manage staff or have lots of meetings. It means leaders can have larger teams. Also, when you give people autonomy they are instantly happier. Nobody likes people looking over their shoulder all the time. You want to be trusted to do your job.


Having worked in schools, a university, and now a tech company, I can see universally-applicable lessons here. What do you think?

You can follow Laura Thomson as @lxt on Twitter.

On routines and rituals.

Rituals

I’m a great believer in routines.

I’m a believer in them because I think that innovation is predicated upon standardisation. In other words, routines afford us the spare capacity to think about things other than (repetitive) tasks at hand.

Routines provide spare capacity by removing, or narrowing, choice.

Take my morning routine, for example. Granted, having children means that no two are identical, but every day I’m at work in the office at JISC infoNet Towers, I do the following:

  • Have a cold shower
  • Eat eggs (either scrambled on toast or an omelette)
  • Listen to the same ‘Train’ and ‘Walking’ playlists via Spotify (albeit on random)
  • Read Baltasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom on the train

Of course, it’s not necessary to have to undergo a commute to have routines. They’re just things you do at the same time and/or place.

So far, so obvious.

Routines gain power by becoming rituals. For example, there’s something about the first cup of coffee in the morning. It has a ritualistic element; it symbolises waking and the liminal space between home and work.

Whilst routines are easy to create and maintain on an individual level, rituals are slightly trickier. This, I believe, is because rituals involve gathering. It may be people who are gathered together, it may be thoughts. Rituals pull together and coalesce disparate elements.

Organisations and educational institutions are extremely well-placed to turn individual productive routines into collective rituals. One of the best places to start is often around food. At JISC infoNet we have a weekly Cake Club: the cake serves as a convenient hypocrisy for a kind of gathering we otherwise would not necessarily experience.

What kind of routines could you or your organisation turn into rituals?

Image CC BY visualpanic

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