Recently, I was at Rainbow Grocery, a local worker-owned coop where I do a lot of my shopping. Rainbow has been around since the 1970s, and is one of not so many such places that have survived the test of time and are still thriving. As I was looking for a particular bulk spice (for those who care, their bulk section is what I most go all the way to San Francisco for), I overheard a worker explain to a customer an oddity in the way that the spices were organized. I heard weariness in her voice, so I turned to her afterwards and said something to the effect that this oddity could be fixed. She looked at me with what I saw as an odd mixture of commitment and resignation, and said: “Change is very slow when you run a democracy.”

To me this sentence sums up the crux of the issue I am exploring today. This response assumes something I myself question: why would change have to be slow in a democracy? I know the answer, because I think I know what she and others mean by a democracy. I think they mean a certain version of participatory democracy in which everyone participates in all decisions. I used to share the belief that this was the only possible path. In this understanding, we either compromise on the possibility of making things happen, or we compromise on the ideal of power-with, the value at the heart of this version of democracy: no one has anything imposed on them in any way, shape, or form.

Although this dilemma overlaps with the issue I named in Myth#1, I see a significant distinction between the two. When writing about the first myth, that everyone can be included, I was focusing more on the complexity of membership, which is about who gets to be part of a group or organization in the first place. Membership, then, involves a host of privileges and responsibilities, of which decision making is only one. Here, in this post, I am focusing on the process of decision-making within a group or organization whose membership is already clear.

Because I am deeply committed to doing all I can to contribute to creating a world where everyone’s needs matter, I am a natural candidate for believing in the necessity of participation at all levels. The standard versions of decision-making we have created within our existing models of democracy have lost the initial appeal they had when I was in my teens and learned the history of such forms of government. I no longer believe that representative democracy, the electoral process, or majority voting more generally, are strong enough tools to enable us to make wise decisions that can work for all or the vast majority of people.

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I also know that even in relatively small groups, involving everyone in all decisions and aiming for consensus in its usual form is either entirely unfeasible or endlessly exhausting and impractical. I want methods, processes, and forms that are responsive to human needs at all levels, that are scalable, and that are efficient enough for production environments. Of course this is a tall order, and I nonetheless have plenty of reasons, not just faith, to believe it’s possible.

Mattering and Needs

One key to making sense of the solutions I see is understanding a fundamental human reality I have learned over the years: when we trust that our needs matter, we are much more flexible not only about how they are going to be met; we are also more flexible about whether they will be met. Think about it: if I know and trust that you care about my needs and you go ahead and take action that doesn’t work for me, I am way more likely to be fine with it than if you do the same action and I think you don’t care about my needs.

This has led me to believe that in order to solve the decision-making dilemma, it would be important to create structures and processes that institutionalize the experience of mattering. That is the path that can lead to collaborative decision-making that doesn’t by necessity require everyone to participate.

At the level of personal relationships, the direct connection, and tending to it well, is all it takes. When we get into groups, the context is dramatically different, and more is needed. This is a rich field, about which many have written, and in which countless experiments and innovations have taken place. I do not pretend to know more than a little about all that’s been happening in the world. I do know enough to know that the tools are there. I don’t believe, though, that the specific lens of human needs, and therefore the specific focus on mattering, are already out there.

Small Groups: Deciding Together Who Decides

Even in the context of two people, it’s never the case that everyone participates in all the decisions. If two of us are raising one child, and only one of us is with the child, only one of us will decide how to respond to an unexpected, challenging behavior. As the number of people increases, it’s progressively more important to have systems in place for how decisions will be made in order to make it possible for things to flow smoothly and efficiently while attending to everyone’s needs.

I am indebted to Marshall Rosenberg, inventor of NVC, for the profound insight that the most important decision to be made collaboratively is the decision about who makes which decisions. One other insight I’ve had in my years of working with groups is that most people will form an opinion about something if asked for one. At the same time, we don’t necessarily want to form opinions about everything. To go back to the example of Rainbow, it’s quite likely that many of the workers would engage in a possibly heated discussion about how they want the spices to be ordered. At the same time, I am confident that, unless told about it, most of those same workers wouldn’t even have noticed if the spice order had been rearranged to fix the problem.

What could be done, then, to create movement and still hold everyone with care, is to make it possible for everyone who wants to to participate in the type of discussions that are of interest to them, and to accept others’ decisions about other issues. For example, everyone who is interested in how the shelves are organized and what the store looks like, would be part of the group that makes those decisions. Others would know they could, and therefore would be just as happy not to.

How the decision itself is made once we know who makes it is an entirely different topic I am not addressing today. I have written previously on this blog about the collaborative decision-making process that I myself created (e.g., simulations of a city council meeting and corporate merger talks, plus thoughts on Occupy), and intend to come back to it, with more and more precision and brevity. For now, what I want to emphasize is that it’s entirely possible to reach a collaborative decision efficiently precisely because we can uncouple the core needs we have from the millions of strategies and opinions that we create to meet them, as well as separate the needs from the people who happen to have them, and therefore we can come up with a coherent list of criteria for a decision that doesn’t depend on everyone continually defending their position. I also want to say that my own process is by far not the only one that has been created for collaboration. If anyone is particularly interested in this part of the topic, I would urge you to familiarize yourself with two resources. One is a particular process called Dynamic Facilitation, invented by Jim Rough, and the other is a website full of resources about groups, decision-making, collaboration, democracy, wisdom, and much, much more, The Co-Intelligence Institute, Tom Atlee’s organization.

Scaling Up: Alternatives to Representation and Voting

Even when the feasibility of collaborative processes for small groups is accepted, most people still resign themselves to the inefficiency, corruption, and alienation of large scale human institutions, which range from seemingly democratic institutions that don’t function democratically, to those, like the overwhelming majority of organizations, that don’t even pretend to be democracies.

In rejecting that resigned attitude many others, especially advocates for strict participatory democracy, conclude that we simply cannot form large scale institutions that have any hope of serving the needs of those that comprise them. So they call for the dismantling of anything but small, local, free associations of people who would, again, participate in all decisions that affect their lives.

Once again, I know that more has already been shown to be possible, and believe that even much more is possible if we, collectively, find a way to make it a priority. Again, the tools and know-how are there, and ideas, practices, and methods abound. The question of why we don’t use them, to my mind, is one of political will and worldviews more so than actual possibility, and I hope to return to it some time soon, when I take my next nibble at the huge question of why it’s so hard to reach people in positions of great power and invite them to change their actions.

Tom Atlee, just mentioned in the previous section, recently published his third book called Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision for Citizen-Led Politics, where he discusses hundreds of actual situations where randomly selected groups of individuals that represent a cross-section of the population were facilitated using dozens of processes to reach an informed consensus about topics or issues, including those that polarized the population from which they were selected.

Using the lens of needs that I discussed earlier, I can see why this would work. A randomly selected group of people coming together, as individuals and not as representatives, through effective facilitation in a collaborative process, embodies the variety of needs that underlie the diverse opinions and viewpoints of the larger population. Tom calls these Citizen Deliberative Councils. Especially if their process of coming together can be shared by the larger population, their deliberation can be a way for people who are not involved to see themselves mirrored in this small group, and to trust that their own needs matter, especially if the needs are named.

In the book I am trying to publish, Reweaving Our Human Fabric, I envision an elaborate system of governance in which decisions are made in small circles built as concentric groups. Each circle makes all the decisions that affect their level and below, and selects a representative known to all to a higher level circle. In this way, people in a higher-level circle are also members of the lower-level circles from which they were selected and to which they are directly and personally accountable, all the way down to neighborhood-based circles. In a system such as this, in combination with periodic and repeated randomly selected citizen deliberative councils, I have more faith that we can truly institutionalize the trust that each of our needs are carried forward in all decisions made. I believe this trust can carry all the way to the highest level global circle I imagine we will one day have, if we survive our current crises, when we coordinate the vast interdependent processes that affect all of us in consideration of all life on the planet.

I know we are quite far from such an eventuality. I also see small signs that keep reminding me that my faith is not unfounded. Because I work with people at so many different levels within organizations, I know, for a fact, that the people at the top more often than not care about the needs of those at the bottom more than is evident to the latter. Often, they act counter to their care because they lack imagination, vision, or know-how about how to do things differently, not because they don’t want to. When I offer them the option of acting collaboratively without losing in effectiveness and results, many take the offer with relief. Therein lies my hope.

Please note: “If you want to talk with me, about this blog and beyond, you can always join my ongoing weekly class that brings together people who are committed to implementing these ideas in their lives.”


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