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How to Make Good Decisions

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Decisions Everybody Can Support

“What if we saw meetings - understood as gatherings to discuss issues of shared importance and to make collective decisions - as a basic human need, like food, sleep or sex? What if meetings were treated not as a boring obligation, but as essential for survival? What if meetings connected us to our psychic depths, to our local community, and to the great mystery?” – Bea Briggs

To build a healthy group or community, the questions of governance — “Who decides?” or “How will we decide?” — must be collectively answered. Making clear choices about the fundamental issues of power and process can transform a diverse group of people into a strong, stable, loving community. Not having a fair, participatory decision-making method early in a group will almost certainly generate conflict over power imbalances at some point.

Power imbalances can be greatly reduced by using a decision-making method that spreads power equally and offers checks and balances against power abuses. Consensus is the method many groups of equals and communities have chosen to make decision; but it doesn’t work in all cases and needs special training to be really effective. If consensus cannot be applied, it is a good thing to know what other options we have.


Government and Governance

We need to distinguish between “government” and “governance” (see Table below). Regarding governance we should consider not only who decides but, also, how we will decide - and this implies answering the following questions:

Are all decisions equal —in importance, scope, etc...?
Who should decide on what decisions?
Which decision-making method do we want to use for each type of decision?
How often do we want to meet? How long do we want our meetings to be?
Which are our common agreements for meetings?
How are we going to ensure a fair and participatory decision-making process?
How do we handle conflicts arising in the decision-making process?
How are decisions communicated to the whole group?

Is the governing body of a nation, organization or community. In large groups the government is elected among members. In small groups it may be the whole group.

Is the action or manner of governing. Governance involves the exercise of power to manage the affairs of a nation, organization or group.


Different Types of Decisions

When deciding on the most suitable decision-making method, it is important to consider that full participation is not required in every occasion. You cannot expect in a group all decisions to be made by the entire group. It would be an incredible waste of time! According to the type of decision, a group might prefer different systems with more or less people involved.

Traditionally, organizations count on three different types of decisions:
Strategic - relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them
Organizational - relating to the way different aspects and parts of a group are arranged with the aim of being more orderly and efficient
Operational - relating to the way a group or organization works on a daily basis

Most groups seek a maximum of participation and agreement for strategic decisions, while letting operational decisions be made in small groups or work teams.


Different Systems to Make Decisions

The following table shows different methods to make decisions. Each one can be appropriate in different cases. Even the autocratic model - where the decision is made by a single person - can be very useful in extreme situations of crisis. Every group should consider what the best option is for its particular case, according to its level of maturity and training. In many cases, groups use a combination of systems.

Autocratic (One person decides)
Pros: Very Fast, Good in crisis
Cons: Less likely to be the wisest decision

Consultative (Autocratic with advice from others)
Pros: Fast, More ideas and information
Cons:Takes more time, Less chance of acceptance and commitment by others

Minority (Experts, or those with vested interest)
Pros: Faster than whole group, Decision by “experts”
Cons: All points of view not necessarily heard, Not necessarily representative

Majority (Voting)
Pros: Can be used with any size group, Most people know this procedure
Cons: Win/lose mentality, Lack of commitment by losers, Issues become personalized

Consensus (Loyal minority agree to support majority)
Pros: All opinions aired, Promotes synthesis of ideas, Elicits more commitment
Cons: Takes more time, Requires mature members, Progress can be blocked by one person, Best in small groups... difficult in large groups, Can end up operating on lowest common denominator

Unanimity (Everyone totally agrees)
Pros: Most comfortable
Cons: Almost impossible to achieve with more than 2 people


When You Don’t Want to Use Full Consensus

* This section is based on Diana L. Christian's book "Creating a Life Together"

If full consensus turns out to be difficult to implement in your group, here you have other options you can use, while keeping the same spirit of inclusiveness and transparency.

Super-majority Voting
As in consensus, people try to build agreement for a proposal and modify the proposal as needed, but they vote for or against it. Depending on what the group has decided in advance, the required majority can be anywhere from 55 to, say, 95 percent. Typical numbers are 2/3 or 3/4 majority.

Voting Fallback
The group attempts to come to consensus once, or twice, and if they don’t reach consensus, they fall back to a percentage of voting the group has previously decided on.

Consensus Minus One
In consensus-minus-one, a proposal still passes even if someone blocks it. It takes two to block the proposal for it not to pass.

The Sunset Clause
In consensus, once a decision is made, it requires a consensus of the whole to change it. With a sunset clause, the group agrees on a proposal for a certain period of time, at which time the decision is automatically discontinued and the situation reverts to what it was before. The decision can be continued only by a consensus of the whole.


A Summary of Consensus

“Consensus goes beyond majority rule. It replaces traditional styles of top-down leadership with a model of shared power and responsibility. A group, which uses consensus process effectively, can become a healthy community and a powerful force for social change.” - Bea Briggs

Note: All this part is based on Bea Briggs's book: Introduction to Consensus see also:

Consensus is a decision-making process which strives for non-violent resolution of conflicts and the cooperative development of decisions that everyone can support.

Core belief: each person has an important piece of the truth

In order for consensus process to work, five essential elements must be in place:
A willingness to share power
Informed commitment to the consensus process
A common purpose
Strong agendas
Effective facilitation

1. Willingness to Share Power
Participants in a consensus group must be willing to give up hierarchical roles and privileges and to function as equals. The contributions of experts, professionals and elders are, of course, welcome, but they must not be allowed to silence the voices of other members of the group.

2. Informed Commitment to the Consensus Process
Because consensus is radically different from the way most of us have been conditioned to function, the process needs to be carefully explained, and the fundamental principles reviewed from time to time. The more people in the group who understand the process, the better it will work.

3. Common Purpose
Without an overarching purpose to unify and focus its efforts, a group will spin its wheels endlessly, trapped in confusion, frustration and ego battles.

4. Strong Agendas
The lack of an agenda, an agenda controlled exclusively by one or two «leaders,» and poorly prepared agendas all undermine the consensus process. They waste people’s time, erode their trust and diminish a group’s effectiveness.

5. Effective Facilitation
A facilitator is a guide, not a participant in the discussion. He or she must be assiduously neutral about the topics being discussed and fair in the treatment of all the members in the group, showing no favouritism.
A facilitator does not give answers, but rather continuously asks questions intended to equalize participation ("Are we hearing from everyone?"), elicit wisdom ("Are there any other ideas?"), and clarify the group’s situation ("Are we ready to move on?")


Three Stages in the Decision-Making Process

In consensus process, no votes are taken. Ideas or proposals are introduced, discussed, and revised as necessary, before reaching the point of decision. No significant issue may be introduced, discussed and decided in one meeting. If consensus is not reached, no action is taken. The intention is to non-violently resolve all concerns and conflicts surrounding a proposal so that everyone can support the decision.

1. Introduction: I propose... (to be done in a short time, weighing up the group interest, and giving up if there is no interest)
2. Discussion: I listen, ask, think about, feel, give my opinion, research, etc. (as much time as needed, perhaps in different meetings)
3. Decision: three options:
a) To block: I oppose the decision, because...
It is against my ethical principles
It is against group values and vision
It affects group security
b) To stand aside: I don’t oppose, but don’t support either. I don’t take part in what follows.
c) To give consent: There may be small details I don’t like. However, I support the decision and its implications.

Important!!! A group working with consensus shouldn’t accept any block for personal reasons. It is the work of the person blocking to explain why he or she is blocking and it is the work of the whole group to determine the validity of a given blocking. A person who needs to block continuously in a group should think seriously why he or she is in this group.

The Final Question: Before taking a decision, the facilitator will ask: Is there any concerns, objections to this proposal? If there is no answer, there is consensus!

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