How to Start an Intentional Community - Day 2

David Oesper

Yana Ludwig presented an expanded version of her “How to Start an Intentional Community” training recently. Here is what I found most valuable from Day 2 of 3.

A Short Guide to Choosing a Decision-making System for Your Group

Yana Ludwig Training and Consulting mayana.ludwig@...

Decision-making is a primary element in determining your group culture, and can affect your ability to achieve your mission. Thus, it should be given careful consideration. Intentional Communities use many different kinds of decision-making models effectively: there is no one right answer.

The main ways of making decisions fall into 4 basic categories:

Sole leader deciding. Popular with more conservative or religious groups, this is a time-tested method that works well for some types of groups: those with very strong values alignment, buy-in to hierarchy as a useful tool, and high trust in the leader. With that trust, it gets high points for efficiency. Without it, it can create significant cognitive dissonance for people, leading to all kinds of problems.

Voting (simple or super-majority). The most familiar type of decision-making, it works best for groups with high turnover rates, low commitment to training, and a lack of interest in progressive cultural change work. It is easy to understand and often produces quick decisions. Super majorities can be anything from 2/3 to 90%. (Sometimes groups do what they call “consensus minus X number” but I consider this to be a misnomer.)

The biggest drawback to voting systems is a tendency to induce the formation of “camps” that become competing entities, and thus you get significant power struggles over time. This phenomenon comes from only needing to listen long enough to get enough votes to “win” at which point, the system allows for people advocating for a particular position to tune out and treat as unimportant others in the group.

Consensus. The most progressively, culturally radical of the choices. It requires significant commitment to training, largely because functional consensus is a departure from many cultural assumptions we are trained into in the US from a young age. Hard to do with lots of turnover, and needs a context of shared values. Some groups do a kind of spiritual consensus that can have a higher bar to it (a sense of deep resonance, for instance). Note: little known fact: you can consens to vote on some topics and in many cases, that's a best of both worlds scenario. This includes things like elections and aesthetic issues such as paint colors.

The biggest drawback with consensus (especially if it is not done well) is the encouragement of a kind of fetishization of each person's personal needs. Without clear group values and strong facilitation to keep the group focused on them, an individual's personal thing can start to run the conversation and actually derail the group from their mission. This also relates to the oft rumored “it takes forever”. Finally, good consensus is a terrific personal growth catalyst; bad consensus can actually stunt people's growth.

Community/Village Councils. This is a variation on voting or consensus from above—rather than the full group making decisions, a s/elected smaller group make them on behalf of the full group. Allows for a smaller group to get the training and full context of issues, and build rapport together for ease of decision-making, but is obviously a less inclusive choice. I strongly recommend having clear criteria for council members and a selection process that is not campaign-driven.

Note: All that said, I believe that if you get the culture right, nearly any system can work well. See The Cooperative Culture Handbook, due out late summer, for an articulation of what I mean.

Key Questions for Figuring Out Your Best Method

If there is really no right answer to this question, then it becomes a matter of the group discerning what is the best match for their culture, resources and general population. Two main types of questions are helpful here: ones related to cultural fit, and ones related to your learning process as a group.

Cultural Fit:

  1. How far outside the mainstream are your group intentions? If intent is a more comfortable version of cultural status quo, voting could be the easiest. If intent is more politically, ecologically or spiritually radical, consensus is a better match.

  2. How much are you wanting to develop cooperative culture and move away from competitive, individualistic culture? Voting reinforces competitive dynamics; consensus deliberately undoes them.

  3. What is your commitment to conflict resolution? Skills of conflict resolution and consensus are very similar.

  4. Is your group overall more rules and structure oriented or relationally and process oriented? Note: this question can be helpful for determining what type of processes you use within your overall decision-making method.

  5. Do you value more: efficiency or inclusion? A well-run voting system is one of the most efficient for getting decisions, though you may have implementation struggles if things are not as well considered prior to the vote. Instant Runoff Voting is a variation that can be even more efficient for things like elections. Consensus is fundamentally inclusive, but can be more slow to get decisions. This is one of the reasons why training is critical. May be more efficient in terms of implementation.

  6. Do you value more: personal growth or familiarity? Adopting consensus means a big commitment to personal and group growth, where voting systems are very familiar.

Learning curve:

  1. How much turnover do you have? Because consensus takes some training to do well, groups that have a high turnover rate often feel perpetually frustrated. (I'd define high as > 30% / year over time.) Voting on the other hand, requires very little training for most people to understand.

  2. What's your group commitment to training? Related to the above. Training in how to be more cooperative can be useful in any system outlined here, but is essential for consensus.

  3. How patient are you with people learning? Do you have or are you wanting to develop a mentoring culture? For people who are long-timers in a community, continually mentoring others can be either tedious and wearying, or part of a long term commitment to service to the wider world. The attitude they take can be critical to the success of any group process, but especially consensus.

  4. Do you have other communities near you, trainers locally available or a willingness to use online trainings and mentorship with people who are community-experienced, for the process? Regardless of the system you choose, a mentor is great.

  5. Do you have members already familiar with the process? Ditto the above. Member familiarity may be even more critical than outside local resources, so long as those members are trusted to be even handed and reasonably good teachers.

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