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 www.yanaludwig.net 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.