Making Decisions as a Group

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One of the most important communication issues a sharing group must decide is how you'll make decisions together. Your choice will depend on how large your group is and what types of decisions you'll need to make, as well as how you'd like your group to function. Here are some of the most common ways that groups make decisions.

Consensus Process

In the spirit of sharing and cooperation, many sharing groups adopt consensus decision making. The actual process of consensus decision making varies, but the ultimate goal is to arrive at decisions everyone can accept and support. Group members discuss a proposal and try to reach unanimous agreement. If everyone is not able to agree, the group discusses the suggestions and reservations of those who aren't on board, then adapts and modifies the proposal. Through this process, the proposal continues to evolve until it satisfies all group members. If even one member doesn't agree, consensus hasn't been reached.

Generally, consensus requires that members agree not to withhold their agreement (called "blocking consensus") without a very good reason—often, because the proposal violates their ethics, values, or beliefs in an important way. Consensus doesn't require enthusiasm from all group members. Some may be lukewarm about the proposal, but not feel strongly enough against it to actually block the group from moving forward.

Consensus process can be challenging. It works best in groups where there is mutual trust and a commitment to taking the time necessary to engage in the process. The benefits are enhanced trust and understanding and a greater likelihood that agreements reached will be implemented without problems, because everyone supports—and fully understands—what's been decided. Also, when more people take part in the decision-making process, it creates fertile ground for creative ideas and allows for more effective reality-testing for ideas that are presented. It's the old "two heads are better than one" theory, multiplied by the number of members in your group.

How Consensus Works

What does consensus actually look like? First, it usually involves meeting in person, at least for major decisions. Consensus on simple decisions between meetings can be achieved via email or conference call. Second, a consensus process almost always must be facilitated, which means one person leads the group in coming to a decision. The group might choose one facilitator for a period of time or rotate the task among group members so that everyone takes a turn running the meetings. Small groups sometimes use an informal process without a facilitator.

Here's a quick and general description of what the consensus process actually looks like. This flowchart is borrowed with gratitude from www.seedsforchange.org.uk, which has an "anti-copyright" policy.

Modified Consensus

There are some ways to modify consensus process, typically to require less than full agreement while still encouraging discussion and modification of the proposal. One is called "consensus minus one," in which one dissenting member is not enough to block consensus if the rest of the group agrees. Another is to allow decisions by a supermajority vote (80% is common) if consensus can't be reached.

Pros and Cons of Consensus

The benefits of consensus are many. It provides a great opportunity for full participation by all members of the group; the group gets the benefit of every member's best thinking; it's egalitarian and prevents the formation of voting blocs, cliques, or special interests; people are more likely to implement decisions that they truly agree to; and it's respectful of each member's contributions.

What are the disadvantages of consensus decision-making? It can be cumbersome and time-consuming, especially if the group has a lot of members. It requires a facilitator who is both strong and inclusive, skills that your group will have to cultivate in as many members as is practical. It's possible for a single naysayer to prevent the group from making important decisions. It can sometimes be difficult to bring the entire group together for meetings, which can delay decision making.

Majority Rule

The most basic definition of majority rule is selecting the one option out of two that has the support of more than half of the group. Often, the two options are to either accept or reject a proposal, such as whether to serve only organic food in a mealsharing group or whether to purchase a new sofa in a group house. It's simple because it requires nothing but a vote, although your sharing group is likely to want to engage in some discussion before voting.

The term "majority" doesn't always mean just one more than half. Your group can decide that decisions must have the approval of two-thirds of the members or an even higher percentage. You may decide that certain types of decisions require unanimity. (For example: "Decisions of the following nature may be made only by unanimous consent of the members: (1) borrowing money in the group's name, (2) writing a check or making a purchase for more than $1,000, (3) admitting a new member, or (4) expelling an existing member.")

In contrast to consensus, majority voting creates a group of "winners" and a group of "losers," and those who lose the vote may find it hard to support the proposal they didn't favor. On the other hand, voting is generally efficient and always results in a decision being made, which is not always true of a consensus process.

A majority is different from a plurality, which is the group that has the most votes, whether or not it's more than half of the group. A plurality vote is often used to make a decision among more than two options. The option that gets the most votes wins.

Want more information on majority rule voting? For resources to help you craft a majority rule decision-making process for your group, look for books on decision making, majority rule, or parliamentary procedure. Many groups adopt a traditional meeting and decision-making process known as Robert's Rules of Order, which are set out in various books on the topic, available at any bookstore. (You can get anything from the original Robert's Rules of Order by Henry M. Robert, to Robert's Rules for Dummies.)

Weighted Voting

Weighted voting systems are somewhat more nuanced than majority rule, although in some instances they work pretty much the same. In a weighted voting system, certain votes count for more than others, either because certain voters have more power than others (at least, in making particular decisions) or because voters can weight their votes to support a particular proposal more strongly.

Weighting Votes Differently

One method of weighted voting allows some voters to have more of a say than other voters. For example, you might have a sharing group with 15 members, including a leadership committee of three people. In voting on a proposal, you might give each of the leadership committee members three votes, and everyone else one vote. If the leadership committee votes as a block, the rest of the members will have to oppose that option overwhelmingly if they want to defeat it.

This type of weighted voting might make sense if one group member owns the property you're sharing. For example, if you share your car with two neighbors but you are the original owner of the car and the one on the title, you might want the final say on decisions to make major repairs to the car. You could agree that each member will have an equal vote on most issues, but that you alone decide when major repairs are necessary.

Weighted Voting for Multiple Options

Another system of weighted voting works well if a group is choosing among multiple options (rather than voting yes or no on one proposal). Each member gets a certain number of votes to distribute among the various options. For example, let's say you and 11 friends have joined together to purchase a vacation home and you've decided to install a hot tub on the deck, but you need to decide which of three different models you're going to choose. Each person gets three votes to distribute among the three options. If you feel strongly about one option, you can give it all three of your votes; if you like two of them, you can split your votes between them; and if you don't care, you can give one vote to each option. Weighted voting shows clearly not only which option is the most popular, but also how strongly people feel about their choice.

Tips for Effective Meetings

Regardless of what decision-making process you choose, your sharing group will probably have meetings, either on a regular schedule or on an as-needed basis. Meetings are important for sharing groups: They create a time and structure for making decisions, talking about concerns and developments, and checking in with one another about how things are going. Even if your group is just you and your neighbor, you and a couple of co-workers, or any other small group of people you see regularly, you should still set aside time specifically for discussing how your sharing arrangement is working out.

Although meetings play an important role in keeping a sharing group functioning well, you may be hesitant to schedule them (or eager to cancel meetings already on the calendar). Perhaps a meeting seems too formal, or you're not sure you have anything to discuss. Maybe you've sat through too many dull meetings at work or for charitable or political causes, and you aren't eager to have more of them with your friends and neighbors. But meetings don't have to be stilted or boring: You can have productive, interesting, and yes, even fun meetings by following some of these guidelines.

Keep meetings as short as possible. These days, free time seems to be many folks' most valuable commodity, and few of us look forward to spending any of our free time in a meeting. One way to keep things short is to have a tight agenda and set a time limit for each agenda item. Also, it helps to reserve meetings for important deliberation or decisions only. Less important decisions can take place outside of meetings or by email. For example, if possible, don't put "Report on last week's gardening class" on the agenda if there is nothing that needs to be discussed or decided about that event; write up your notes and circulate them by email instead.

Do something fun at the start of each meeting. Meeting time is valuable, but you should spend a bit of it lightening up a little. Starting with a fun activity can break the ice, perk people up, get their attention, lighten the mood, and help people feel more connected. For ideas, see The Big Book of Meeting Games, by Marlene Caroselli (McGraw Hill).

Designate a meeting facilitator. The purpose of having a meeting facilitator is to ensure that the group moves through the agenda, to keep the discussion on track, to ensure that everyone's input is taken into account, and to guide the group to a vote when appropriate. (See "Tips for Facilitators," below.) Take turns facilitating the meetings, to give each member a turn at being the leader and guiding the group.

Keep track of time. If you're expecting to have a lot of people speaking and you want to make sure the meeting stays on track, have a timekeeper and allow only a certain amount of time for each speaker. Ask them not to repeat things others have said, but only to offer new thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

Designate someone other than the facilitator to take notes or write on a flip-chart. A facilitator juggles many tasks: calling on people, following the agenda, restating parts of the discussion, moderating votes, and most importantly, listening to what is being said and how. Taking notes might add one too many balls to juggle. Let a separate notetaker be responsible for writing on the flip-chart and figuring out how to spell "cooperatively." A notetaker can serve as an extra ear and help organize information, serving as an aid to the facilitator.

If a decision can be delegated, delegate it! If the group decides to hold a potluck on a certain date, it can appoint a person or committee to take care of the rest of the details. There is no point in wasting meeting time sorting out the details if people are happy to delegate.

Send out meeting notes ASAP. Meetings can build a lot of momentum in a group. Decisions are made and people commit to taking on certain tasks … which they may promptly forget as soon as they leave the room. To keep the group from losing momentum, have someone take notes on the discussions and decisions. When someone commits to doing something, underline and bold that person's name in the notes so they can easily see what they committed to. Send out those notes right away.

Serve a meal or snacks during the meeting. Often, the biggest challenge is getting people to fit a meeting into their busy schedule. But the promise of coffee, bagels, and fruit salad can improve attendance dramatically.

Arrange seats in a circle when practical. This allows everyone to make eye contact with each other and prevents a feeling of hierarchy in the meeting.

Want more information on being a facilitator? A great book on facilitation and decision making is The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Sam Kaner, et al (New Society Publishers).

Delegating Decisions

Most large organizations delegate decision making to boards of directors, committees, officers, or some other person or small group. Practically speaking, an organization with 40 members cannot easily gather for a consensus discussion or vote whenever an important decision must be made. For everyone's ease, the members of a large group generally elect a smaller group to whom they delegate decisions. This group can be on the less formal side, and might be called a steering committee, leadership circle, or whatever suits your group's fancy. If you have formed a nonprofit, your board of directors is the most likely choice to make decisions.

If your sharing group decides to have a smaller group or committee make decisions, here are some issues to decide:

  • How will that committee be elected?
  • How long will members serve?
  • How many members will there be?
  • What are the powers and duties of members?
  • What kinds of decisions will the committee make, and what decisions will be reserved for the membership?
  • How and when will the committee meet?
  • How can the committee keep members informed of meeting agendas and minutes?
  • How can members give input on decisions?
  • What if members do not agree with the committee's decisions?
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