Don’t like how decisions are made in your group?
Here are some basic everyday like decisions:
- You want to go out to eat as a family? How will you decide where to eat, when to leave, and whether we are still going even though one family member has other plans?
- You want to start a book club? How will you decide what book to read, how often to meet, who can join? Who should I tell if I found the cool new book? What if I can’t make Tuesdays?
- You live with a group of people. How will you decide how to pick a new housemate? What if one person chronically pays their rent late and it messes up the payment to the landlord?
Did you notice the questions are basically always the same?
- Who decides what?
- How do we decide?
- How does information flow? What do we do with the information we find? (For example, what if things don’t go according to plan? If someone messes up? And what if there is conflict?)
The fancy word for those questions is governance.
I know, I know. Governance doesn’t sound exciting but I think it is. After all, there are a lot of things that need change — and we’ll need a lot of people to make those changes collaboratively. Governance is a key piece of the infrastructure to go from a group to shared action. So if you care about collaboration and making change, governance is your best friend.
Governance is for everyone
Most people don’t have any awareness of what governance is. I was like that too! I mean, who graduates from high school thinking, wow, I want to become a governance consultant. It sounds like dusty board rooms. Like boring contracts. And I think we have to get over our aversion here. Governance is for everyone!
You might think, “but I don’t want things to be formal”. That’s so rigid and meh. But governance doesn’t have to be formal. We just need enough structure to support what we want to do, and in the way we want to do it.
Let me tell you a story.
In a self-managed, volunteer jazz choir, the director decided a lot. A lot was also decided as a group — but it wasn’t clear what was decided by the director, and what was decided by the group.
When there’s too little governance, the typical symptom is that there’s chronic tension. And that’s the case in this story as well.
The culture of the choir is wonderful — lots of friendships and friendly vibe. But there are unresolved tensions. For example, who decides what our repertoir is? And what if one person thinks a chosen song doesn’t fit our style?
Here is what happened last week:
We had a concert, and the solo mic hadn’t been turned on, or not loud enough. It wasn’t clear who should have turned it up before the solo, it wasn’t clear what our protocol is if that happens in front of an audience. Long story, but the bottom line is: our soloist sang (beautifully, what what I was able to hear) and the audience only heard her faintly.
Maybe we should write down our workflows and checklists for sound checks? Sometimes people seem to think “if there’s a workflow, it feels like work, and I don’t want that.” But here’s the thing: if we don’t have enough structure in place to prevent or deal with blips like solo mics, then our lack of governance doesn’t serve us. Wanting to keep things informal doesn’t make singing more fun. It just makes things chaotic and more frustrating.
Governance is not a chore. Governance is an opportunity.
Ok, so what do we need? Basic ingredients for governance
So what is a basic governance system? As mentioned, above, there are certain questions that absolutely need an answer.
- Who decides what?
Does the director decide everything? Or the group? Or who? Typically, some things are decided by sub-sets of people or individuals. Whatever it is, just be clear.
Write down to a table of domains (things that need to be decided) and determine the decision-makers (individuals or teams) for each domain.
- How do we decide?
If an individual decides, we assume they “just” do that. If a group decides, there are several options.
We can decide by voting, by requiring full or almost full consensus, or by consent. See a comparison of decision-making methods.
- What happens with information?
Information goes both ways: decision-makers to non-decision-makers, and vice versa. Being an input-giver is different from being a decision-maker. For example, a director might ask every member for input on the repertoire but then be empowered to make a final decision alone.
The flow of information has to be paid attention to separately and in a way that complements where decisions are made. Read about information flow in organizations.
Information doesn’t just flow — sometimes information makes us reconsider what we do. Another aspect of information: How do we evaluate the information so we can reflect, and adapt? If there’s conflict, how do we listen, reconnect and learn from it?
Each point on this list has to be addressed to make a full governance system. That also means that the following are not full governance systems:
- “The leadership team decides” or “The board decides”
Ok, but how do they decide? By voting? What if people don’t like their decisions? How do we hear about their decisions and what parameters they were based on?
- “We use an online voting platform| Robert’s Rules|consensus”
Ok, but who decides about what? Who decides what will be voted on? Who gets to hear about what? Who do I talk to if I don’t like a decision, or if a group isn’t doing what they’re supposed to do?
Governance is a cultural technology, just as important as how to read and write — different governance methods should be taught (and experienced) in school. After all, we use group decision-making just as often, through all ages, in every aspect of society. Let’s make use of the choices we have.
Check out sociocracy — a “pre-made but flexible governance system based on consent. There’s a free ebook on this resource page.
How do you introduce a governance system where there is no governance system? I wrote a book that walks you through the process of defining your governance system.
Have a look
Ted Rau is a trainer, consultant and co-founder of the non-profit movement support organization Sociocracy For All.
He grew up in Germany and studied linguistics, literature and history in Tübingen and worked in academia. In 2010, he moved to the USA and fulfilled a long-held wish to live in an intentional community. Since a career in Academia required more moving around than he was willing to do, he left Academia. Ted identifies as a transgender man, and he is a parent of 5 children. He lives with 70 neighbors in Massachusetts in an intentional community.