Deciding how to Decide

I’m taking a guided program with The Hum called Patterns for Decentralised Organizations. It is taught by Nati and Rich, geniuses I’ve been following and crossing paths with for some time. I’ll be keeping notes and reflections as I go along on this tag.

When I approach a group I’d like to collaborate with, one of the first questions I ask is “how do you decide”. The answer gives me a good impression of where that group is at. Often the answer is confused and unclear. Most groups, I find, coast along with implicit decision-making processes until a challenging decision appears, so they are stuck having to decide how to decide with a contentious decision hanging over them. As you might expect it’s better for groups to figure this out before that happens.

Decisions are easy until they are hard

Most people, I suspect, are actually pretty good at making decisions in groups. Consider the last time you ordered a pizza, you probably used a consensus process. Listening to everyone’s desires and eliminating choices until you came to something everyone can tolerate. I really like the way that The Hum illustrates this sense of tolerance. When given a choice we can broadly group our feelings into three categories, preference, tolerance, and intolerable. I prefer 🌶 peppers, will tolerate 🍄 mushrooms, and will not tolerate 🍍 pineapple.

Imagine the 🌶 pepper in the middle, the 🍄 mushroom in the outer circle, and the 🍍 pineapple beyond the illustration.

There is a personal skill here in knowing what you really can tolerate and what you prefer. While considering this illustration I’m struck by the connection to consent culture. Determining one’s authentic yes or no is no easy process. It’s also dynamic. I used to hate tomatoes, now I love them. Over the years I’ve learned to really listen to my body and tune into my authentic preference. Knowing what I can tolerate is another challenge, where do I draw the line? How do I honor my needs while I avoid being a floor mat that will tolerate anything?

The Boundaries of Others

One part of the answer is other people. Seeing and understanding other people’s boundaries helps me sense into my own. I’ve found this mostly through physical intimacy. Learning what I want and being able to ask for it has been a real growth space for me. Watching partners who stop and consider my request then give an enthusiastic response has helped me to slow down and consider my own preferences.

Any decision between two people, from sex to pizza, is a game of alignment. We look for what we can tolerate and what we prefer!

This seems to be at the heart of all negotiation. This diagram invites two questions: what can we both tolerate? What do we both prefer? Consider what kinds of decisions ask each question. I notice that decisions around sex certainly seem to look for shared preference while economic decisions feel more about tolerance. What is the most you’ll pay and the least I’ll accept?

Trust must be a component in all of this. Even love. If I love you I will want to find a shared preference.

Zone of Tolerance and Preference

I see a space for power dynamics to enter here. When I was young I would constantly give preferential treatment to other’s preference. In other words I would make decisions from my zone of tolerance to attend to other’s preferences.

Always allowing decisions to be made from your zone of tolerance runs the risk of wearing you out and building resentment. So finding that sweet spot seems to be a good practice to maintain harmony.

As you can imang, as you bring more people into the picture the more challenging it becomes to find something everyone will prefer.

Methods

How do we come to decisions that everyone will prefer, or at least tolerate? There are a number of different methods. The Hum outlines Consensus, Consent, Advice, and Mandate in this handy guide (on the web here).

Each of these systems has its strengths and weaknesses. Consensus values every voice but can take a lot of time and produce results that are watered down. Mandate gives individuals or teams lots of power to make decisions but that runs the risk of losing touch with whole group intelligence. The Advice Process seems like a great way to provide people with lots of autonomy but also keep them tapped into group intelligence. I could see it becoming challenging to know who to talk to in a group, however.

Consent Decision Making is very interesting to me. There is a saying that comes from Sociocracy about Consent Decisions:

Good enough for now, safe enough to try.

I’ve seen Consensus get groups into trouble because everyone ends up sitting around imagining the worst possible outcomes which are then amended into the proposal until it’s bloated and full of restrictions. Consent gets around this by centering the idea of “good enough for now, safe enough to try”. Is this proposal good enough for now and safe enough to try? This limits the range of available objections. When an objection is raised it can be tested by asking if the objection demonstrates that it is not good enough or safe.

To further address concerns Sociocracy uses feedback loops in their proposals. A proposal will have questions and metrics to measure how the proposal is succeeding (or failing). Knowing that a proposal will go up for evaluation at a given date can ease worries.

Having feedback loops, sunsets, and other limits built into proposals probably helps ease many tensions before they become objections or blocks. How you make decisions along with what you consider for decisions are both important.

Decision Protocol

Groups will have many different kinds of decisions so it makes sense to have different protocols for making those decisions. A proposal to purchase a van and what kind of whiteboard to put in the office are wildly different kinds of decisions. It makes sense, then, to use different methods for making certain decisions.

The Hum has a method for figuring out what kinds of decisions a group makes and how to categorize them. They use a 2 axis graph of riskiness and permanence. How reversible is a decision? How risky is a decision? By mapping out the kinds of decisions a group makes they can see what sorts of tools they might need to make those decisions.

Once some broad decision types are found the method and who in the group is responsible for making those decisions can be established.

Space

One issue I’ve seen in decision making spaces is confused contexts. On a small scale this can look like a group talking with half the group thinking they are discussing (ideating, visioning, exploring) while the other half believes the group is deciding (coming to closure, narrowing towards a solution). Making sure the context of a discussion or meeting is explicit can help here.

Zooming out, entire meetings can have this same confusion. Have you ever witnessed a person derailing or hijacking a meeting? I’ve often seen this done because there is something to be said about the big picture or pent-up emotional interpersonal tension. If you only get together as a group for big picture decisions where does the care work or small picture, tactical, work happen? The Hum suggests holding separate space for these three themes:

  1. Human feelings, car labor
  2. Big picture, governance
  3. Small picture, tactics, short term, deliverables

If these spaces are held on a regular rhythm then there’s always a meeting to look forward to where relevant concerns can be addressed. If someone brings up a question about the group’s vision in a meeting about short term goals the concern can be recorded and await the next big picture meeting.

Conclusions

Decision making seems to stem from the individual. How do they actually feel about something? Can we as individuals clearly identify what we prefer and what we can and can not tolerate?

Consent is Where Our Tolerances Overlap

From there, groups can identify different methods of making decisions for different types of decisions. This helps people understand clearly where they can discretion to act. Having clear protocols can empower people to understand when they have authority to participate in decision making.

Finally, by having different space for different kinds of discussions we can make sure concerns and ideas don’t get lost and aren’t allowed to be raised within the wrong space.

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