Decision Making in a Fog

One of the challenges faced by forming groups is who makes decisions at the outset. When people first come together to explore whether or not it makes sense to form a group, there can be ambiguity about who has a voice in that.

Is it everyone in the room? Everyone who was invited to that first meeting (including those who couldn't make that first meeting)? Everyone identified as a stakeholder (including some who weren't even invited to that first meeting)? Only those in favor of moving forward? Those who show up to a second meeting after it has been announced ahead of time that the new group will form for x purpose on y date at z location? It can get confusing.

Because of the power and recognition associated with being a founder, some new groups are tempted to delay making decisions about purpose, values, and vision until the group has reached numbers that approximate the hoped for size of the group. While the impulse is understandable (you can only be a founder once; everyone who comes later is only a "joiner"), it's generally a mistake to delay these foundational decisions, if for no other reason than it's hard for people to know what they're joining if it's ill-defined. Who wants to join a fog?

While the dynamics outlined above can exist for any forming group, there are additional challenges for cooperative groups, where you can expect considerable sensitivity to the dynamics of power imbalances and how leadership roles are filled. In general, the dream of cooperative groups is that all members will have a say in how the group functions and what it does.

On a practical level however, it can get cumbersome waiting to hear from everyone before moving forward—especially as the numbers swell and it gets increasingly difficult to get everyone to a meeting. Thus, groups need to address the question of how they move forward on solid footing when members miss meetings. What is the balance of the rights of missing members with their responsibility to not hold the group up through their absence?

Healthy cooperative groups of a minimum size (say a dozen) will need to delegate in order to get their work done efficiently. This requires establishing clear mandates (whereby the subgroup is authorized to act on behalf of the whole), and it will require that the group define the qualities wanted in people filling leadership roles. Further, there will need to be decisions made about how leadership roles will be filled.

With respect to power (by which I mean the ability to get others to do something or agree to something) it will be a huge help if the group takes the time to develop a picture of how power can be distributed among the membership in a healthy way. (Hint #1: If your model is that it will be distributed evenly then you don't understand how it works; power is almost always distributed unevenly, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's a problem if there's awareness of the distribution and the ability to talk openly and in depth about how that's playing out—after all, power can be used wisely.). If there is the perception that power is being used inappropriately, how will the group discuss it? (Hint #2: This can be a tough nut.)

Even if you accept my recommendations of essential things to put into place early on, there is still nuance about how early on. It is unlikely, for example, that you'll tackle these key process questions at your first meeting, yet you may need to establish who will call the second meeting and who will draft the agenda for it. Even these simple next-step questions move you in the direction of filling leadership roles and determining who has more power than others. On the one hand it's hard to generate enthusiasm about discussing process concerns at the first meetings (when the focus is more properly on trying to build up a bonfire of excitement about all the good things your group is going to do in the world). On the other hand, failure to do so early enough can inadvertently push you down the road of a poor start with respect to leadership and power dynamics.

People who are experienced in cooperative dynamics (and the traps that leaders can fall into) can be leery of taking on too much of a leadership role too soon, yet their failure to do so can put the group at risk of losing precious momentum. Even when a forming group desperately needs clear leadership, anyone stepping into that void is at risk of being suspected of immature ego management (because of how much people carry around with them the lesson that prior leaders tend to misuse their power). Yuck!

One of the reasons that forming groups tend to be overly cautious about making decisions that will define the group is the catch-22 dynamic of needing sound leadership in order to make sound decisions yet being nervous about determining the early leadership for fear of backing the wrong horse in the absence of appropriate checks and balances. Thus, the group can be hesitant about making decisions without clear leadership, and at the same time hesitant about designating leaders without a clear decision-making process. Gridlock.

When forming groups are sloppy about asking members to fill leadership roles (not being clear about what authority leaders have to operate on the group's behalf and when they need to consult) then everyone suffers. Good intentions are not enough. You have to spell it out if you want to dispel the fog.

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