Moving beyond partisanship!
“As an Australian social scientist was told by a Temne tribesman in Sierra Leone:“When Temne people choose a thing, we must all agree with the decision — that is what we call cooperation.” This is, of course, what we [modern citizens] call conformity. The reason for the crushing conformity required of the pre-industrial man, the reason the Temne tribesman has to “go along” with his fellows, is precisely that he has nowhere else to go. His society is monolithic, not yet broken into a liberating multiplicity of components. It is what sociologists call “undifferentiated”. . . . . With this context [of rapid value change], however, a second powerful trend is unfolding. For the fragmentation of societies brings with it a diversification of values. We are witnessing the crack-up of consensus.”
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
These Toffler quotes suggest two interesting features of humanity. First, consensus is part of human nature. Without this nature, aboriginal societies could never have survived to become modern societies. Second, as our societies become more complex, we lose more of our ability to attain that consensus.
As our instincts yearn for a more consensual decision-making, we increasingly hear this word bandied about in our contemporary society: “consultation.” This word is frequently used by politicians, political pundits, and leaders of corporations and public institutions. They make it sound so easy — as if they only have to say “consultation” to bring it into practice.
Yet most citizens, the subordinate to the more powerful people, do not think they are living in a consultative world. Instead they readily identify themselves with the hapless office worker of the Dilbert cartoon strip, where Dilbert earns his pay by being continually hindered, subverted, and disabled by managers, co-workers, silly bureaucratic policies, and empty platitudes. Dilbert, like many other citizens, accepts that his job epitomizes life in general and makes little effort to change his environment, either by being a more positive influence on the people around him or by leaving his job for a better one because all jobs are just like his current job.
So why are we even bothering with “consultation” when we think we live in a Dilbert-like society and when Mr. Toffler’s quote suggests that a modern society is unlikely to attain consensus? Why not just admit that those in power can make the decisions — good or bad — and those of us not in powerful positions are there only to carry out orders or live with the consequences? To many of us, the word “consultation” is only another empty platitude espoused by the powerful to make us feel included.
The next part of this chapter describes three decision-making models that I have conjectured — power, democratic, and consultative.
The Power Model
I have called the first model of decision-making the power model. In this model, one person has — by means of position, election, or expertise — acquired authority to make decisions. This “ruler” is not obligated to ask for or consider the opinions, ideas, or advice of his “subjects,” although a good ruler should listen to what others have to say.
When the ruler makes a decision, the subjects are expected to obey it — if not willingly, at least not challenge it. The subjects have no ownership even if they are impacted greatly by the ruler’s decision.
When a ruler’s decision is found to be a mistake, the ruler is exempt from any punishment. But if a subject makes a mistake in not following the orders, the subject can expect retribution from the ruler.
In the power model, usually only one solution to any problem is seriously offered and considered before the decision is made. Alternatives are often ignored, especially those from outside the power circles.
The Democratic Model
In contrast to the power model, the democratic model produces a few more alternatives. Leaders of each of these alternatives compete under a set of rules to have their alternative accepted by the group. They can use clever logic, hard facts, and persuasive argument to build support for their ideas. They improve the acceptance of their own ideas by degrading the ideas of their competitors. They use whatever advantage they can find within the formal rules of procedure and the informal rules of politics. They build support for their ideas by exchanging favors with other decision makers.
In the democratic model, both the leaders and the subjects have the opportunity to speak freely for or against the opinions or ideas offered, but there is no obligation for anyone to listen. In theory, any opinion or idea can be offered for discussion in the democratic model, but usually there are formal and informal processes that determine the few individuals who get attention for their ideas and opinions. These people form power circles within the democratic model, and those outside are prevented from adding new perspectives. These “watchers” feel their only power is to vote for or against the proposal or the people who represent the proposal, or failing that, amass themselves into some kind of protest to change the minds of the powerful.
Leaders in the democratic model sometimes do “consult” with the watchers, but often this consultation is only to gauge how well the leaders have communicated their ideas, whether the ideas should be abandoned to maintain whatever level of power the leaders currently hold, or to embarrass an opponent. Hunter/gatherer societies would find these reasons for consultation very primitive.
When a bad decision is found to have been made in the democratic model, the first response of the original decision-makers is first not to disclose it to the citizens, hoping that the mistake never becomes known. The mistake is left to fester and later cause other problems. If the mistake is disclosed, the decision-maker tends to downplay the mistake or blame other forces. On the other hand, the decision-maker’s opponents are more interested in embarrassing the decision-maker than trying to fix the mistake.
The democratic decision-making model is an improvement over the power model, but can we do better?
The Consultative Model
With the power model offering us one solution and the democratic model offering two or three possible solutions, an appropriate conjecture for the reader to make is that the consultative model will offer us more than three possible solutions. So how does consultation get us to that state? To explain the consultative model briefly, I would say that consultation is the act of combining the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of decision-making participants into one mindset and voice. To many readers, this statement may sound either too irrational or too utopian to be of any practical value. Throughout the rest of this chapter, I will talk more about consultation, so I ask my readers for some patience at this point.
This power-democratic-consultative paradigm I am constructing is based on my analysis of various decision-making bodies I have been involved with over the years. Some of these institutions and relationships were very creative, inspirational, effective and a pleasure to be associated with. Others were moderately effective, not that enjoyable, and only a sense of duty kept me involved. A few were almost dysfunctional, with me and my fellow members agreeing never to associate with each other again. This paradigm helped me figure out why some groups worked well and others didn’t.
The Mountain Climbers
Let’s consider a hypothetical set of twin boys who have an instinct and ambition to climb mountains. As babies, they are very limited by their physical capacities, but when they learn to walk, they look for large obstacles to climb and conquer: furniture, railings, fences, etc. They take much more risk than most toddlers would, and the parents have above-average supervision duties. Even though the desire of these twins is great, the skills are not.
But the parents cannot be with the twins at all times. As they grow older, they wait their chance when they are not supervised to attempt new challenges. Most times they are successful, sometimes not. They receive a few injuries in these early years. They like reading about mountain climbers and their techniques. By the time they are eight years old, they have safely scaled the side of their house and many trees in their backyard.
The parents realize that they will never be able to still their twins’ desire, so the parents enroll the boys in a program for young mountain climbers. Guided by more mature climbers, the boys are given challenges that safely satisfy their drive yet give them the training for bigger challenges. By the time the twins are 15, they are climbing with mentors on some easy climbs in the mountains.
When one of our mountain climbers reaches 20, he gains that sense of being invincible common to many youth. He feels that he has the skills and experience to climb mountains by himself and to take on more risky challenges. He feels he no longer needs the advice of others to guide him.
But his twin takes a different approach. Before he sets out on his climbs, he continues to consult with veteran mountain climbers. Sometimes he takes their advice; sometimes not; sometimes his consultations find even better ways of climbing the mountain.
Which of these twins is more likely to survive this dangerous sport and be able to give advice to younger climbers when he is 40 years old?
Let’s Make a Picture!
I would like to describe a consultative exercise in consultation workshops I used to give. I had cut up a fairly busy magazine photograph into six to eight pieces. I then gave a piece to each member of the group and demanded that they not show their piece to the other members. Then each member described the piece they held, and the group collectively tried to put the picture back together with these verbal descriptions, a lot of questioning and clarifying, and making a simplistic drawing of the photograph.
One of my favorite pictures for this exercise was of a protest of European farmers. In the center of the picture is a pile of smashed boxes of tomatoes, and one corner of this pile has a small fire. Around the pile are a few protest signs lying on the ground, and around the signs are general street scenes such as parked cars, a bus, and people looking at the fire. I cut the picture such that each component of the picture was in two or more pieces of the puzzle. One puzzle piece had most of a particular component of the picture, and no piece had all the components.
In a “power” organization, one person in this group would be the powerful person, and the others would be his subjects. If the “king” was holding the puzzle piece with the small fire, he would pronounce that the entire picture was composed of a fire of some kind. The subject who is holding the other piece with a bit of the fire could see some logic in this decree, but the rest would be entirely dumbfounded because there is absolutely no fire in their pieces. In their minds, the king is an idiot. But because he is the king, they would not to say anything contrary.
In a “democratic” organization, the two most strong-willed people in the group would compete against each other. One such person would be holding the piece with the fire and would argue that the entire picture consisted of a fire. The second strong-willed person, holding the piece with the bus, would claim the picture was of buses. The “watcher” with the piece showing a bit of the fire would support the strong-willed campaigner for the fire idea. The watcher holding the second part of the bus would vote for the bus idea. The other watchers would not see much logic in either position but would vote on “fire” or on “bus” based on the speeches given by the strong-willed campaigners. Regardless of the extra viewpoint offered, the democratic model would be just as unlikely to reconstruct the picture as the power model.
But I never had a power or democratic group do this exercise. In all cases, the participants instinctually recognized that they could not reconstruct their picture if all participants were not fully included in the process. Each individual quickly moved into a consultative style of decision-making simply because there was no other way to solve this puzzle.
Greenhorns in the Arctic
I read a very interesting study of consultative decision-making. The study had college students select items from a list of those items most necessary for a long winter trek across the Arctic tundra. All items had a cost factor, and the students could not select items that put the project above cost. The “right answer” was a list created by people who had experience in Arctic conditions, and the students’ answers were compared to these experts’ answers to see how well the students had done.
In the first round, each student created his or her list individually. Not surprisingly, no student came close to the experts; after all, what does an average college student know about surviving in the Arctic?
However, when the students were put into groups of two, and later four, their collective decisions became closer to the experts. Despite not having actual experience in the Arctic, the students not only created a synergy for idea generation, but with the interaction they were able to use their supposedly rather limited knowledge, experience, and wisdom to almost become experts.
On the original list was an inflatable life raft, and the experts selected this item without hesitation. As individuals and in groups of two, none of the students selected the raft, and instead purchased other items on the list. But when some groups reached four in size, they realized that an explorer carrying all this weight in a backpack would increase the chance of breaking through the snow, thus making travel difficult. Instead the students planned to buy the raft, load it with their supplies, and pull it behind them. The raft distributed the weight better, and breaking through the snow was less likely. But only until the student groups reached a certain size did they come to this realization.
Identifying the Problem
Each participant in a consultative body has acquired knowledge, experience, and wisdom that no other members have. Therefore it should not be surprising that each participant will see the same problem from different perspectives. The diagram below shows these various perspectives of a hypothetical consultative group facing one problem.
The freeform object in the center represents the problem to be solved. The boxes around the problem are the participants in the problem-solving process. Because each participant has acquired different knowledge, experience, and wisdom, each sees the problem from a different angle. Similar to the participants who reconstruct the fire-and-bus picture in my consultation exercise, the participants in this diagram must engage in consultation to see the entire problem. One or two viewpoints will not be enough.
However, five or six viewpoints may see enough of the problem to correctly extrapolate its shape. For example, the group may only need the perspective of either Participant #4, #5, or #6 to correctly describe the “bottom” of the diagram. However, the problem has two “warts” which are represented by the black dots. If the warts are not made known to the group at large, the group will never create a good solution. If participants #2 or #3 are not included in the process, the wart to the right will not be seen. If participant #8 is left out, the wart to the left will not be seen.
Let’s assume that Participant #8 is not an assertive person. She sits quietly during the meeting not realizing that she has some important information. Without seeing the wart on the left, the group is not aware of the entire problem. If the group is using the power or democratic model of decision-making, it will not make the effort to gain #8’s information, and it will then make a bad decision.
However, if the group has good consultation skills, the other participants will ensure that Participant #8 does speak her mind. They will recognize that she has knowledge, experience, and wisdom that no else has — even if she thinks her viewpoint is not that important. When #8 does tell the group about the wart, the group will avoid a bad decision without important knowledge.
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This excerpt is about one-third of Chapter 4 in my book. If you want to get further insights insights in consultation, including a guideline to determine whether you or your organizations are in a power, democratic, or consultative mindset, click here.