Monthly archive: February 2010

by Jacob Corvidae

Yet another response to Tony’s post on How to Define Good Governance.

I loved your reference to the Genuine Progress Indicator as an alternative to the GDP.  Here are three other tidbits on the topic:

1) Researchers are now working on measuring happiness. The pursuit of happiness is a defining statement in the US’s Declaration of Independence and therefore makes a very patriotic and foundational measure for the success of our endeavors.

2) Hans Rosling, a brilliant statistician who’s seminars are really entertaining (how many entertaining statisticians have you ever seen?) does some great work looking at analyzing global data about quality of life. You can see his latest TED talk (done in India) to see his latest, but I highly recommend starting with this incredible TED talk from 2007:

3) Here’s an incredible quote about the insufficiency of the GDP. See if you can guess the speaker (I’ll post the answer in the comments):

[The] Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts … nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts … television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

by Jacob Corvidae

This is in response to Tony’s post on How Do We Define Good Governance.

Two questions leap out to me here:
1) how to delegate well; and
2) how to define good outcomes.

1) How to Delegate Well

As I’m putting together my current team of green analysts at WARM, I dug up a common business concept (which I first learned from you, Tony) of defining levels of delegation. My paraphrase of it looks like this:

Level 1 – The Report:
Look into the matter, gather information and options, and report back.

Level 2 – The Recommendation:
Look into the matters, gather information and options, identify possibly actions with pros and cons and recommend one of them.

Level 3 – The Action Plan:
Decide the best course of action and make a plan to implement it. Then get the plan approved before starting.

Level 4 – Make the Decision:
Decide and take action, but report on progress and the plan along the way.

Level 5 – Full Delegation:
Go do it and report back only if something unexpected happens.

Several ideas are used around these levels of delegation. The first is that they simply help clarify to everyone involved what’s expected.  That’s an important first step in avoiding future problems. Other business folks use it as a progressive path for empowerment. In other words, you should never start with delegating at levels 3, 4 or 5 for a new person or committee or when someone’s taking on a significantly new role. Rather, each level builds on the other, and a good manager has to check the skill level and match it with expectations before moving on to the next.


2) How to define good outcomes

Here’s the first conundrum: defining the outcome is insufficient for defining a good outcome. By this, I mean that in order to define a good outcome that will work for any given organization, one should really define both the measurable outcomes required and any necessary process expectations for how to achieve that outcome. Both tasks present real challenges.

Defining measurable outcomes for sustainability measures is often challenging, because the scope tends to be very daunting in both breadth and depth. Obviously the smaller the task, the easier this gets. And increasingly, as more standards are set for many smaller tasks, then it gets easier to define larger standards that simply build upon those smaller standards. And of course, some standards are designed better than others.  Still, it’s amazing to me how often projects don’t define measurable outcomes – for shortterm or longterm goals.

Even if you don’t define an outcome, you have to define metrics – what are you measuring? If you’re not measuring anything then you have no way to know if you’re making progress! The business world has it easy here. They have a default measurable of profit.  What are the metrics of your nonprofit? Your community group? Your church? Our nation? This issue of measurement is big enough, that I’ve actually created a category on this blog for it, as I realize that we already have a number of posts related to it.

After that, we must face the issue of defining the process. Obviously, this is often not done, at which point people operate on default assumptions. Some of them are basic and straightforward and usually (though not always) safe assumptions (e.g. we won’t do anything illegal). Even then, it’s sometimes a good idea to clearly define those assumptions (Hello, Bernie Maddof).

In many cases, different people are operating with very different process assumptions.  And that’s fine! That diversity of approaches can be a great asset! Furthermore, you don’t want to get bogged down in bureaucratic processes, wasting time or confining the process too much. It’s important to filter out for the essential process definitions that you need.

Specifically, it’s important to define those processes that are central to the vision and mission of the organization. They both define the character of the work, but also recognizing central ways to ensure that the means are synchronized with the ends.

For example, let’s consider a service learning project that puts college students to work tutoring low-income high schoolers. The program might identify a process concern that the college students should be taking leadership roles in carrying out the project.  While the measurable outcomes might be accomplished regardless of student leadership, building that leadership component might not happen if the process parameters aren’t identified.

So, measurable outcomes must be defined, but key process parameters should also be defined. Combine that with levels of delegation to build up a mutual sense of trust, authority and responsibility among the various partners. While this doesn’t guarantee that it all works, it builds in useful mechanisms so that the feedback loop is functional and everyone’s talking the same language. Outside of those mechanisms, it’s time for a lot of letting go.

by Tony Sirna

At Dancing Rabbit we have been using consensus to make decisions since our inception. In consensus, decisions must be agreed to by all members of the group, with any member being able to block a decision. In practice, we now delegate a lot of decisions to committees and managers, such that the group is only called upon to make larger policy decisions.

We are at a stage where we are considering moving away from consensus to some other form of decision making. Discussions are in the preliminary stages, but one of the desires for a new system is to allow for better delegation and more streamlined management (at least some people express this desire).

It’s gotten me thinking about delegation and management and what it means to make good decisions on behalf of the group. I’ve started to realize that their are deep questions embedded here that touch on what it means to have good governance in almost any system.

How then do we define a good decision, or good management?

In a consensus organization, I would propose that a manager makes a good decision when she or he makes a decision that is essentially in line with what the group would have made if it had used its full consensus process. Another way to say this is that, if given a review by the membership, no-one would block that decision from moving forward.

Making such decisions is not always easy. It involves not just having good judgment on the topic at hand but also a strong sense of the group’s values and how to weigh them when making a decision. In a group that is functioning well, and with a manager who engenders trust from the group, the group will generally give them the benefit of the doubt as it takes a lot of effort and spending of social capital to object to a manager’s decision. So the manager does not need to be perfect, just make sure their decisions are within the threshold of the groups tolerance and/or passivity.

In a hierarchical system, I suppose that a manager is trying to make the decisions their boss would make if they were making them, or at least getting close enough to that target to avoid a decision being overturned by a boss or some other form of reprimand. Managers with people under them also have to “manage down” meaning that they must consider how their decisions will affect their staff. Hopefully, these two interested parties are not in dissent or you can be in trouble. But in such a case the manager would usually side with their boss as the bottom line and the staff can take it or leave it. (At least that’s how I remember hierarchies working – its been awhile :-) )

For those at the top of the hierarchy, its gets a little more confusing. For a CEO, a good decision is probably defined as one that will maximize the (long-term?) profitability of their company (though might, in fact, be tailored to maximize their bonus). For a non-profit, you might say the goal is to maximize the achievement of the organization’s goals.

But what of the mayor of a town or the president of a country or any representative in a democratic system. How do we measure their success or the quality of their decisions?

One could say that, it is again more like consensus, in that the goal is to make the decisions that the people would have made themselves, if it were practical to make decisions that way. Some might argue that this isn’t true – that a leader is sometimes expected to make better decisions than the people would make themselves. My gut says this is true, but what then defines “better”?

I suppose one could say that if there were an accepted measure of the prosperity of a city, nation, etc. then decision-makers could work to optimize for that metric. This could take the form of something like the Genuine Progress Indicator but its hard for any such metric to take all factors into account.

One could argue that in a functioning democracy a leader will know if they are making good decisions (or at least good enough) if they can get re-elected. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that most democratic systems of any large scale are functioning so well as to make sure that leaders are evaluated by the quality of their governance and not by their ability to raise funds, campaign, etc.

Going back to Dancing Rabbit, what guidance should we give to committees and managers whom we delegate power to? How should their decisions be evaluated? When should they be overturned? How much leeway do you give someone to diverge from what the group would decide?

In some ways, it puts the membership in the position of trying to be good at “managing down”. If the group wants to best achieve its goals there is a balance between finding the optimal decision and making a decision efficiently. When managing down, it is often best to give people a fair bit of leeway to use their own judgment even if its not exactly what the “boss” would decide, because otherwise you will likely have some very unhappy staff muttering a lot about micro-managing. It is not that different when “the boss” is the whole group. They must give people enough guidance and autonomy to do their jobs in a way that they will help them feel satisfied, while still expecting decisions to be reasonably in line with group values.

But how do you tell when a manager should be given the leeway and when they are going rogue, or just doing a bad job? How do you know when to ask that decisions be run by “the boss” and when do you just let them decide? When do you overturn a decision? When do you fire someone? When is the boss (group) micro-managing or being a (collective) control-freak?

I will say that finding that proper balance seems like a tricky task for a large group to execute well using consensus. I look forward to the day when DR delegates that task to a small group (call it a Town Council if you will). I think if you then choose the Town Council to have decent management skills they can more easily make those tough calls. They will still have to answer to the whole group in some way, but then you have simplified the groups management task to whether the Town Council is doing its job well, not whether each manager or committee is doing their job well. Not trivial, but hopefully something that is actually doable (I was going to say manageable but I couldn’t stand the pun!).

by Tony Sirna

This started as a comment on Jacob’s Obama post but became so long I thought it deserved its own post.

I too have been noting the left’s frustration with Obama and I too feel some frustration but I imagine it is for different reasons.

First, some background. In the general election, I voted for Obama for a number of reasons:

1. I felt he was a better choice than McCain, by far — both in terms of policies and ability to govern.

2. He was not a Republican. Some may not see much difference between Democrats and Republicans but I feel like on a million little things it makes a big difference. Look at how differently the EPA is, or who gets appointed to the Supreme Court, or things like the Global Gag Rule. The stuff might seem minor but I actually think who fills the cabinet positions and makes executive orders makes a big difference.

3. I actually like Obama and think that he and I would agree on a lot of issues (not that he’ll be able to implement them as policy though).

4. He is an amazing orator and does a great job of inspiring people. I think these are positive traits in and of themselves but I’m also saying that I too got caught up a bit in his charisma and at times had high expectations.

In some ways though, a better question is why I voted for Obama over Hillary in the primaries. Aside  from the toss up question of which was more of a cultural step, electing a woman or an African American, my main reason for voting for Obama was that his style fit my values more.

Hillary was known for being polarizing, which is probably the media’s and the Republican’s fault more than hers, but its certainly a factor. She was also being portrayed as someone who would be “tough” and “fight” the Republicans. Some of this was probably the need for her to brand herself that way to overcome people’s gender biases but I do think she would have done things differently than Obama.

For me, it felt like Obama was actually coming from a place of seeking consensus, and not just the mainstream meaning of a majority of people generally agreeing on something. Instead, he actually seemed to be trying to incorporate differing viewpoints and finding common ground. He spoke of trying to transcend the partisan divide and get past the “Blue America / Red America” notion. Not that, I expected the government to reach consensus on many things, but I felt like someone was finally speaking to a value I hold dearly — cooperation rather than antagonism.

So, while I never had any high expectations of Obama ushering in an era of progressive bliss, I did have hopes that, just maybe, he could change the culture of Washington and actually create a sense of working together instead of fighting each other tooth and nail.

As part of this, I expected centrist policies, concessions, and compromises. I did not expect single payer health care, though I thought a public option was possible. I did not expect a sufficient carbon tax but was hopeful for cap and trade. I did not expect an end to all of our wars but was hopeful for some shifts, if nothing else in the belligerent face the US presented to the world.

So while I still feel frustrated that our culture is destroying the planet, fighting two wars, and may not even pass the pathetic health care bill that we have on the table, the truth is I never expected that much and so I am not that disappointed.

But where I feel most let down is in Obama’s failure to shift the partisan culture of Washington. My frustration of course is not just with Obama but with the Republicans in congress and their cries of “socialism” and “death panels”, who wanted more for Obama to lose than for the country to prosper. And Joe Lieberman who seemed like he just wanted revenge or attention or maybe more money from the Insurance Industry. And with the polarizing media that cares more about ratings and entertainment and thus resorts to yelling and escalating conflict. And with the people of America who watch that crap and soak it in and then spit it back out in blogs and emails and everyday conversation. With the Tea Party who won the day by shouting people down and getting angry rather than with any sort of persuasive content.

Ironically, one of the things that lessened the chance for cooperation was the Democrats getting their 60th vote in the Senate with a motley crew including Nelson, Lieberman, and any number of Senators right of center.  One, I think this gave the perception that things would now be easy for the Dems, when in fact, getting a unanimous vote of those Senators was like herding cats and then pulling their teeth. It also allowed the Democrats to abandon the notion of working with Republicans. And it gave Republican’s the ability to opt out of any real process of finding common ground and they could blame the Dems for whatever resulted. And it allowed Obama to sit back and let congress drag itself and Health Care Reform through the mud for months (why he let that I happen I have no idea).

So, was I deluded to think that Obama could somehow change the culture of Washington and of America into one where we dialog instead of shouting,  where we look for common goals and values rather than trying to undercut our opponents. Yes. It seems I most certainly was. Not because, Obama wasn’t our best bet, but maybe because that kind of change doesn’t come from the top or from the left or right, but from the ground up. Only once we are teaching our kids to resolve conflicts cooperatively will we see grown ups doing so. Until then I expect we’ll keep acting like children.

While we wait for our children to save us what can we do? Start by asking someone who disagrees with you, why they think what they think and really listen. Turn off Fox News, not just in your homes but in every waiting room and cafe. And I don’t mean just switch it to MSNBC, instead try talking to the person next to you about what they think. And don’t rely on Jon Stewart for all your news. Its still fine to watch comedy and satire, just don’t think that you get the whole picture from a half hour comedy show. Write a letter to your newspaper suggesting a compromise solution rather than just expressing your views.  Ask your congress people to listen to each other and govern well. Thank them when they make a tough choice, even if you didn’t agree with them.

So despite my delusions, am I glad I voted for Obama? Yes. I still think he is the best choice and is doing a better jobs than any of the alternatives would have.

Will I keep writing Obama and the congress and register my desire for progressive policies. Yes.

Will I campaign for the Democrats this year. Yes, because I’d rather have a Senator (Robin Carnahan vs Kit Bond) and Representative who at least voted how I would prefer some of the times instead of almost never.