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!).

9 Responses to “How Do We Define Good Governance”

  1. You write about good decisions by managers in a consensus situation: “if given a review by the membership, no-one would block that decision from moving forward.”

    I’d amend that to say, “ultimately no one would block”. Part of the point of the managerial system is to save group process time. Sometimes it can take many hours of meetings to come to a mutual conclusion that initially some members would have blocked. If you empower the manager to make those decisions straightaway, some people will certainly feel they would have blocked given the chance.

  2. My friend Laird posted a long response to this blog entry at:

    He says:

    “I’d define good (or effective) management pretty much the same way whether the group is using consensus, voting, ouija boards, or do-whatever-Ralph-says. ”

    While I agree, I think the interesting question is in the edge effects. The middle management might be the same, but I think the relation of CEO to shareholder is very different from Executive Director to members which is different from that of president to voting public.

    At DR I’m most curious about how to deal with that relationship – between top level managers and the group, or alternately how the group can function as a good manager.

  3. I was so inspired that I responded by writing, not just one, but TWO blog posts in response:

  4. Tony and Laird – what about feedback loops? Along with lack of defined outcomes, comes lack of positive feedback for achieving goals. Even if great things are done, there’s not necessarilly a sense that the goal was reached or even exceeded because it was never set.

    Furthermore, even when goals are set, I wonder how well the community does at providing recognition and positive feedback for the accomplishment. It’s usually an important re-enforcer for continuing to set goals and achieve them. Simple, but often over overlooked.

  5. Jim, you crack me up. One of the confusing things about this facebook interface, is that it doesn't show who the author of these blog posts are. Many are from me, but others (like this one) aren't. Sorry for any confusion…. Anyway – hope you're well.

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

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