Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Consensus Fail

 Quakers, Occupy Wall Street, and Consensus

A few days ago I noticed that one of my favorite economics blogs " NakedCapitalism added an "I Support the Occupy Movement" banner. I blinked twice, reloaded the page, and checked to see if some misaligned advertisement or other glitch was responsible.

No, (sigh) and certainly confirmed after reading "Why the Consensus Process Has a Poor Track Record in Activist Movements".  Yves Smith posts an article by L. A. Kauffman from the Berkeley Journal of Sociology - The Theology of Consensus

Disclaimer: I attended U. C. Berkeley for 1 month in 1979, before transferring to a school run by "liberal" Jesuits, the University of San Francisco - one of my few great decisions of my youth. 

The Jesuits did a great job instilling my lifelong pursuit of learning, and the appreciation of different perspectives. I do not place NakedCapitalism outside of what I consider mainstream economic blogs, - it's on my Feedly "A" list. But the addition of the banner, and lack of any disclaimer in front of this article, has adjusted my understanding of their point of view.

That being said, the collision of the banner, the article, my previous blogs on Occupy Wall Street (OWS), along with the completion of a class "Converting Strategy into Action" from the Stanford SAPM program created context for this post. I will be pulling many quotes from the article - linked above - and will mark all in italics, my comments will be in bold. I have included links to many of my posts from the OWS period - it was a very productive time for my writing (ranting).

Consensus Fail

Kauffman provides historical context, and identifies the problem, but seems to stop short after recommending "apostasy" or renunciation of religious or political belief.  I would point out that the religious belief (revelation of God's Will) has been stripped from the activist playbook - Kauffman provides examples. So, are the activists to give up the political belief - which seems to be their more closely held "religious" tenant? 

Maybe there is another prescription.

My Two Cents

"A 1943 “Guide to Quaker Practice” explained, “The principle of corporate guidance, according to which the Spirit can inspire the group as a whole, is central. Since there is but one Truth, its Spirit, if followed will produce unity.” Consensus process will eventually yield a decision, in other words, because discussing, listening, and waiting will ultimately reveal God’s will. Patience will lead to Truth."

Linking Quaker leadership practices to the Occupy Wall Street movement is almost too hard for me to comprehend… but, there it is, and Kauffman provides examples to other activist movements. I was not a fan of OWS, in part because of their agenda, and a lot because of their execution. The blog posts linked below are from 2001, but provide a great summary of my position.

My Occupy Wall Street Blogs (Oct and Nov 2011)

Theory and Practice - Reality Gets in the Way

"In practice, the process [Consensus] often worked well in small-group settings, including within the affinity groups that often formed the building blocks for large actions. At the scale of a significant mobilization, though, the process was fraught with difficulty from the start. "

"A similar dynamic played out in Occupy Wall Street almost a quarter century later, where the general assembly proved ill-equipped to address the day-to-day needs of the encampment. Though On Conflict and Consensus assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism."

The irony, that some people would "devote limitless time" (read: limitless resources) to a movement that decried people with, well, limitless resources. In "theory"… resources are always limited, why would time be excluded? Irony #2 - those with the most resources tended to push their agenda on the OWS movement. Wow. Amazing.  

Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.

"Great decisions, great ideas, great innovation, always come from a mob." ~Ever, Noone

The prime appeal of consensus process for 40 years has been its promise to be more profoundly democratic than other methods. This promise has been repeated again and again like dogma. But let’s face it: the real-world evidence is shaky at best. Perhaps the reason why it has endured so long in activist circles despite its evident practical shortcomings has something to do with the theological character it carried over from Quaker religious practice, the way it addresses a deep desire for transcendent group unity and “higher truth.”
Profound democracy as dogma? Sorry, that really needs an edit. Socialism as dogma. Ah, much better. Image a perfect world where every single decision about every single thing was decided by every single person coming together to discuss, negotiate, come to consensus and move forward. What a perfect… disaster. So, we need a committee! People who are smart, empathetic, able to make decisions that everyone else will like… no, not like --- LOVE!
 Perfection does not sit well on a scale. 
If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.
Oh, so close… admitting a problem is the first step, but Kauffman doesn't go any further.

A New Prescription

Step 1 - Pile a group of activists into a Nissan Leaf (it will be a small, but environmentally friendly  group)

Step 2 - Drive the 50 miles from U. C. Berkeley to Stanford University (don’t forget bridge tolls for "the man")

Step 3 - Pony up the money for "Converting Strategy into Action", take the class, study the concepts, and adopt new practices

Step 4 - Create a business plan (you know, hierarchy, roles, responsibilities) using the Strategic Execution Framework

Step 5 - Use the Strategic Execution Map to align Customer wants with your project based work.  (You do know what your customer wants - right? You may be surprised if it is not exactly the same thing that you want.)

Step 6 - Make sure your leaders have talent, your followers share a common vision, and take your best shot. (No worries, the failure rate is brutal, good effort is sometimes the best reward)

Bottom Line - Bitter Pill

Consensus and "Pure Democracy" might work just fine in a group of Late Cycle (See Moore's Adoption Cycle), religiously aligned Quakers. The Quakers have the discipline to wait for for their answers to be revealed. Revealed in the religious sense.

Applying that same process to a group trying to "Change The World" has proved, well, not efficacious. Being wrong on execution for 40 years is no way to advance your agenda, and may even be alienating potential "customers". Discipline is rare because political alignment is a myth.

Apply business principles, a bit of entrepreneurial leadership, account for future organizational growth… and create customers by drawing them to an attractive product. 

Yes, I know, a bitter, bitter pill.