Notes from Windward: #65

Dynamic Consensus

wherein silence plus time constitutes consent

     Passenger cars and small planes are two ways to travel from place to place, and while driving a car and flying a plane are similar in many ways, they're also quite different in other ways; for example, while someone driving a car can crash and hope to walk away, crashing a light plane is usually a terminal experience. As a result, people flying planes tend to be more focused on details than people driving cars.

     One reason is that the experience of driving a car is interruptible. If you have a flat, or hear some really strange noise coming from under the hood, you can pull over to the side of the road, get out and see what's the matter. That doesn't work in a plane - you can't pull over to the side of the sky and check things out.

     A good example of the difference can be seen in the crash of Eastern Flight 401 into the Florida Everglades in 1972. The pilots were preparing for a night landing at Miami but when they lowered the landing gear, one of the indicator lights failed to signal that the gear was down and locked. Lacking that green light, Flight 401 canceled the approach, and headed out over the Everglades while they studied the problem.

     The pilots recycled the gear, discussed whether the bulb might be bad, etc., as the plane slowly descended into the everglades. By the time the ground proximity radar sounded, it was too late and 91 people died in the crash because two highly experienced professionals forgot that their primary job was to fly the plane, not mess with the bulb.

     We try diligently to insure that making Windward work is like a walk in the park with friends - a gentle progress with time for pleasant conversation and an opportunity to enjoy the view as we move along. At other times, it's more like driving a delivery truck as we work earnestly to insure that things that need doing get done on time - for example,when we butcher an animal or score a load of ground-fall peaches, it's "all hands" until the food is processed and secure.

     And in some ways, operating Windward is similar to flying a plane in that making a self-reliant intentional community function effectively is an on-going process that waits for no one. Every day has demands and needs that have to be met that day if we're going to be able to deal with the challenges that are coming our way tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that. Any failure to do what needs to be done today just makes it that much less likely that tomorrow's needs will be met, and an accumulation of unmet needs is one of the key reasons that communities fail.

     It's a truism of command that all important decisions are made on the basis of insufficient information. When all the data is in and when all the vectors have been plotted then there's no need to actually make a decision because the correct response will be self-evident. However in practice real life is nothing like that, and operational decisions have to be made in real time based on educated guesses guided by already developed principles of action.

     Windward has a genuine commitment to the consensus process, but there's also a pragmatic realization that many decisions have to be made in real time, and that most often a failure to decide plays out as a decision to fail.

     If we have the time, we can talk a big, complex problem down into smaller chunks that can be easily managed, but time is an irreplaceable resource - we can't afford to squander it. There are some issues of such fundamental importance that time spent in considering (and reconsidering) the matter is both prudent and productive, but other things just need to be resolved so that we can move on to the next challenge.

     To the extent that a given situation affords us the luxury of expanding the range of input informing the decision making process, it's important that we take full advantage of that luxury. But people and organizations (especially voluntary organizations) have a limited ability to invest time and attention into solving community problems - since none of us are paid administrators, we have to insure that we focus our resources on what counts the most.

     The question of "what counts" would be answered differently by each person, and that diversity is something which we need to encourage in order to insure that we cover all the bases, but the only way we're going to know when someone has a concern is if they speak up in a timely manner.

     Windward is managed by a Board of Directors, each of whom has been selected by a portion of the membership to represent them in the decision making process. If a member has a problem with an aspect of something that the Board's doing, then under the representative consensus process they have a specific person to discuss their concerns with.

     And, if their representative doesn't address their concerns to their satisfaction then that member has the right to withdraw their support from that Director and give it to someone else, thereby potentially restructuring the Board itself. It's this ability of the members to "recall at will" which insures a highly responsive form of representation.

     However, if they choose to remain silent, or fail to give the matter serious consideration, then it's not acceptable for them to fail to support The Plan after it's adopted by the Board. It's not acceptable for them later on to say something along the lines of "You can't expect me to support a program that I didn't agree to."

     In order to move things along, we have to adopt the principle that if a person is made aware of The Plan, or has had a fair opportunity to make themselves aware of The Plan, and they choose to remain silent, then for organizational purposes, they've agreed to The Plan.

     Passive-aggressive behavior isn't acceptable within the context of dynamic consensus because it quickly leads to hard feelings as those who are trying their best to find solutions to community problems come to feel that they've been let down and undermined. If folks care, then they need to speak up - and if they don't, then they need to support the efforts of those charged with finding solutions to community problems.

     Some people come to intentional community because so far they've either not being able to find someone whose leadership they were willing to follow or because they've not been able to get people to follow their lead. Being unable to either lead or follow, such folks often harbor resentment towards both those who are trying to lead and those who are willing to follow.

     That seems to be a problem to some degree for most people who seek out intentional community. Since it appears to be a "given," it therefore becomes our challenge to find some way to deal with it on an organizational level. We do that by setting up a minimum level of participation, expecting substantial compliance with that minimum, and then keeping our organizational nose out of people's personal business.

     Sadly, there are people who are unwilling to meet even a minimum level threshold, and such people are not candidates for intentional community - if they don't intend to commit themselves to the task of helping to build community, then their presence is only going to frustrate and undermine the efforts of those who really do want to build community.

     Building community is an on-going, unfolding adventure. We're continually working to improve our community on all levels, in part because we know we can do better, and in part because in many ways the process is more important than the product.

     Still, no matter how ideal The Plan is, the product is going to fall short of perfection, but that's all right. We do, we learn, and then we do again, finding success in the progressive evolvement towards a sustainable system. In sustainable enterprises, it's got to be the going, not the getting there, that's good. [1]

     If a new person has a serious concern about how we're undertaking to do something, then we want to hear about why they're concerned and what they propose as a better way to accomplish the objective. But if we don't hear from them, then we presume that they don't have a problem and we expect their support.

     Windward is not the perfect community. The folks who make it up are not perfect communitarians. What we are is an organization which has figured out how to survive and prosper where so many others have failed. Therefore, the fair presumption should be that we know what we're doing, and that when a new person feels that some long-standing policy is unreasonable, their first question should be"Self, what do these people know that I don't?" rather than "How can I get these people to do things my way?"

     That isn't to say that Windward can't be improved - it certainly can - but only that the first step toward consensus involves learning what we're doing and why. Once one is on the same page as the rest of the crew, their input is far more likely to be constructive.

"Gettin' off this dirty bus, first time I've understood;
 Got to be the going, not the getting there that's good.
     from Greyhound by Harry Chapin

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 65