Chapter 44 of my book The Power of Participation explains how facilitators use participatory voting to provide public information about viewpoints in the room, and pave the way for further discussion. In particular, we often use participatory voting to assess consensus.
It’s often unclear whether a group has formed a consensus around a specific viewpoint or proposed action. Consensual participatory voting techniques can quickly show whether a group has reached or is close to consensus, or wants to continue discussion.
However, Roman voting isn’t great for large groups, because participants can’t easily see how others have voted. Card voting (ibid, Chapter 47) works quite well for large groups, but it requires:
procurement and distribution of card sets beforehand; and
training participants on how to use the cards.
A novel way to assess consensus with large groups
I recently came across a novel (to me) way to explore large group consensus. This simple technique requires no training or extra resources. In addition, it’s a fine example of semi-anonymous voting: group voting where it’s difficult to determine how individuals vote without observing them during the process. [Dot voting (ibid, Chapter 49), is another semi-anonymous voting method.]
So what can we learn about meeting room set design from Parliament? Here are a few observations.
Curved theatre seating dominates
One of the interesting findings is that the most common legislative room set is one rarely used at traditional meetings: the semicircle.
This of course echoes the pleas that Paul Radde & I have made for years for meeting planners to replace straight row theatre seating with curved row designs: pleas that, despite persuasive arguments, have largely fallen on deaf ears. Because every seat directly faces the focal point of the room, curved sets offer maximum comfort for each audience member. People don’t have to continually twist their bodies when they’re sitting for a long period.
Clearly, many architects of legislative chambers know something that most meeting planners don’t.
Room sets correlate with the level of democracy
Every room set imposes an architecture of assembly. Legislatures are meeting spaces that concentrate on sharing points of view, convincing others, making public political statements, negotiation, and compromise. Though all these objectives can be present for the non-political meetings and conferences that make up the majority of meeting industry work, let’s concentrate on the first activity: sharing points of view.
Parliament finds that classroom-style sets “…where members of parliament sit in regimented rows focused on a single speaker… [are] particularly common in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index.” Sadly, classroom sets are still, in my experience, the most common room sets used in meetings. If sharing points of view, participation, and engagement are desirable at a meeting, such sets should be avoided.
Conversely, circle seating is rarely used in parliaments or meetings. Only nine parliaments in the world meet in this setting.
Circle room sets are the most egalitarian architecture, though hierarchy can still be suggested or maintained if two or more concentric circles of chairs are used. I open the Conferences That Work meeting design with participants sitting in a single circle of chairs — a room set limited, in practice, to around sixty people.
Horseshoe sets can facilitate a fluid focus
Horseshoe sets are, at first glance, a mixture of the semicircle set above and another common parliamentary form: opposing benches.
Interestingly, I’ve found that horseshoe room sets with a single row of chairs, or multiple rows with plentiful aisles can provide an effective format for group discussions, with participants moving to and from a few “speaking” chairs at the mouth of the horseshoe.
Meeting professionals are fortunate — if we apply ourselves
Here’s how Max & David conclude their Washington Post article:
“[Architecture] can be one way to … experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges that we are facing today.”
Legislative chambers are massive formal structures that reflect the sociology, history, and politics of their culture. They are rarely rebuilt to reflect a change in the circumstances and outcomes they were originally designed to serve. Even so, the variety of forms displayed in Parliament shows us some of the rich possibilities available, even in heavily constrained circumstances.
Meeting professionals are more fortunate. We can usually change the room set to respond to the specific needs of a meeting. Yet too often, we limit ourselves to a small set of familiar forms we have experienced over and over again.
We can and should do better.
Room set and Landtag images reproduced from The Washington Post French National Assembly image by Richard Ying et Tangui Morlier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons House of Commons image attribution Flickr user uk_parliament Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka, Bangladesh by Rossi101 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Imagine a group of people who need to make a decision about something. As the size of the group increases, the chance that everyone will be happy with what is decided falls exponentially. Unless there’s unanimous agreement, the group will use — either explicitly or tacitly — some kind of rule that determines whether a specific decision is acceptable. Groups often use tacit rules when the consequences of the decision are minor. “Harry, you feel strongly we should do this but Kerrie & I don’t care either way, so let’s go with your approach.” Or when “consensus” is only a pretense. “Well, I think we should do this. Any objections? OK, it’s decided.”
So, you may wonder, if a group wants consensus, where consensus is defined by an explicit decision rule, then what decision rule should be used?
Danger, Will Robinson!
The moment we start trying to define consensus with a rule that tells us whether we have got it or not, we diverge from the core reason to seek consensus.
The value of consensus is in the process of seeking it — not a “yes, we have consensus!” outcome as defined by a decision rule.
There is no magic formula that will create the maximum likelihood that consensus, however we define it, will be obtained.
The best we can strive for is what Hans, Annemarie & Jennifer Bleiker, who have trained over 30,000 public-sector professionals over the last 40 years, call Informed Consent, which they define as follows:
Informed Consent is the grudging willingness of opponents to (grudgingly) “go along” with a course of action that they — actually — are opposed to.
The concept of consensus becomes dangerous when we use process that forces a fake “consensus” outcome on a group. An example of this is what is sometimes called 2-4-8 consensus, as quoted here:
2, 4, 8 consensus is an excellent tool for prioritising in large groups. This exercise will take time, but will help a group reach a decision that everyone can live with! It’s usually best to impose tight time limits at every stage of this discussion!
Draw up a list of proposals in the whole group.
Form pairs. Each pair discusses the list of possible proposals and is asked to agree their top 3 priorities (it could be any number, but for this example we’ll use 3).
Each pair then comes together with another, to form a group of 4. The 2 pairs compare their lists of top 3 priorities and, after discussion, agree on a joint top 3.
Each group of 4 comes together with another to form a group of 8. Again, each group takes its 2 lists of priorities and reduces it to one list of 3.
Repeat until the whole group has come back together and has a shared list of just 3 priorities.
Seeking consensus, however you define it, is difficult for large groups. Techniques like Roman voting can help us determine how close we are to informed consent, and can pinpoint who cannot go along with a proposed decision and why. The journey towards informed consent is what we should concentrate on if we are to reach a “consensus” that everyone can live with.
Look up “voting” on Google and the top search results are dominated by links about electoral voting. Making decisions (about elected leaders, opposing choices, and action plans, etc.) is the first function of voting that comes to mind for most people.
In a participatory meeting environment, however, voting is most useful as a way to obtain information early in the process. It provides a “straw poll” that provides public information about viewpoints in the room and paves the way for further discussion. I call such process participatory voting.
For most of us, “group voting” brings up the concept of voting as decision-making. But voting can be used to test learning, and to elicit and share information. To guide your choice of the participatory voting techniques I’ll cover in later posts, here are short descriptions of various ways to use voting in meeting sessions.
It’s often unclear whether a group has formed a consensus around a specific viewpoint or proposed action. Consensual participatory voting can quickly show whether a group has reached or is close to consensus, or wants to continue discussion. It can also pinpoint those who have significant objections to a majority position and give them the opportunity to clarify their reasons for opposition.
How people use voting techniques depends a lot on their presentation/facilitation/management style. If you are focusing on making a decision, voting is a tempting method to obtain an outcome. But if a vote is held prematurely, before adequate exploration of alternatives and associated discussion, the “decision” may have poor buy-in from those who voted in the minority or who feel they weren’t heard. People will rightly feel ambushed if they are asked to vote on a decision without adequate warning and opportunities for discussion.
Thus, if you plan to use voting for decision-making, explain up front the processes and time constraints you will be using prior to the vote. Unless the vote is purely advisory, give participants the chance to determine what they will be voting on, and how it will be framed. Such preparation lets people know their opportunities to shape discussion, and minimizes the likelihood that unexpected premature voting will cut off exploration of important creative or minority options.
Polling an audience is a time-tested technique, as old as teaching itself, for teachers to obtain feedback on student understanding. “Pop” quizzes, multiple-choice tests, and modern Audience Response Systems can be useful ways to test audience learning. But they have their limitations. As Jeff Hurt explains:
“[Audience Response Systems] are good for immediate feedback. They are good for ‘knowledge learning.’ Studies show they increase engagement and let someone know whether their answer is right or wrong. In short, they are good for surface knowledge. They however do not promote deep learning…which leads to higher level thinking skills such as estimation, judgement, application, assessment and evaluation of topics.” —Facebook comment by Jeff Hurt
The participatory learning philosophy I espouse concentrates on these deeper learning skills. From this perspective, traditional voting supplies limited information when used as a testing tool.
We know that small group discussion is key to effective learning during an event. But how do we set an initial context for discussion? Participatory voting techniques supply important information about the views, preferences, and experiences of participants, both as a group and as individuals. You can then use this information to set up appropriate discussions.
Perhaps the most important benefit of participatory voting techniques is their ability to elicit important information about the people, needs, and ideas in a group and make it available to the entire group. Although you can use some voting techniques to provide anonymous or semi-anonymous information, I believe that sharing information provided by group members to group members is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen connection, openness, and a sense of community in a group.
Allowing participants to discover those who agree or disagree with them or share their experience efficiently facilitates valuable connections between participants in ways unlikely to occur during traditional meetings. Giving group members opportunities to harness these techniques for their own discoveries about the group can further increase engagement in the group’s purpose.
Determining the flow of group conversation and action
Participatory voting techniques such as card voting provide large groups the real-time feedback required to productively steer a complex conversation to best meet the needs of the group.
Finally, we can use participatory voting to uncover group resources, interest, and commitment on specific action items from individual participants.
Some concluding observations about voting
If you’re using voting to test understanding of a concept or explore a group’s knowledge of a topic, include time for small group discussion before the vote. Pair share is a great technique for this. Provide enough time for each participant to think about their answer and then have them pair share their understanding. After the vote, you can facilitate a discussion with the entire group about the differences uncovered.
To avoid making premature decisions, use consensual voting to uncover significant alternative viewpoints. Test the depth of agreement before confirming that you have substantial agreement through decision-oriented voting.
Think about when and how you use voting. Voting on alternatives that have been inadequately explored or discussed is counterproductive.
Use public voting methods whenever appropriate—which is, in my experience, most of the time.
If people wish to “sit out” their vote when using participatory voting, support their right to do so. (Unless you are testing for consensus, in which case it’s reasonable to ask for their feedback.) Consider using anonymous voting if people seem reluctant to express an opinion.
Indaba is not a clearly defined format. The term has been appropriated and adapted (example) and I’ve been unable to find detailed descriptions of the original South African process. I suspect the form used at the Paris Talks does not define indaba, and may distort or omit significant features. Here are the key ingredients from the Paris talks:
Negotiators used Indaba as a logjam-breaking technique after traditional negotiating process ground to a halt.
Participants with decision-making authority worked in small groups that included members from countries with seemingly incompatible goals.
Small group members shared verbally and face-to-face their “red lines”. These were specific “hard limits” issues they were not willing to compromise on.
Participants who shared hard limits were concomitantly responsible for proposing solutions to other group members. This prevented the meeting from being merely a presentation of position statements.
The Durban climate change conference implemented a more open process where diplomats representing the main countries formed a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and talked directly to each other. John Vidal reported: “By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.”
The third and fourth covenants listed above distinguish indaba from other forms of group consensus and negotiation process: explicit sharing of what is not acceptable, coupled with commitment to propose and explore solutions for supposedly intractable differences.
Similar consensus processes
A couple of more recent formats are reinventions of Indaba principles.
One is concordance, developed by Will Schutz (here’s an introduction). Robert McNeilsummarizes as follows: “Everyone who has a stake is in. Anyone can veto. If you veto you have to explain why (openly and honestly). We explore the vetoes openly and do the work necessary for all to agree.”
Another is the “two circles” couples work technique for finding common ground popularized by John M. Gottman & Nan Silver in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, in which you draw two circles, one inside the other, using the inner circle to list aspects you can’t give in on and the outer circle for aspects you can compromise over.
[Know any others? Add them in the comments below!]
The overlooked importance of good group process
It’s remarkable that such an elementary consensus process proved to be key to creating a meeting agreement that will likely profoundly shape the future of our planet.
In addition, it’s incredible that such a powerful process is virtually unknown to most meeting designers, negotiators, and facilitators!
In conclusion, the outcome-changing application of indaba at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change demonstrates, there is an urgent need for all of us to become familiar with and use good group process when we meet to learn, connect, engage, and decide. The world will be a better place when we do.
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
Here’s part 2 of The Right (Way) To Vote series – posts on voting at events. Feel free to read Part 1, on hand and stand voting.
How should groups make decisions? Common answers to this question include “by voting” or “by discussion and then the boss gets to decide.” But what if we want a decision method that provides consensus, or as near consensus as we can get?
An individual making a decision may agonize over it. But when more than one person is involved, the decision-making process can turn into an argument. So groups need a way to test their agreement, discuss concerns, and arrive at a decision that all can support.
Forcing a yes/no vote about a proposal hides the degree of support for the resulting vote. Sometimes the level of enthusiasm for a decision is tepid, or a minority of those voting are adamantly opposed. Serious problems can surface later when it’s time for implementation.
A better approach is to publicly discover the degree of consensus about a proposal. If doubts or opposition are uncovered, addressing them is possible before a final decision is adopted.
The Romans indicated their will in the gladiator’s arena with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. A modern modification of Roman voting helps groups arrive at a decision.
Thumbs-up = “I support this proposal.”
Thumbs-sideways = “I’ll go along with the will of the group.”
Thumbs-down = “I do not support this proposal and wish to speak.”
If all thumbs are down, eliminate the option. On a mixed vote, listen to what the thumbs-down people have to say, and recheck agreement. Be cautious about choosing an option if the majority are thumbs-sideways: This option has only lukewarm support.
This technique generates consensus. Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean complete unanimity. Consensus means that everyone must be willing to support the idea, even if it’s not his personal first choice.
Sooner or later, you’ll have a situation where one person withholds support for any option. Manage this situation before it happens. At the start of the consensus process, set a time limit:
“We’ll work really hard to reach consensus until the end of this meeting. If we don’t have agreement by that time, we will turn the decision over to _________, or take a vote, or __________ (a technical expert, coach, manager) will decide.”
Most people don’t hold out to be obstinate; they are responding to a deeply held value or belief. Often the lone holdout will move on, but not at the cost of relinquishing an important belief. Respect the belief, use your fallback decision-making method, and move forward. However, when a group seldom reaches consensus, but instead relies on voting or deferring to authority, it’s a sign there are deeper issues at play.
Silence when someone asks, “Do we all agree?” does not signal consensus! Instead, try testing consensus using Roman voting. Do you test consensus on decisions made at your meetings?