The architecture of assembly

“Architecture sets the stage for our lives; it creates the world we inhabit and shapes how we relate to one another. In a time in which democracy is under increasing pressure in different parts of the world, it is time to rethink the architecture of assembly.”
Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world — and tell you how each governs, The Washington Post, March 4, 2017

How do room sets imply and influence what happens at meetings? Can room sets affect the quality of democracy, sharing, and equality experienced by participants?

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When consensus is dangerous

consensus-animateImagine 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.

—from Consensus in Large Groups

There is nothing wrong with using a decision process like this to pick top priorities in a group. But picking a group’s top priorities is not the same as reaching consensus.

You can’t please everyone
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.

Participatory voting at events: Part 1—Introduction

Choice- Red pill, blue pill

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, rather than simply a means to make a decision, voting is most useful as a way to obtain information early in the process; a “straw poll” that provides public information about viewpoints in the room and paves the way for further discussion—a process I call participatory voting.

Ways to use participatory voting

Perhaps surprisingly, voting is not a simple, well-defined process. The International Society on Multiple Criteria Decision Making lists more than four thousand articles on decision theory in its bibliography. Voting, it turns out, can be a complex and subtle business.

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.

Determining consensus
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.

Making decisions
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.

Testing learning
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.

Setting context
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. This information can then be used to set up appropriate discussions.

Eliciting information
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 some voting techniques can be used 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.

Planning action
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 and 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.

[This post is adapted from a (longer) chapter on participatory voting in The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.]

Read more about participatory voting at events in Part 2 and Part 3!

Red pill blue pill image modified by yours truly, attribution W.carter under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

The simple consensus process that saved international climate change conferences


A powerful yet little-known South African consensus process—indaba—has now been used twice to rescue foundering talks at international climate change conferences. Introduced at the 2011 Durban talks, the recently-concluded 2015 Paris talks also invoked indaba (pronounced “in-dar-bah”) to reduce “900 bracketed points of contention in the draft text to about 300 before the last session“—making it possible for the first time for all 195 countries present to agree to reduce carbon emissions.

Indaba has been used at Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi tribal gatherings for two centuries or more.

“A message was therefore conveyed..to the King, inviting Umtassa to come in to an indaba at Umtali.”
The Pall Mall Gazette, London, December 26, 1894 (earliest documented written use)

What is indaba?
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 that the form used by the Paris Climate Conference negotiators does not define indaba, and may distort or omit significant features. Here are the key ingredients from the Paris talks:

  • Indaba was used 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”, i.e. 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, preventing 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
Indaba principles have been reinvented and/or rediscovered in a couple of parallel formats that I’m aware of.

One is concordance, developed by Will Schutz (here’s an introduction). Robert McNeil summarizes 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.

Perhaps what is most incredible is that such a powerful process is virtually unknown to most meeting designers, negotiators, and facilitators!

As 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.

Image “COP21 participants – 30 Nov 2015 (23430273715)” courtesy of Presidencia de la República Mexicana

Testing consensus using Roman voting

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. Groups need a way to test their agreement, discuss concerns, and arrive at a decision that all can support.

When people are forced to make a yes/no vote about a proposal, the degree of support for the resulting vote is hidden. If 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 at the time the proposal is made. If doubts or opposition are uncovered, then they can be addressed before a final decision is adopted.

My favorite solution for gauging the strength of consensus is Roman voting, as described by Esther Derby in Self-facilitation Skills for Teams by Esther Derby:

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! Do you test consensus on decisions made at your meetings?

Photo attribution: Flickr user vegaseddie