Know what “agreement” means

Informal polling

Probably the most powerful mechanism to create a sense of fairness and equity in decision making is to pre-agree on decision rules before actual deliberations. Rules allow a group to absorb conflict, acknowledge disagreement, and be accountable. While organizations point to their by-laws to define procedures, these words on paper usually do not reflect actual organizational behavior.

In fact, many organizations operate within a culture in which the value of consensus has come to mean that votes must essentially always be unanimous. And since many types of meaningful organizational activity are by definition controversial, organizations come to have little capacity to manage dissent. The by-product is hidden conflict and disagreement, and costly, extended decision processes that seek to create uniform happiness.

Rule: With respect to the final negotiated motions, working propositions, or recommendations that are put in front of participants, the group agrees to a friendly poll to test this language at the end of the allotted time.

Rule: Furthermore, before the beginning of deliberations, the group agrees to consider this final language using two criteria:

  • Reasonableness
  • Willingness to take items to the next level of implementation and action

Used in conjunction, these two criteria allow participants to feel less risk as they work to move their organizations forward. Groups must build the capacity to clearly know when an action is being taken. This requires that:
A) the recommendation be operationally specific and
B) that everyone knows what “agreement to move forward looks like”.
Some specific form of voting is therefore required.

Rule: before beginning discussions, agree on a voting method. Example: Friendly hand vote by counting fingers:

  • Five: I love it.
  • Four: Pretty good.
  • Three: I can live with it and let us move on.
  • Two: I need to keep talking.
  • One: No Way.

Rule: Agree on what a “passing” vote is. For example: A two-thirds vote of three or more implies “agreement to move forward to the next steps”. Whether two-thirds, or a simple majority, or any other percentage – what is important is that the group pre-agrees on a method of simple legislative action.

Note: Some retreats are not designed for formal action. The significant actions voted upon informally during the day may well need more formal action at a later board meeting. Alternatively, many retreats end with the calling of a five minute special board meeting.

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