Going Further, Together
By Davie Philip
Consensus, cooperation and community.
In this column, Davie Philip from Cultivate Living and Learning explores how we make the transition to a more sustainable way of life, one that is community based, ethical, healthy and resilient.
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb
Winter is the perfect time to reflect on what we want for the year ahead and get ourselves organised. What I’m looking at, is how we might organise ourselves with community-based initiatives, cooperatives or social enterprises, in a way that is inclusive and strengthens community.
What are effective models for working together that foster engagement, share responsibility and accountability, avoid top down control and most importantly, help us to get stuff done, together? And can we design our organisational structures to work in a way that would empower all members to participate in making the decisions, while at the same time nurturing closer relationships and building resilience?
Most of us know very little about how the organisations that influence our lives actually function, and we have few great examples of collaborative structuring. Yet it’s clear that the ways we tend to structure our organisations aren’t working. Top down command and control techniques might be effective in getting things done quickly, but they don’t nurture collaboration or build community. Could there be alternative approaches that are cooperative, give all participants the opportunity to engage using their interest and skills and are effective?
Ten years ago I was active in the Dublin Food Coop, where a few staff members and a crew of volunteers managed a weekly organic food market. We had a flat structure based on cooperative principles and reached decisions using consensus. However, meetings were long and there were lots of them.
Consensus decision-making comes from the Quaker tradition where equality and non-oppression are valued. It’s a powerful process used to generate widespread levels of participation and agreement. Consensus decision-making works best in groups that have a clear shared purpose and where members act with the good of the whole group in mind but, if badly facilitated, can be disempowering.
Our view of the world fundamentally changed in the 20th century with the emergence of complexity theory, whole systems thinking and cybernetics; which can be defined as the science of organisation. There is a growing interest in alternatives to traditional approaches, inspired by the understanding of how living systems work and with the realisation that communities and organisations are complex, adaptive systems.
A complex adaptive system is a dynamic network composed of simple components, cells, people or even different organisations, which has the ability to change and adapt to its environment and learn from the experience. The new insights gained from the fields mentioned above, can help us understand and design our organisations more like an ecosystem, focussing on the quality of the relationships between the parts as well as the parts themselves.
Peter Senge, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is credited with developing the idea of the learning organisation, based on his study of systems thinking and advocates decentralising organisations to enhance the capacity of everyone involved and working together towards common goals.
The Mondragon federation of cooperatives has created an ecology of interlinked businesses employing 53,000 people in the Basque region of Spain. This is an example of network governance, providing a web of stakeholder participation through hundreds of individual cooperatives that self-organise towards shared goals. A key principle in Mondragon’s way of working is that power and function must be distributed as widely as possible. No function should be performed by any part of the whole if it could be done by a more peripheral part, and no power should be vested in any greater part if it might be exercised by a lesser part.
The study of ecosystems and the way muscles, organs and the nervous system of the human organism interact, were the inspiration for the Viable Systems Model (VSM), which was developed by the English management cyberneticist, Stafford Beer.The VSM is used as a diagnostic tool to help social organisations improve their functioning. It has been useful in many contexts and the levels it’s been used at ranges from communities to cooperatives and even nation states.
Over the last five years the Cloughjordan Ecovillage has experimented with using this model to analyse and improve our organisational structures. Although it has to be said that this approach has been viewed by some as overly complicated. It is difficult to grasp some of the concepts, however, I believe it’s a powerful tool to help communities and organisations manage the complexity of the work they’re carrying out.
The first step when using the VSM is to ask, what are the operations that do the things that justify the existence of the system?
Once these are identified we can ask, are there effective ways of avoiding conflict between these operational activities?
The next step is to determine if there are effective ways of taking advantage of synergies between them. Are there ways of assessing and responding to changing external environments?
And finally, are all the operational activities working within a clear overall ethos?
Sociocracy, Dynamic Governance and Holocracy are names of other whole system approaches that, like the VSM, help us develop organisations. Many cooperatives, ecovillages and Transition groups are successfully using them to structure, govern, and run their initiatives more effectively.
In an environment that is constantly changing, our community-based initiatives need to be adaptive, flexible and resilient. Of course, there is no one right way to organise, but emerging approaches can help us understand and design systems that are truly collaborative and help us to go far, together.
Davie Philip is a facilitator and trainer who manages the Community Resilience programme at Cultivate Living and Learning. He is based at the Cloughjordan Ecovillage and is a board member of GIY Ireland. firstname.lastname@example.org