Meeting Processes and Decision Making

Meetings are perhaps the most direct experience and expression of an organization’s structure and culture. Who’s there? Who’s not there? What is discussed? What’s not discussed? How do people interact? Who, if anyone, is facilitating? How long is it? How are decisions implemented and ideas integrated? The answers to these questions may have a lot to say about how an organization is structured.

At the Sustainable Economies Law Center, our meeting processes have been significantly informed by Holacracy and sociocracy, so our meetings have at least two distinct features: consent decision-making, and the use of rounds or circles. Here’s what a typical meeting at SELC might look like:   

Arranged in a circle (often with a couple bars of chocolate in the middle of the table), we begin our weekly staff meeting with a personal check-in: each person takes a turn sharing one high and one low from their past week, the rest of staff listening actively as each person shares. Every staff meeting starts in this way, creating a culture of openness and inviting in what is so often and easily marginalized in the workplace - the complexity of each person’s life and experience. As a regular practice, these check-ins form a small yet significant component of a larger organizational commitment to integrating work and personal life, rather than ignoring the personal or even trying to “balance” the two as separate and exclusive domains of experience.

The rest of the meeting is arranged around proposals (requests to enable someone or a group of people to take specific actions they don't currently have authority to take) and “triage” items (requests for feedback, brainstorming, coordination, information sharing, and other discussions that don’t require the formal decision-making process). Similar to the check-in process, decision-making follows a clearly structured process designed to give every staff person a voice.    

Selecting the first proposal, the facilitator invites the proposer to begin with a clear statement of the proposal, any relevant background information on why the proposal is being brought, and who would be responsible for implementing it. Then, going around the circle, each staff member has an opportunity to ask clarifying questions about the proposal to gather more information or clarify anything that was unclear. Once all clarifying questions are answered (going around the circle as many times as necessary), we move to the reaction round: each staff member has a chance to provide feedback on the proposal, knowing that the proposer is listening intently to the feedback and considering amendments to the proposal.

Once the proposer restates or amends the proposal, everyone has an opportunity to object. The right to object is balanced by a high level of discretion given to the proposer to incorporate feedback and a very high threshold for objection. For an objection to be valid, an objector must feel that the proposal is going to significantly harm the organization or take us backward in our mission. With such a high threshold, the bias is clearly toward decisions being passed. This works because everyone knows that any decision can be reviewed, amended, or replaced at any time in the future. Nothing is permanent, so there is less pressure for a proposal to be ‘perfect.’ And because every staff person can provide significant feedback during the proposal process, someone bringing a proposal can integrate new ideas and quickly sense whether there is likely to be resistance to or significant disagreement about her proposal.

This approach is sometimes known as consent decision-making. Unlike consensus decision-making, where the goal is to reach a point where everyone agrees to a decision, consent decision-making allows things to move forward absent any significant objections. In both theory and our experience of practice, this leads to many more decisions moving forward and a strong culture of gathering input from co-workers both before and after a proposal is brought. For more significant changes, we often pass provisional policies that allow us to try something for a specified amount of time and then reflect on the actual experience of trying it.

At first glance, it may seem odd or even anti-democratic, to allow decision to move forward in this way. But context matters. In an organization with a high level of trust and many other structures in place that give people the ability to raise concerns and propose alternatives, we’ve found that this creates a highly dynamic and creative atmosphere where people are encouraged to try things, learn from actual experience, and adapt as needed.

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