Re: Agenda/Provisional Consensus (long)
From: Becky Weaver (
Date: Wed, 14 Jul 2004 10:48:27 -0700 (PDT)
Hi Jane,

Here is what Central Austin Cohousing (still in site search) does. We have
been meeting for about 4 years, have 8 equity households, and have used
consensus since we started.

> Agenda:
> How closely do you follow the agenda?  Are decisions made about topics
> that
> were not on the agenda?

We start our meetings with 5 minutes for agenda review. Any items that
need to be added, for example urgent issues that came up after the agenda
was distributed, can be added to the agenda at this time. We then approve
the agenda by consensus.

Thus, we don't make decisions about topics that aren't on the agenda, but
we give people an opportunity convince everybody that we should add
something to the agenda.

We have had things get added to the agenda, discussed, and no final
decision made "because so-and-so isn't here and she will probably want to
be involved in this decision." We have several members who've informally
taken on the role of advocate for people not present at a meeting. If the
group gets into the habit of working this way, you will build trust that
can later help you if a decision *genuinely* does have to be made without
full input.

It has happened once or twice that part-way into an agenda item, we have
realized that the decision we need to make is not the one on the agenda.
This is a job for a strong facilitator; to identify what's going on, bring
it to the group's attention, get permission to change the topic
mid-stream, and reach some conclusion in the allotted time. Usually the
most that can be done in the time constraints of a meeting is make the
realization that we need a new topic/proposal, gather input on the issue,
and assign it to a committee for further work.

> Is any type of advanced notification required for decisions?  What about
> 'urgent' matters that come up?

Our general meeting agendas must go out 4 days in advance of the meeting.
We make exceptions for urgent matters. We have a multi-tiered system for
urgent decisions:

At the most urgent, we have an emergency decision-making team, set up in
advance, of 3 members; usually the chairs of the Finance, Planning, and
Legal committees. If an emergency comes up, anybody can contact any of
these 3 members. To qualify as an emergency, the team considers,

- Does the decision need to be made immediately?
- How much will it cost not to make an immediate decision?
- Is there time to call an emergency meeting?
- Is there time to contact members (especially equity members) by phone?

They discuss the situation with as many of the other emergency
decision-makers as they can reach in the available time (and anybody else
they think appropriate to bring in to the discussion), and make a
decision. This decision & reasons for the decision are documented,
reported upon, and discussed at the next general meeting. The group has
consented to abide by decisions made by the emergency decision-making team
if they were made according to the policy.

For slightly less urgent matters, we get "phone consensus." The relevant
committee membeers call all the equity members, or sometimes all equity &
active associate members. Depending on how important/controversial the
issue is, we either hold a decison until we get input from everybody, or
go ahead with input from most people. These types of decisions are
minuted/reported on via our e-mail list. Because we've worked together for
quite some time now, we often have a pretty good idea of who will
definitely want to be involved in a particular decision, and who is likely
to be OK with the committee's recommendation. We make extra effort to get
in touch with a person who's likely to have concerns.

We can also hold an emergency meeting. I am not sure what the rules are
for holding one, but they require some sort of advance notice.

Then there are decisions that need to be made at the next general meeting.
In those cases, we set aside plenty of time for the decision in the
meeting, assign someone to initiate an e-mail discussion prior to the
meeting, and use committee time in the week prior to the meeting for
further discussion. This has worked better the longer we've been in
existence. Our members have more background knowledge, deeper reserves of
trust, and a better sense of perspective. We've found that hardly any
decision is as earth-shaking as it feels the first time we make it.

I have learned (the hard way, on more than one occasion) that HOW we make
a decision is actually more important than WHAT we decide. Bad decisions
can frequently be re-done or reconsidered. They can at least serve as a
vivid example of what not to do ever again. If we make a bad decision
together using true consensus, then we take the hits together and grow as
a community. If we make a good, reasonable decision in a squirrely manner,
the undermined trust means that ANY future decisions will be hard to make.

> Provisional Consensus
> Do you have any system for incoporating comments/concerns/input outside of
> the meeting?

The most important venue for incorporating comments, concerns, and input
outside of general meetings are committee meetings. We encourage people
with concerns to attend committee meetings. Sometimes a committee will
call someone from the meeting, if we realize we're stuck until we get
their input.

We have occasionally deferred a final decision to a committee, with
guidance & input from the general meeting. The full membership consents to
empower the committee to make the decision. This is useful when we are
missing a piece of information that will soon be forthcoming. Anybody can
attend any committee meeting.

We also use e-mail for discussions. It doesn't work for everybody but, in
conjunction with committee time and phone conversations, it is helpful.

For us, it's *extremely* rare for a momentous decision to be made all of a
sudden at a general meeting. We've had some emergency meetings, but there
is almost always time to collect input beforehand from those who can't
make the meeting. Even a day or two is usually plenty of time for most
people, and often we have 4 or 5 days between the issue coming up, and the
meeting where we make a decision.

>  Is there a way of consensing in the meeting but allowing
> input
> for a set amount of time for those not at the meeting?

You can always add this caveat to a decision where input from absent
members is a particular concern. This might be a good way to test out
different methods & see what works for your community.

We set aside 10 minutes in every meeting for a "State of Cohousing"
report. It contains a Decision Log of all decisions made in the last
general meeting, plus all committee decisions reported since the last
State of Cohousing. This acts as a "last call for concerns" after which a
decision is considered ratified. Practically speaking, we can't
necessarily go back and change what's already been done, but it allows
people who weren't at the last meeting to say "whoa, WHAT?" and be heard
before the decision is set in stone. Actually, I'm not sure anybody as
ever done this with a general-meeting decision (some committee decisions
have been revisited). But it provides a sense of confidence that decisions
aren't being made behind anybody's back.


Irrelevant to your question but integral to our consensus process - the
State of Cohousing emerged when we realized that people felt out of touch
with what committees were doing. So at every general meeting, we
distribute and review a document containing:

1) A list of the emergency decision-makers and how to contact them (this
reminds us to appoint a new decision-maker if one of them is going out of
town or otherwise will be hard to reach)

2) The Top 3 Issues, identified by the Planning Committee, that we are
focusing on. This ensures we ask the question "where are we going and how
are we getting there?" every two weeks, and helps newcomers get a basic
idea of what's going on.

3) The aforementioned Decision Log

4) A financial report from the Treasurer

5) An action items checklist. People can see their outstanding action
items and check off stuff they've done.

It's a boring, bureaucratic report that ensures that we are all on the
page, working from the same information, and going the same direction. It
puts everybody to sleep in the meeings, but if we let it slide, we miss it
very quickly.

Good luck!

Becky Weaver
Central Austin Cohousing

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