Re: looking for alternatives to long email conversations
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Mon, 2 Mar 2020 13:16:27 -0800 (PST)
After 30+ years of trying to manage technology for people who need to 
communicate with each other for courses or team work or designing a building 
and everything else, my conclusion is:

These are problems that are characteristic of all forms of communications. All 
of them.

> - Some members are overwhelmed at the volume

> - Conversations can provoke polarization via perhaps-unintentionally 
> inflammatory statements, which aren't smoothed over as readily as with 
> in-person conversations

> - Members with more free time on their hands have an outsized contribution 
> that might not reflect the group's overall sentiment, yet may color the 
> perception of what the "consensus" is

> - It can be very confusing to track where the conversation is if it splits 
> into multiple threads
> - Members feel stressed by the pressure to keep up, and feel they can't step 
> away in case their silence is equated with agreement with whatever is being 
> said

The interesting thing is that these frustrations with group decision-making are 
so clearly identified with email as if they were new and unique—and don’t occur 
elsewhere. I suspect that it is more true that this is everyone’s first 
experience of making such important decisions with a whole group while 
expecting consensus. Email takes the hit but it is really the nature of the 
situation that requires more attention to communications than most people have 
learned to manage. 

Rarely, if ever, do we have to make decisions with so many people about things 
that will affect how we live in a daily basis. Usually we have a choice about 
how to communicate—we can walk with our ears. Now suddenly we are involved in a 
group venture and can’t. We have to navigate a lot more people and a lot more 
decisions. Choices are limited.

But as another responder mentioned, it is impossible to make all the decisions 
we need to make during construction if we try to do them all in meetings—can’t 
happen. If the faucets don’t fit, the design team won’t have time to wait for a 
meeting to say okay to the second choice. A telephone tree won’t work. Not 
snail mail. 

Delegating decisions to a design team, however, only works if the large group 
is ready (1) to trust each other enough and (2) to understand their own needs 
enough to clearly delegate what to whom. The same person everyone trusts to 
deal with the bank, insurance company, and the developer may not be the same 
person they want to trust with colors in the kids room. Or with heating system 

“You do it” is not delegation. The team members have to be clearly defined and 
have a clear task description with parameters. Does this mean you want us to 
keep in touch or you don’t want to hear from us? Can we make all the color 
decisions or just ….” The clear delegation is important to clarifying 
understandings with everyone on all sides.

> Most people in the group do okay with Google docs and spreadsheets, so we're 
> thinking about that, as well as surveys or forums.

If you do surveys and polls — it does work best sometimes — publish the results 
on a website or wherever so everyone can see them. Don’t fall into the trap of 
doing interpretations or “protecting” the responders. Do the survey over if the 
results are not well accepted or clear. It takes practice for everyone to 
understand that this is important — we need to know what you think. In real 
life, many people are never asked so they ignore the question. And it takes 
even more experience to learn how to phrase the questions. That is a biggie.

I think you will also find that certain people will still need to be consulted 
in a way that is unique to them. If there are one or two people who don’t hear 
well or for whom English is a second language or who have never used a 
computer, they will probably need a buddy who ensures that they are informed 
and involved.

It would probably be interesting to do a meeting with several rounds with 
people talking about what they can handle in terms of communications. And what 
they need from the group. To be the person who is trying to give everyone a 
chance to speak up when no one speaks up, is just as hard as getting too much 
information on a topic you don’t care about.

Sharon Villines
Sociocracy: A Deeper Democracy

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