By Diana Leafe Christian
In July 2011 I attended the annual meeting of the ecovillage network of Austria, "Austrotopia," held at Gänserndorf Cohousing near Vienna. I was visiting Austria with my friend Ronny Müller, a cofounder of Projekt Lebensdorf a forming ecovillage project in Germany. At the Austrotopia gathering Ronny and I participated in a decision-making method called Systemic Consensus (Systemisches Konsensieren in German or SK for short), developed by two professional system analysts formerly at the University of Graz in Austria, Dr. Erich Visotschnig and Siegfried Schrotta, Dipl.-Ing.(Diplomate in Engineering).
In Systemic Consensus the group develops and discusses proposals just as in regular consensus process – with all group members having input and the group being able to modify and improve the proposal in the meeting. But when it comes time to make the decision, the group uses a scale of 0 to 10 to make possible what Professors Visotschnig and Schrotta call on their website "a near-consensus decision."
The 0-10 scale is used to express a gradient of support when choosing among multiple options, or when choosing among various aspects of a proposal.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
However, the number scale is not used to indicate what group members each feel positively about, but rather as "resistance points" — indicating how much resistance they each feel to any given choice. For example, "0" means "No resistance - I fully and enthusiastically want this." "10" means "I feel a lot of resistance —it’s unacceptable." The numbers "1" through "9" are gradients of resistance. For example: "2" — "A little resistance, but not much." "5" — "A medium amount of resistance." And so on.
The person would choose one of these numbers to indicate the amount of resistance he or she felt to the suggested topic. It’s just a guess. It’s done, as the Systemic Consensus website says, "by feel."
Systemic Consensus can be used in two ways: (1) to choose just a few options from a much greater number of options, or (2) to choose among several proposals or various options in several proposals.
Before discussing why "resistance points" instead of more positive-sounding, "I’m for it" points, let’s first look at how Systemic Consensus works.
Choosing From Among Multiple Options
At the Austrotopia gathering Focalizer Barbara Strauch, cofounder of Naturhof Pramtal community in Austria, used Systemic Consensus to help the group choose among multiple options. In this case it was choosing workshop topics for the last session. After we brainstormed proposed workshop topics we got 12 suggested topics, but we only had room for three.
Barbara took each suggested topic one at a time. She handed out scraps of paper and asked everyone to write down the number of "resistance points" we each felt for the first suggested workshop topic.
The "Verbal Subtotal" Method
Barbara asked the man sitting to her left in the circle to say out loud the resistance number he’d written down. "Four," he said.
Barbara was using what I call the "verbal subtotal" method. She didn’t write his answer on the board, but rather called on the woman next to him, who had written "5" as her resistance number.
"Nine," she said.
Why didn’t she say "five"? Because she’d just added her resistance number to that of the man before her, creating a subtotal of 9.
Barbara called on the third person in the circle, Ronny, who had written "3" on his paper. "Twelve," Ronny said, adding his resistance number to the subtotal.
And so it went around the circle, Barbara calling on each person in turn, who added his or her resistance number to the ever-increasing subtotal. "78" was the final total — the number of resistance points in the entire Austrotopia group to the first proposed workshop topic. Barbara wrote "78" on the whiteboard. This process only took a few minutes, as it was easy to go around the circle adding up small numbers to create a running subtotal.
Barbara did the same with the second proposed workshop topic, and so on through all 12 topics. This only took a few minutes per topic, about 15 minutes total. It was easy for everyone to see that the three suggested topics with the lowest total numbers on the whiteboard were the topics we had chosen for our last workshop session.
The "Visual Chart" Method
But resistance points could have been displayed as a chart, too. For example, Barbara could have created a chart by writing everyone’s name on a list down the left-hand side of the whiteboard, and writing the 12 suggested topics across the top. She could then have drawn lines on the board creating horizontal rows and vertical columns so it would look like graph paper with many little blank rectangles.
When we considered the first workshop topic, instead of creating a running subtotal, we could have said our resistance numbers out loud for Barbara to fill in the blank after our name. This would have created a vertical column of numbers, which she could have added up and written below the first column. Of course the total would still be "78."
She could have done this with all 11 other proposed topics, ending up with a series of totals across the bottom of the chart, where we could easily see the three lowest totals. With a chart like this we would also have a visual record of the resistance numbers of each person for each proposed workshop topic.
Doing it this way would have taken longer, of course, but creating a chart like this makes visible those situations in which only a few people want something very different from everyone else in the group, which is sometimes helpful to see.
In the examples I saw or heard about in Austria the process was wholly transparent —with everyone seeing each other’s resistance points. However, Systemic Consensus could be done equally well by secret ballot.
Visible, Egalitarian, Widely Applicable
I learned more about Systemic Consensus on the website.
Professors Visotschnig and Schrotta explain that once a group has developed several different options or choices, the whole group learns of — and visually sees — the slightest opposition to each choice. And the decision-making result is so visible, and in numbers rather than words, that it’s not ambiguous and or subject to interpretation.
They also note that Systemic Consensus is not subject to power plays. As soon as anyone makes a proposal that seems selfish, or about their own special interests, or about consolidating their own power, it meets with a lot of resistance — expressed clearly and visibly.
They say the method can be used by any size group, large or small. And it doesn’t require (or assume) good will on the part of those involved.
They also emphasize that when people don’t show approval for a choice but rather the extent of any resistance to it, this creates "the greatest possible approximation" to a real consensus within the group — what most group members want most for the decision.
"To succeed in getting your proposal passed," writes Thomas Bebiolka, member of a housing co-op in Germany that uses Systemic Consensus, "you must write it to take into account the interests and needs of the whole group so it meets with as little resistance as possible."
The "Most, Most, Most" Rule
I like this! I’ve noticed over the years that many ecovillagers and members of intentional communities think that "pure consensus" — meaning 100% unanimity as the decision rule — is the best decision-making method possible, because they believe it generates the greatest amount of support for any proposal and thus creates high group cohesion and trust.
But actually I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen demoralization, heartbreak, and increasingly poor meeting attendance when a few members consistently block what most of the other community members want. So for several years now I’ve advocated that for an ecovillage or intentional community to succeed and thrive — and for meetings to stay well-attended — it needs a decision-making method that allows the most number of people to get the most of what they want most of the time. I call this the "Most, Most, Most" rule."
The Bike Shed Example — Variations on a Proposal
Both regular consensus and Systemic Consensus have the intention to make a better proposal by tapping the wisdom and creativity of the whole group. And, as noted earlier, in Systemic Consensus you get to choose from among potentially all the ideas the group comes up with.
Let’s say that a community is considering a proposal to build a bike shed. The group first discusses the proposal thoroughly, modifying and/or adding various aspects, just as in regular consensus.
And let’s say that the group comes up with a proposal with three aspects — what to build, where to build it, and how to fund it — and two choices for each. Like this:
A Build a bike shed
B Build a combination bike shed and recycling center
C Locate it by the entrance
D Locate it by the kitchen
E Fund it from this year’s capital budget
F Fund it from next year’s capital budget
After each person gives their resistance points for each choice, if the three lowest numbers are B, C, and F, for example, their decision — reflecting what most of the group most wanted — would be to build a combination bike shed & recycling center, put it by the entrance, and fund it from next year’s capital budget.
In regular consensus you can’t do this! You must pick just one proposal and that’s it.
Systemic Consensus can be used various other ways, too. It can be used as a straw poll during the discussion of a proposal with multiple options, just to see where people are at. Or it could be used to craft the final version of a proposal before using the standard consensus process to decide whether or not to approve it.
"More Freedom and Flexibility"
After Austrotopia Ronny and I visited Ronald Wytek and Silke Münkenwarf, two founders of Schönwasser Ecovillage (formerly Keimblatt Ecovillage) in Zurndorf, Austria. We met at their Sunshine House Project Center in Riegersburg in the beautiful mountains of southern Austria.
The Schönwasser group had switched from consensus decision-making to a combination of Holacracy (a decision-making and governance method with some similarities to Sociocracy), and Systemic Consensus. And later Ronald became a certified teacher of Systemic Consensus. Ronny and I wanted to know why Ronald and Silke chose Systemic Consensus and Holacracy (which I’ll cover in a future column), and how each compared to consensus decision-making, which they had used before.
"With Systemic Consensus you have more freedom and flexibility," Ronald said. "You’re not forced to chose only one proposal and go all or nothing for it, ignoring any other possible variations."
I told Ronald how I had trouble with "resistance" points. He helped me understand that they’re used for psychological, not mathematical reasons. If you ask people to think about why they want something, he said, they may not think about it as clearly as when you ask them why they don’t want it. If people have to ask themselves, "How much do I not want this?" — it forces them to better analyze the proposal.
Ronald described other, more nuanced aspects of the Systemic Consensus process. With a trained facilitator, which he is, a group can analyze the final numbers of resistance points to see how much acceptance a proposal actually has. The group can distinguish between proposals that win because they have many adherents with low resistance points (high acceptance) as compared those that win because a few people have "0" resistance (high acceptance) but most group members have medium to high resistance points (low acceptance). In these cases the group might want to choose differently.
Ronald also said that in his experience there seems to be a higher level of satisfaction with decisions made using Systemic Consensus. "The outcome seems to be what the group really wants," he added.
I like Systemic Consensus — it’s fast, visual, and hard to argue with!
(Future columns will describe other decision-making methods used by ecovillages and other intentional communities.)
This article also appears in Diana’s online newsletter, Ecovillages, and in Communities magazine in the US. Portions of this article will also appear in her upcoming book on communication, process, and decision-making in groups.
Free/Donation-based hour-long Webinar on Systemic Consensus in English — January 27, 2012, hosted by Ronald Wytek of Schönwasser Ecovillage. See Ronald’s website for details.
More Resources for Systemic Consensus:
All the resources I’ve seen so far for Systemic Consensus are in German. The website http://www.translate.Google.com can translate website copy into your language well enough to get the gist.
The book Systemic Consensus: The Key to Success (Systemisches KONSENSIEREN: Der Schlüssel zum gemeinsamen Erfolg) by Georg Paulus, Siegfried Schrotta, and Erich Visotschnig was recently published in German by DANKE-Verlag and is available on the German Amazon.de
Diana Leafe Christian is author of Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools To grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community (New Society Publishers, 2003 and 2007, respectively), and editor/publisher of the free online Ecovillages newsletter. A member of Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, US, Diana teaches workshops and speaks at conferences internationally.
Meeting Resources for Ecovillagers:
* Bea Briggs’ IIFAC organization and Bonfire newsletter
* Tree Bressen’s website — free downloadable handouts on consensus and facilitation
* Tree Bressen’s "Pattern Language of Group Conversation" project
* Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC)
* Laird Schaub’s blog, "On Community and Consensus"
* C.T. Butler’s free, downloadable book, On Conflict and Consensus
* We The People, by John Buck and Sharon Villines, about Sociocracy. Available from John Buck’s website.
* Sociocracy news website
4. SYSTEMIC CONSENSUS (PDF)