In every area of public concern, we are seeing organizations from all sectors of society — non-profit, business, government and community — digging in to the hard, deep work of equity. The need for equity and inclusion, across race, gender, age, geography, and more, becomes acute when these diverse stakeholders from those multiple sectors come together in collaborative networks to address complex issues and wicked problems from a whole systems perspective.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski from Berkeley, USA – Equity, diversity, inclusion, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Consider the following pressures that are present in collaborative network initiatives:

No one is “in charge”.

The nature of networks is non-hierarchical. While it’s recognized that inclusion is fundamental to achieving the mission, usually participation is entirely voluntary. No one is “in charge” but the success of the mission depends upon widespread participation.

Is this worth my time?

In addition, we’ve never seen a collaborative network that wasn’t made up entirely of very busy people with very demanding workloads.
People care deeply about the issues they’ve shown up to help address. And so everyone is assessing both “Is this worth my time?” and “Is my voice being fairly included?”

How to be both inclusive and efficient?

Beyond a general understanding that good governance will be “consensus-oriented” there’s almost never an agreed upon direction from the beginning about the kind of governance system that works best in that space. They know that they need inclusive processes for making decisions. Yet the group struggles to get to decisions in an efficient enough way.

Consensus baggage: “it takes too long and things don’t get done!”

When groups try to bring that “consensus-oriented” value into practical reality the work can become very bogged down. People who’ve experienced that inefficiency are often resistant to using consensus. For them, the process took too long and things didn’t get done.

There’s a lot of baggage about the way that people implement consensus:

Thinking everyone needs to be part of every decision.

Not getting to the interests and needs beneath the positions people are holding.

Micromanaging people who are taking on responsibility instead of delegating authority with responsibility.

Differing opinions about the source of the problem and the nature of the solutions.

Inability to work through conflicts, and constructively deal with the diversity of perspectives.

Inability or unwillingness by some to recognize and acknowledge power dynamics.

Sometimes, a group has leaders that are able to hold a process of open dialogue and norms around listening to each other, but, if the leaders leave, it isn’t clear that the group will be able to sustain the cultural norms. Other times, the more powerful players in the room will push things through. Things will move forward, but the quality of decisions won’t be as good, and some people will lose buy-in.

Consent is an Evolutionary Breakthrough for Consensus

Consensus is a decision-making model.  Consent is the foundation for an entire governance system. The principle of Consent within a Range of Tolerance allows us to meet the needs for inclusion and buy-in that also provides a framework that meets the needs for autonomy and action.

Collaborative Networks are like Ecosystems

“Range of Tolerance” is a principle that comes out of ecosystems science. That sense of operating like an ecosystem is a valuable metaphor in collaborative networks.

The natures of the problems they’re trying to address don’t have simple, clear solutions. At every moment the environment is changing; and any action in one part of the system will create an effect, usually unforeseen, in another part of the system.

The Range of Tolerance framework offers clarity because it gives people the language to talk about differences in values and interests without defensiveness.

It allows people to communicate their own boundaries and objections without negating any other members’ boundaries.

It provides a communication framework, as well, for people to see where there is common ground.

It allows people to talk about levels of risk with different solutions or ideas, and to adapt solutions to mitigate risk.

It supports decisions that are good enough to try, while attending to potential risks.

It allows groups to delegate authority with responsibility and experience the advantages of shared leadership.

Collaborative networks need processes that allow people to recognize they’re in a different realm and to make space for uncertainty while also allowing them to adapt and respond quickly.

This governance principle, Consent with a Range of Tolerance, gives structure for people to discover ways forward that are iterative, and can be evaluated and adjusted before irretrievable harm occurs in the system.

Equity and Governance are both about POWER

Having all the voices present at the table is not the same as including all those voices in the decisions that are made. Remember all those busy people I mentioned earlier? They won’t tolerate their voice being ignored, overrun or out voted. For collaborative networks to succeed in their mission power must be shared.

More and more networks (and the organizations that come together to form them) are waking up to the need to center equity in their work if their missions are going to succeed.

So how can we “operationalize” equity and shared leadership? We’ll continue to explore this topic of Equity and Consent in Collaborative Networks in next month’s article.

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