Monday, 18 December 2017

Improving Business: Looking Beyond Quaker Methods

A pair of street signs. The upper one is green, points left, and reads "Choice". The lower one is red, points right, and also reads "Choice".
When making tough decisions, Meetings should consider a wide
range of tools to support their efforts.
Quakers have a wonderful and rich history and some brilliant methods for decision making; as my earlier posts in this series have started to reveal, these go beyond the “classic” Quaker Business Method, with variations and supporting strategies to be used around the discernment itself. However, sometimes we don't need to reach for Quaker things to handle decision-making in the best way. In this post, I will be exploring some secular strategies for both decision-making and support of decision-making, and situations in which they can be helpful as adjuncts to specifically Quaker practices.
I am aware, from previous conversations with various Friends over recent years, that some react with something approaching horror or scandal at suggestions such as these. On the other hand, there are also Friends who agree with the idea, having actually used such approaches successfully, and others who haven't tried them but as optimistically curious about the possibilities, as ways of breaking through situations which Quaker processes tend to be fairly bad at handling. I am sure all three groups will be among those reading this blog, and please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section below, or elsewhere on the internet.
Quaker decision-making processes, and common support processes like threshing, worship sharing, and clearness meetings, are wonderful. They are powerful, and done faithfully – and sometimes a little creatively – they can handle a lot more than we sometimes think. They are also usually quite slow, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and can go badly awry if those involved do not prepare properly for them, both in terms of preparation of business, and of individuals preparing themselves. Specifically Quaker support processes like those mentioned above can help with that preparation, but they have their own limitations. Sometimes we have a lot to gain from stepping beyond our own peculiar ways, and considering what we can take from the worldly ways of others.
Image shows a piece of wood with a nail and a bolt part-way into the wood. A hammer is held over the nut, and a spanner is held over the nail.
It's important to choose the right tool for the job.
I will be looking at three main strategies, though they have a certain amount of overlap with one another: discussion, straw polls and surveys, and consultation. An over-riding point to all of these is that they should only be used as adjuncts to Quaker processes, and ultimate authority in all matters remains with the Meeting responsible gathered in Meeting for Worship for Business. Just as that authority may be delegated to a committee or role-holder in certain matters, a Meeting can decide to delegate authority to other processes – though doing so should always be thought through carefully. Similarly, a committee may feel that they need to use another process in order to gather information necessary to make a decision, or to properly involve the whole Meeting in a decision.
It is vitally important to think carefully and choose the tool or process that is most suitable to your needs. As I explain the different ways of doing things below, I will also be explaining some of the situations in which each is most useful. Don't treat this is some sort of decision-making key, however; the factors involved are much too complex for that, and I don't go into them in anywhere near enough detail. If you're unsure, think about how you would go about applying different methods in your situation, and it should become reasonably clear what advantages you would see from each.
Discussion is something we all do, every day. It is part and parcel of life for the sociable animal that is humanity. Indeed, it can seem difficult to see it as a process per se. People involved in preparing business or making decisions on behalf of a Meeting should always consider informal discussions with Friends, appropriately chosen, in order to get a broader perspective. However, there are times when it is appropriate to do it very deliberately and with a degree of formality. For instance, when considering significant changes to premises, there are bound to be a lot of opinions. Simple things like what colour to repaint a room may not need such an effort, perhaps using straw polls and informal discussions only. More complex matters like considering the merits of different access improvements will benefit from the opportunity to draw on the thoughts – and often unexpected expertise – of more Friends in a coordinated an interactive way.
Such a meeting for discussion might at first look like a threshing meeting, but there are important differences. Threshing might be thought of as informal compared to a Meeting for Worship for Business, but that is not the defining difference, and indeed they should not be particularly informal (see the earlier-linked post for more details of threshing meetings, or at least my opinions of them). The principle differences between threshing and Meeting for Worship for Business are in the purpose – threshing does not seek to make a decision – and on the degree of spirit-led direction. A discussion meeting will be more informal, with fewer rules, and not operating out of silence (though silence to start the meeting and help people focus and centre is advisable). There should be a facilitator, though their job is purely to help keep discussion flowing and ensure that the agenda is covered. If you feel the need for there to be some rules, the facilitator should make them clear, but the facilitator should also have discretion to determine what is unhelpful during the meeting and ask people to stop. Because of this, the facilitator should have the trust of participants, and should be chosen with that trust – and being deserving of that trust – in mind.
The result of such discussion might be a clear consensus or a clear sense of what course of action is viable and appropriate, but the discussion should not be the source of that decision. The discussion should be reported on to the appropriate body, and that body take a decision based on that report as well as any other factors or information they have available.
As well as the use of discussion to involve a wider group in a decision, it can also be very valuable in small groups, such as committees, more generally. Not every matter is appropriate to handle in Quaker discernment, especially not in the early stages. A finance committee preparing a budget for a meeting or considering revisions to policy will often benefit from looking at the budget in relatively informal discussion, much in the style of a secular committee meeting. A premises committee looking at a range of proposals for alterations or renovations will benefit from a free exchange of thoughts and ideas, and may clearly sense from that discussion that they are not ready to engage in discernment on the subject, deciding – purely from discussion – that some more information is needed or costings of other options need to be obtained. It is in the discretion of such a committee as to when they can make decisions without discernment, though a good general guideline is regarding the weight of the decision or its finality. Where a decision will make a significant or long-term change, or involve spending significant money or communicating with any outside body on behalf of the Meeting, discernment will tend to be appropriate; spending a relatively small amount of money on obtaining appropriate advice to prepare for a decision will be more suitable for deciding from discussion, provided that the committee feels that they have clarity on the decision.
There is an important point, if somewhat formal and technical, when recording such committee discussions and decisions. A Quaker minute is only recorded as a result of discernment; even a minute of record should be recorded in a spirit of discernment and allowing for the Spirit to lead to its being rejected. As such, the record of such discussions should not be referred to as a minute; although such records will often resemble secular minutes, confusion as to the nature of the record may arise if that term is used in a Quaker context. A committee I once served on that made considerable use of discussion recorded such matters as notes, rather than minutes, and included in them considerable details of the discussion that led to any particular course of action, much as well-kept secular committee minutes. Where a minute – in the Quaker sense – is considered necessary or advisable, for example when communicating with other Quaker groups (potentially including the Meeting the committee serves), the committee can enter discernment following discussion in order to produce a minute. This should not normally be done to rubber-stamp a matter that has been decided in discussion; any time you are discerning, there must always be the possibility of the Spirit not leading you to do what you were expecting to do. Any minute that is made purely to produce a Quakerly record of something already determined should be clearly presented as a minute of record stating that the decision was made, and how – and any Meeting for Worship for Business receiving such a minute should understand what this means. This can occasionally be useful in avoiding double-discernment, as Friends are sometimes uncomfortable being asked to discern something which another Meeting for Worship for Business has already discerned. Where that decision is reported as a minute of record, making clear that the matter was discussed rather than discerned, the Meeting can feel free that they are not questioning the validity of another group's discernment (though such questioning is not always inappropriate, a matter I will return to in a future post).
Straw polls and surveys are useful for similar purposes as a meeting for discussion, but have different strengths and weaknesses. They are not suitable for a back-and-forth discussion, allowing different views to be aired and put in front of one another – though they can prepare for such a task, in which case they can be used ahead of threshing meetings to allow a free and unstructured submission of thoughts. They are also very useful for gathering purely factual information, or simple opinion data, and have the advantage of not requiring those participating to be in a certain place at a certain time. So, trying to find out what times and dates are suitable for some event, surveying dietary requirements for a meal, or preferences about which show you will go to for an outing are simple cases of facts and opinions. Opinions that will feed in to a long-term decision, such as colours for decoration, are less usefully acquired in this way, as you will get less idea of strength of feeling or reasons for preferences – which can be very important. Surveys are also very useful in getting feedback on events, especially if they are anonymous; people are more willing to be frank in such situations, and frank feedback is very important. Such information can be very valuable in future planning and decision-making.
Image shows a heavy hammer held over a crushed nut.
Consultations can be very powerful tools, but they are also
organisationally expensive - in time if not money.
Consultations are generally a more formal process, and may involve discussions or surveys – but usually deeper and more structured than those you might envisage from the processes discussed so far. Consultations are ideal when you wish to get the maximum amount of input from a wide group of people involved, especially where it would be difficult to bring them all together for a discussion meeting – or indeed to run a discussion meeting with so many present. A good example would be not long ago, when Meeting for Sufferings was beginning to consider the possibility of revising Britain Yearly Meeting's book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. This was clearly going to be a testing question, with many different opinions and strong feelings. Thus, the initial step taken was to consult with Meetings and others on the matter. A set of questions that Sufferings thought should be answered was prepared, and Friends were asked to respond to those questions. The questions were clear, but also open-ended, and the responses from various groups (and possibly individuals, I'm not sure of that) were then used by Sufferings in determining how to proceed with the question, which continues to be worked on in various ways by the appropriate people.
A Local Meeting is unlikely to benefit from a formal consultation of this sort, as it is relatively easy to get most people who are interested in a question to engage with it in other ways, to come to a threshing or discussion meeting, or just to be able to participate in the relevant business meeting. However, across an Area Meeting, a Regional Meeting, General Meeting, or other wide geographical groups – and national or non-geographical groups – consultations can be invaluable.
Consultations are a lot of work, but fundamentally straightforward. You need to clearly frame what you are trying to achieve, and carefully craft questions or prompts that will help with that. Put them as concisely and clearly as possible – with clarity more important than concision. If a question is becoming complex as you draft it, consider looking for ways to split the question; it might even be worth asking if you are framing the question in the right way at all. Questions should be both direct and open-ended. “We are considering doing X, what do you think?” is open-ended, but it is not direct. You will get responses that are woolly, that approach the question in very different ways, and that are hard to compare and consolidate. Very occasionally, you might want this, to get an idea of the range of different responses in all their diversity, but usually it is not helpful. In the introduction, set out the overriding question, the problem before you, along with options that are being considered for dealing with it, and use the questions to lead respondents through the areas that you anticipate division over. Avoid “push polling” techniques, where the questions attempt to persuade, rather than simply eliciting opinions. You want to inform respondents about the matter, but without prejudicing their opinions. Yes/no questions, or picking for a list of options without explanation, usually defeat the object of consultation – but can be useful to get some information to categorise the responses. For example, were you to be consulting on changes to the toilets in a Meeting House, it would be appropriate to ask whether people currently make use of the toilets, or how often – but this would need to be linked to finding out if there's a reason for not using them.
There are a number of options as to how you then allow people to answer the questions, and using as many as are appropriate (and manageable) is advisable. For instance, people can respond in writing (either hard copy or electronically), or you can arrange one-to-one interviews, or you can arrange discussion meetings where several people all respond to the questions – and one another – together. Such a discussion meeting needs an able facilitator, who must be trusted to accurately report the range of opinions expressed, the degree of disagreement or consensus, and the strength of feeling exhibited. However, they can be very valuable in getting views from a group that contains subunits, especially geographical subunits. For instance, an Area Meeting (or a committee of such) might run consultation meetings for each Local Meeting, or a Regional Meeting could run them at either Area Meeting or Local Meeting level (or differently for each Area Meeting, where appropriate). The running of such meetings can also be delegated to the subunits themselves, though care should be taken to ensure a reasonably consistent manner of running the meetings. If you have the resources, you might also consider allowing people to respond be telephone, but for that to be made convenient for those responding it requires considerable resources – especially as those take the phone consultation will require a certain degree of skill and discretion.
Once all consultation responses, including reports of meetings, are received by those running the consultation, they must be carefully considered, every one of them read, and the overall situation and response summarised. Those running the consultation should always report on it to the Meeting as a whole, but they will likely want a much fuller report for their own usage than for sharing with the community in general. The report for the committee or other group running the consultation should be frank, clear and not neglect even the smallest minority opinion; it should, however, reflect due weight of both the frequency of a given opinion and the weight of the arguments behind them. The report to the wider Meeting should give a much briefer summary, and may also report on the committee's response to the consultation as a whole, and how they propose to go forward – or what decision they are putting before the Meeting for its own discernment.
When using any of these methods, it is important to be clear and consistent, from start to finish, as to the degree of confidentiality of responses. It is not enough to say that any quotes or summaries of specific cases will be anonymous, as the details reported might be enough to reveal, at least to some people, who made the response. Do not assure participants/respondents of absolute confidentiality unless you are in a position to provide it. Do make clear to people participating in group face-to-face exercises what expectations regarding confidentiality there are. If you are trying to be as confidential as possible, will the entire committee involved be party to the full text of all responses to a consultation, or only those Friends compiling the report? Determine these factors at the start of the process, as far as is possible, but some answers to surveys or responses to consultations may cause you to feel the need to increase the level of confidentiality.
I hope that this has given a reasonable view of the ways in which techniques that are not traditional nor specific to Quakers might be useful, without compromising the integrity of traditional Quaker methods. Rather, these processes, used appropriately and competently, can provide a huge support to Quaker decision-making. Do you have experiences, good or bad, of running or participating in such exercises among Quakers? Do you disagree with my points, or have any other advice for Friends considering such methods? As always, comments are most welcome.
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