Decision-making: a hot topic.
At the moment several Co-Counsellors in the CCiS seem to take an interest in decision making processes.

There is the challenge of our growth too. The bigger the networks, the less everybody knows everybody. More and more new Co-Counsellors join the network. Also fewer and fewer things can be done in an informal way. Thus the decision making processes need to be clear and on paper to inform and involve them...

Everybody knows how messy and pointless democratic meetings can be. It is possible to make - in 10 minutes - many, many decisions. However with zero effects, like on New Year's Eve. So what challenges do we need to face in order to make effective decisions?

Challenge 1: Implementation

Is there any point in making decisions at AGMs or in the network, if they are not going to be implemented? So we need to look first at this aspect of decision making.

‘Mission critical’ jobs

Back to implementation. It simply means that jobs need to be done. However, some jobs matter critically to the functioning of the Co-Counselling network, more than others do. I call jobs ‘mission critical’, when

  1. a bad implementation or none at all damages the Co-Counselling network or the reputation of Co-Counselling in general
  2. a quality implementation is a must for the functioning of the Co-Counselling network.

These are in my opinion:

  • teaching Fundamentals: Fundamentals are crucial for bringing in fresh Co-Counsellors, the life blood of the network. Ineffective Fundamentals produces people who are not only unable to put Co-Counselling in practice, but are also likely to give Co-Counselling a bad or indifferent name.
    Several Co-Counselling communities acknowledge this by having accreditation procedures for Co-Counselling teachers.
  • publishing the Good&Newsletter: with its diaries, workshops, address lists, etc. It forms the main communication channel among all Scottish Co-Counsellors. If it is too late, unreadable or badly laid-out, people will not get the information in time, or worse lose their interest in reading it.
    Some Good&Newsletter posts are mission critical, such as the editing, co-ordination, laying-out, printing and distribution, others are not.
  • facilitating the Summer Week & New Year Workshop: Not only of great value for the overall Scottish connections, it is of critical value for new Co-Counsellors to settle in into Co-Counselling. If badly facilitated it can put them of Co-Counselling.
  • facilitating the General Meeting processes: the AGM and other general meetings are crucial for the decision making process. Bad meetings put Co-Counsellors off to come next time, while bad decisions are unhelpful too.
  • Trust Persons: as they need to be skilled and trustworthy to support Co-Counsellors with safety and conflict issues. Safety in the network is of crucial importance.
  • Treasurer & Membership Administrator, as it is of critical value to keep the finances in control
  • Workshop Organiser, as this needs to provide the supply of workshops that Co-Counsellors need for staying in the network.

Mission Critical Jobs are so important that we need to ensure at AGM level and in the Constitution that their implementation has the best possible results.

Different levels of commitment

Mission critical jobs require high levels of commitment. Apart from patterns around making commitments (see my previous article), I observed in Co-Counselling different levels of commitment. Depending their personal situations, people contribute valuably to Co-Counselling, but not always with a commitment sufficient for a ‘mission critical’ job.

  • ‘Continuity commitment’: a long term commitment (a year at least!) to make or keep things working, including facing adversary conditions and dealing with them without backing off. A commitment necessary for mission critical jobs, like the two key functions in the newsletter: ‘co-ordinator’ and ‘composer’.
  • ‘Serious, occasional commitment’: almost the same as 'continuity commitment', but only for the durance of one project, for example the organisation of a SummerWeek, or child minding.

Then there are levels of commitment that are not sufficient for mission critical jobs, especially when there are deadlines to be served.

  • The ‘serious, timeless’ commitment:
    people will do their job at some time- you can be sure about that -, but deadlines won’t be kept.
  • The ‘easy going’ commitment: here the commitment depends on the situation, mood or what makes the heart sing. If it happens, then the job will be done wholeheartedly.

The challenge so far to the AGM

Because of the perceived scarcity of volunteers willing to do jobs, almost any offer at an AGM to do a job meets often immediately acceptance and relief. However, this may endanger a good implementation, specially when people offering to do a job, think they can do it and actually lack commitment and/or skills. This raises some questions:

  • What are the mission critical projects?
  • What levels of skills and commitments are minimally required to ensure them an as good as possible implementation?
  • When people offer to do a mission critical job, how do we know that they are able to do the job and not running a pattern, for instance going for a ‘glamorous’ job?

On behalf of the network.' What does that mean?

People volunteering jobs in Co-Counselling; can be easily seen as doing jobs on behalf of the CCiS. But there is a problem and it has to do with a line in the CCiS Constitution: ‘the AGM is the only body which can ratify or change decisions on behalf of CCiS.’ For some decisions and actions this seems quite clear: spending CCiS money, collecting subscriptions or organising an AGM. It becomes confusing, when it concerns other actions and decisions. Let me explain.

Take teaching Fundamentals? Most of my pupils join the CCiS, so it looks as though my teaching Fundamentals is on behalf of the CCiS. So do I need approval by the AGM for my decision to teach? What if I were not a member of CCiS, and my pupils still join CCiS?

What about the SummerWeek? Does it need AGM approval, because a CCiS member is organising it? The SummerWeek in Lauriston Hall apparently does not, as its organisation is in hands of Co-Counsellors from outside Scotland.

What about a Network Workshop (Network Workshop) as ‘Conflict & Safety in the Network’? If teaching Fundamentals appears to be on behalf of the CCiS and does not seem to need AGM approval, why should this Network Workshop need AGM approval?

‘On behalf of’ has apparently more than one meaning. One is ‘as a representative of’ or ‘in name of’. The other is, ‘in the interest of’, ‘to the advantage of’, etc.. The difference is that in the former meaning ‘authority’ has been delegated to do so, while in the latter this is not necessarily the case.

There is a good reason for diminishing this unclarity. We need to preserve the CCiS as a free, organic organisation with a culture based on initiative, trust and mutual respect. This unclarity causes trouble sometimes for volunteers taking creative initiatives that benefit Co-Counselling. That fact that their activities can at present easily be labelled as ‘on behalf of the CCiS’ provides some people with an excuse to blame them for being hierarchical, overpowering, etc.

My proposal for the Constitution:
Only those actions are regarded as 'on behalf of the CCiS', only when the AGM has delegated them with a specified authority to a job holder or individual Co-Counsellor.’
All actions for the benefit of CCiS that don’t have a delegated authority - although they may ‘appear’ as being ‘on behalf of the CCiS’ - do not need any approval of the AGM!

The challenge to the AGM is:

  • to sort out which jobs need delegated authority
  • to approve proper job and authority descriptions
  • to make and keep the executives accountable to the AGM, specially where quality control is important

Let volunteers get on with their jobs!

We need to take into account that the implementation generally will be done by a handful of volunteers. They come from within Co-Counselling and most of them did not join for voluntary work in the first place. Thus there is a huge challenge in recruiting volunteers. This topic in its own is so important that I spend the next part of this series on how to get more and more Co-Counsellors involved in the network organisation.

As volunteers are scarce and their time even more scarce, it is important to let them get on with their jobs as much as possible.

Endless meetings
One of the traps of peership and consensus, are endless meetings about any detail and principled correctness. Everybody wants and has the right to have their say in everything. Plenty of patterns and contra-patterns embellish this mess. These meetings often end in confusion and demotivation, while the volunteer is left increasingly bewildered and less likely to volunteer again.

To avoid this trap quite often another trap is chosen: 'Because we all are peers, everybody has access to any job and, moreover, the personal creative freedom to do it in their way. meetingNobody has the right to tell anyone how this should be done. So get on with the job and trust the process.’ In practice, however, this does not always deliver good results.

So how can we get the best of both worlds? How can we achieve that (mission critical) jobs are done with

  • the quality at a level necessary for the Co-Counselling network and
  • as much freedom as possible for the volunteers so that they can get pleasure and a sense of achievement out of the job
  • as few and as short as possible meetings

Creating quality or ‘Management by Desired Outcomes

By this method a project or jobs are described in terms of their desired outcomes, together with a specification of the required quality.
In most cases the process doesn’t need to be detailed. This gives volunteers the freedom to achieve the desired outcomes in their own way. For some jobs, however, parts of the process need to be defined, like the Treasurer using a particular computer finance program to ensure quick access to data, making reports and continuity in the accounting method. When people take on a job, they know beforehand what the desired end results of their jobs are.

The challenge here is to work out these ‘Desired Outcomes’ and to include these in clear job descriptions.
When a job is too big for one person to produce good results, for instance the Good&Newsletter, it needs to be broken down in a series of smaller, manageable jobs. Each job with its own desired outcomes and clarity about what level of commitment and skills are necessary.

This also implies creating places where people can develop skills and show their commitment, before they take up high level commitments in mission critical jobs. E.g. aspirant teachers can do some teaching in Fundamentals; people interested in the Good&Newsletter can start to take full responsibility for a part of the newsletter, e.g. a regional section, or a series of interviews.

At AGM level we can agree on the ‘Desired Job Outcomes’ and the job descriptions. As an additional advantage, these ‘desired job outcomes’ allow the AGM to evaluate the jobs done and by doing so increase the accountability of the executives to the AGM.

Getting the most out of as short as possible meetings
In my opinion ‘consensus’ as way of making decisions is not always a time effective and productive way of making decisions. For instance, talking about newsletter policies or taking about writing a shared article can take forever. At some point, however, the newsletter or the article needs to arrive into the letterboxes.

In the preparation stage of a project, the people involved may share and discuss ideas, and consequently negotiate the desired outcomes of the job with the jobholder. Consensus can be very valuable here. The time for this stage, however, needs to be limited so that the job holder(s) can get on with the job at some point.

During the production process, the person in charge makes the decisions; the other people are there for support and suggestions only, not for making the decisions. The person in charge may invite support and suggestions, perhaps he doesn’t. This frees him up to do the job to his own insight.

In the evaluation or debriefing stage, all the people involved can meet and assess whether they agree with the executive’s decisions, whether in the future things need to be done differently. Here again, a consensus decision-making process can be useful.

Challenge 2: Juggling the AGM Agenda

Juggling the agenda

At present, anybody can place any topic on the AGM agenda and anyone can take up facilitation on the spot. For an AGM to be really in charge of the Network’s decision making, the agenda and the facilitation need to be very relevant and effective.

To clarify this, I would like to draw your attention to the following points to be juggled.

1. Restricting the AGM Agendas: only topics relevant to running the network!

In my opinion an AGM should be about running the network, not about personal or interpersonal issues or whatever else people may bring up. ‘Running the network’ contains enough topics for discussion and decision making to fill several weekends.

There are two aspects, which I think are relevant for running the CCiS network.

Meeting the needs of the existing Co-Counsellors in the network
I consider this one of the most important priorities, as it forms the base of a spiralling expansion process. The longer Co-Counsellors stay in the network, the more skilled they get and the more prepared they become to facilitate workshops and help to run the network. This in turn will meet the needs of more Co-Counsellors so they may stay longer in the network, get more skilled etc.. The other way around, when the network loses its new Co-Counsellors almost as fast as it gains them, the network is ill: it has diarrhoea. If not cured, there will never be a spiralling up process.

What are their needs specifically?
How can we know what the needs of Co-Counsellors are? Most Co-Counsellors vote with their feet: they do not attend workshops they don’t like and don’t come to the AGM to tell what they need. This raises the question whether Co-Counsellors attending the AGM really reflecting the needs of the people who are not attending the AGM. I doubt it. Could it be that a good marketing research approach may prove more effective in assessing the needs of Co-Counsellors than consensus at an AGM?’

There is an indirect way of trying to assess, whether the network meets its members’ needs. This is looking into the membership statistics with questions like:

  • ‘Is the network membership growing?’
  • ‘Do new members stick for a while or do we lose them fast?’
  • How many people are generally leaving each year?

Meeting the needs of the network members may be a difficult topic to facilitate a proper debate on; still I think it ought to be part of the AGM agenda.

Meeting the ‘network’ needs

The second topic group is looking after the needs of the network organs, e.g. the Good&Newsletter, Financial and Membership Administration, Mailshop, Fundamentals, teacher training, etc. How are they doing? What practical things need to be decided now, e.g., discharging and appointing post holders, approving a budget for the post? Also what development do they need, e.g. job descriptions?

2. Evaluating the past & designing the future

Of course we want to make decisions that are as wise as possible. Why otherwise all that effort to implement them? It is only afterwards, however, that we may really know whether the decision was a wise one. It is like the proverbial pudding: the proof of it is in the eating.

Here we meet a big challenge to Co-Counselling AGMs. As this meeting is a here and now experience for many participants, with only a little information about the past, there is little appetite for looking back, for evaluating the course of events. So it can be quite difficult to see whether a taken decision was a wise one. Apart from this we do have hardly a good culture for evaluating.

3. Ways to ease the agenda burden

We have only a weekend for one AGM a year. While the network becomes bigger its topics have also the tendency to expand! Thus is worthwhile to consider the question, how we can do more in the same amount of time.

Policy groups & their executives
When the AGM is presented with written policy proposals - perhaps already discussed in the Good&Newsletter - it has a firm base for discussion and decision making. Big groups - what the AGM will be in the future - are not good in thinking up policy proposals themselves; small groups are. So why not leaving this to ‘policy groups’? The AGM can give them a list of points, which it thinks are the good characteristics of the specific policy.

Potential Policy Groups with the job holders involved, could be:

  • Money matters (Treasurer & Membership administrator).
  • Good&Newsletter & Internal Communications (The Editors)
  • Safety & Conflict in the network (Trust Persons & Teachers)
  • Network maintenance & development
  • Fundamentals & Further skills (Teachers)
  • CCiS-Decision making processes

Network Workshops & Special General Meetings
Sometimes topics can be so big that they need a specific weekend. Past examples were: a SGM (March 1995), mainly about the Good&Newsletter statute, and a Network Workshop about ‘Safety and Conflicts in the Network’ (March 1996).

4. Proposal for AGM Weekend Agenda

If the AGM wants to be really in charge of the CCiS decision making, then it needs to evaluate whether the developments are as aimed at and if this is not the case, to design different ways. That is why we need time to reflect on these three questions:

Aims of the CCiS (1996)
  1. To promote Co-Counselling and to improve and strengthen the Co-Counselling skills and knowledge of Co-Counsellors in Scotland;
  2. To provide Co-Counselling opportunities and support for the members of the Network;
  3. To unite and support Scottish Co-Counsellors and to co-ordinate and pool their energies for the promotion of aims 1 & 2;
  4. To support and promote forms of Co-Counselling communities within the Network
  5. To maintain and develop links with other CCI (Co-Counselling International) Networks & Communities.
  • Is the CCiS achieving her Constitutional aims?In a way these Aims form the reason and base on which we work together.
    (Saturday morning)
  • How healthy is the network?
    (Saturday Afternoon)
  • How healthy are the CCiS organs?
    (Sunday Morning)

Each of the above sections can have its own debates, proposals and decision-making parts. By bring them together under these headings, there will be integration of the historical background, with the proposals for future change within the frame of the CCiS’s aims. The Annual CCiS Reports can play an important role in the preparation of the AGM participants. Apart from these very purpose oriented sections, I think we need also free floating sessions

  • Common understanding
    (Saturday Evening)
    An exchange of questions and opinions highlighting the differences in opinion.
  • Whatever comes up
    (Sunday Afternoon)
    Here people can raise attention for network topics not raised so far, without debate, only with questions for clarifications.

Challenge 3: A ‘Network decision making’ Executive

How can we make the AGM more effective and in charge of the Network’s decision making?
Quite a lot of the decision making happens outside the AGM, as it has not yet developed sufficiently enough to be in charge. For instance the CCiS has not managed to approve the budgets of the last three years.

When in the future the network has as many as 1000 members, we can expect at least 100 Co-Counsellors to attend the AGM! The CCiS is the only CCI Co-Counselling organisation that spends a whole weekend on its AGM.

Therefore, looking at the efficiency of the AGM is necessary. The AGM’s success is not only dependant, I think, on its implementation, but also very much on its preparation, its facilitation and how well prepared all its participants are.

One way of strengthening the functioning of the AGM, is to appoint an executive who is in charge of the facilitation of the network decision making process. Here is a possible job description.

1. Preparing the AGM Agenda

The main task here is to juggle the items for the agenda. Some items will be of a greater benefit for the running of the network than others.

2. Preparing the AGM Participants

The AGM often consists of a continuously changing mixture of people. Although peers, there is en enormous variation in experience, intentions, needs, expectations and outlooks! There are

  • the executives and other volunteers who want clarity & support, and who can be sometimes made accountable to the AGM
  • the more experienced Co-Counsellors, some with a lot of Co-Counselling business meeting experience, who would like to influence the direction the network takes without always wanting to commit themselves
  • the new people, curious about the workings of the organisational side of the network, not necessary well informed about the ins and outs of the AGM and the network, and sometimes straight from Fundamentals.

So what is necessary to prepare this mixture of Co-Counsellors for an AGM?
As well as publishing the agenda prior to the AGM, other measures need to be taken.

2.1 AGM participants are clear about what they are expected to accomplish
Groups only become productive, when they have a clear, common understanding why they are meeting and what they must accomplish. Normally these groups go through a development before they reach this point.
Because of the fluidity of the AGM’s composition, there is much less opportunity for its participants to reach this level of common understanding.
This makes it even more dependent on the skills of the facilitator(s). One of the things participants need to know is how they effectively can contribute to the decision making process. Therefore they need to have an insight into how the CCiS decision making process works and what renders it effective.

2.2 AGM participants need to think from an overview
Co-Counsellors attending an AGM need to

  • be able to see the CCiS network from different perspectives simultaneously:
  • from a ‘helicopter’ view of the Scottish network as a whole - its local communities, its organisation, its Constitution - rather than having only experience in local Co-Counselling
  • from the perspectives of new Co-Counsellors who are just joining the network
  • through the eyes of teachers trying to provide Fundamentals and the necessary publicity and follow-up
  • from the financial perspective
  • from an overview of the structural network issues, e.g. safety, organisation and network development
  • an overview of the decision making process within the network and the particular place the AGM has in that
  • an awareness about conflicts between care for the network versus personal interests

The Annual Network & Community Reports are an attempt to provide this kind of overview.

3. Facilitating the AGM or SGM

I think the facilitation of an AGM needs to be of ‘tiptop’ quality. The AGM is not the place where Co-Counsellors can do their first steps in facilitating business meetings. There are enough opportunities for this elsewhere in the network: regional meetings, ‘Needs, Wants and Offers’ at Summer weeks, Community Days, etc.

On the other hand, it would be great when as many experienced Co-Counsellors as possible participate in the facilitation. The executive can play an important role here, for instance by preparing the agenda with Co-Counsellors who would like to take up parts of the facilitation.

Culture setting
Another aspect of the decision making process is the Culture setting. We have already some effective procedures in place. Clarifying the items of the Agenda in ‘Title’, ‘Reason’ and ‘Purpose’ is one. Working with 40 minutes' slots and 10 minutes breaks is another one. We need more development here, without discussing and re-inventing the culture setting again and again at AGM itself.

4. Promoting the Network Structure Development

Here several topics that I wrote about earlier come together. It is about supporting the development of:

  • The decision making process
  • A clear executive job structure,
    effective in its organisation & accountable to the AGM
  • The Constitution,
    proposing amendments and ways how the constitution can get more widespread understanding.

Keeping a check on the implementation of the AGM decisions
Many decisions of past AGMs have not been implemented at all, for instance the proposal for a ‘Co-Counselling Magazine’ besides the Good&Newsletter. So supporting Co-Counsellors, who committed themselves to implementing an AGM decision, is one possibility; another is thinking about the conditions that make implementation more likely.

5. Other responsibilities

There are some points left:

  • Getting as many people as possible to the AGMs
  • Publicity
  • Organising the AGM venue