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Systemic Consensus — Fast, Visual, and Hard to Argue With

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By Diana Leafe Christian

(February, 2012)

The Austrotopia gathering at Gänserndorf Cohousing in Vienna.
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 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). It was 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 the regular consensus decision-making process. All group members discuss the proposal and modify and improve it as they wish. When it comes time to make the decision, they don’t use the three options of “support the proposal,” “stand aside,” or “block the proposal.” Instead, each group member expresses his or her amount of resistance to the proposal through a point scale of 0 to 10.

Professor Erich Viotschnig
Professors Visotschnig and Schrotta say that using this point scale to indicate the felt-sense of resistance to a proposal makes possible what they call “a near-consensus decision.”
Professor Siegfried Schrotta
They explain that this method allows people to express a gradient of support for a proposal, which more closely matches how people really feel about proposals instead of only being able to choose between three options: “I support it,” I don’t support it,” and “I stand aside.”

For example, choosing 0 means, “I have no resistance; I fully and enthusiastically support the proposal.” Choosing 10 means, “I feel a lot of resistance — the proposal is unacceptable.”

The numbers 1 through 9 indicate gradients of resistance. For example, choosing 2 means, “I feel a little resistance, but not much.” Choosing 5 means, “I feel a medium amount of resistance.” And so on.

How do people know which number best expresses their felt-sense of resistance? It’s just a guess. It is done, say Professors Visotschnig and Schrotta, “by feel.”

Systemic Consensus can be used in two ways: (1) To choose just a few options from a much greater number of options. (See the examples below of proposals to choosing between 12 workshop topics and between three colors of plaster.) And (2) To choose among several proposals or various options in several proposals. (See bike shed example, below.)

At first the Systemic Consensus process may seem counter-intuitive. Why “resistance” points instead of “I’m all for it” points?


Resistance Points — Psychology, not Math

Ronny and I found out a few days after the Austrotopia gathering when we visited Ronald Wytek and Silke Münkenwarf, two founders of Schönwasser Ecovillage (formerly Keimblatt Ecovillage) in Austria, at their Project Center in southern Austria.

(Left to right) Ronny Müeller, Silke Münkewarf, and Ronald Wytek at the Schönwasser Project Center in Austria.
The Schönwasser group had switched from regular consensus decision-making to a combination of Holacracy (a decision-making and governance method with some similarities to Sociocracy) and Systemic Consensus. 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 describe in a future article), and how each compared to regular consensus decision-making.

When we asked Ronald why “resistance” points, he said that looking for a felt-sense of resistance instead of agreement is 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.”

Here’s How It Works — The Verbal Subtotal Method

At the Austrotopia gathering a few days before, the event producer and host, Barbara Strauch, facilitated a Systemic Consensus process so the group could choose three workshop topics from among 12 different topics we had brainstormed for the last session.

Barbara Strauch (right), Austrotopia organizer and group facilitator, and me.
Barbara began with the first suggested workshop topic. She handed out scraps of paper to each participant and asked us to write down the number of resistance points we felt for this topic.

Barbara used what I call the “verbal subtotal” method for learning what the group wanted.

She began with man sitting to her left in the circle. She asked him to say out loud the resistance number he’d written down. “Four,” he said.

She called on the woman next to him, and asked her to add the number she’d written on her paper (which was “5”) to the number spoken out loud by the man next to her. But she didn’t say “five.” She added her “5” to the previous man’s “4” and said, “Nine.”

Barbara called on the third person in the circle, who had written “3” on his paper. He added his “3” to the previous subtotal of “9” and said, “Twelve.”

Austrotopia participants writing “resistance points” to the first workshop choice.
And so it went around the circle. Barbara called on each person in turn, and each person added his or her resistance number to the ever-increasing subtotal. “78” was the final total — the total number of resistance points to the first proposed workshop topic. Barbara wrote “78” on the whiteboard. This process only took a few minutes. It was easy to go around the circle adding up small numbers to create a running subtotal and a final total.

Barbara did the same with the second proposed workshop topic, and so on through all 12 topics. This only took a minute or so 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 three workshop topics we had chosen for our last workshop session.

And there’s another way to do this, which I call the “Chart” method.

Visible, Transparent — The Chart Method

Here’s how I taught an overview of Systemic Consensus to a small group in my community. We did a simulated proposal to choose the color of exterior plaster for our Council Hall: pale yellow, red-orange, or pale apricot. I created a chart on the whiteboard. I wrote the names of all seven participants on a list down the left-hand side of the whiteboard. Then I drew lines in between each name making seven horizontal rows. Next I wrote the three color choices across the top of the whiteboard. Lastly, I drew lines between each color, creating three vertical columns below each color. Now we had a chart that looked like graph paper, with seven rows and three columns — 21 little blank rectangles.

In a simulation, we used Systemic Consensus to pick the color of our Council Hall.
Then we considered the first color, pale yellow. I went around the room and asked each participant in turn to say out loud the amount of resistance he or she felt — conveyed by 0 to 10 points — to the idea of pale yellow plaster. I wrote the number he or she said in the little rectangle across from their name and under the column for pale yellow. After everyone did this, we had a vertical column of seven numbers under the column “pale yellow.”

I did the same for red-orange plaster, asking each participant in turn his or her amount of resistance to the red-orange color. And did the same for the third color, pale apricot. We ended up with three totals under the column for each color at the bottom of the chart. We could easily see that pale apricot had the lowest total, so pale apricot was the group’s color in this simulation. This chart gave us a visual record of the resistance numbers of each person for each proposed color. We not only had a decision, we had a very clear description about how each person felt about each choice.

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.

The process was wholly transparent — with everyone seeing each other’s resistance points. However, Systemic Consensus can be done equally well by secret ballot.

Visible, Egalitarian, Widely Applicable

Professors Visotschnig and Schrotta explain that this visibility is one of the benefits of using Systemic Consensus. 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.

Prof. Viotschnig & Schrotta's book is currently only in German.
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 sized 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.

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

So far our examples have shown how Systemic Consensus can be used to choose from among an array of choices. But it can also be used to choose from among several variations of a proposal.

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 the group comes up with a proposal with three aspects of the bike shed — 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 address that Issue fully before moving on to the next.

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.

“What the Group Really Wants”

“With Systemic Consensus you have more freedom and flexibility,” Ronald said when we visited him in Austria. “You’re not forced to choose only one proposal and go all or nothing for it, ignoring any other possible variations.”

Ronald Wytek teaches workshops on Systemic Consensus in German and English.
Ronald described other, more nuanced aspects of the Systemic Consensus process. With a trained facilitator, he said, a group can analyze the final numbers of resistance points to see how much acceptance a proposal actually has. The group can distinguish between two distinct ways of winning acceptance:

(a) Proposals that win because they have many adherents with low resistance points), and

(b) Those that win because a few people have “0” resistance (which looks like high acceptance) although most group members have medium to high resistance points (which actually means 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.

“Aha!” I thought. “The most, most, most.”

I like Systemic Consensus — it’s fast, visual, and hard to argue with!

Diana Leafe Christian is author of the books Creating a Life Together and Finding Community, editor and publisher of this newsletter, a columnist for the GEN website, liaison from the US to ENA (Ecovillage Network of the Americas) and CASA and a GEN-Europe Ambassador. She lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, US.

A version of this article also appeared in Diana’s column for the GEN website. It will also appear in her upcoming book on communication, process, and decision-making in groups.

More Resources for Systemic Consensus:

Ronald Wytek of Schönwasser Ecovillage in Austria is now a teacher of Systemic consensus, and he can teach it in English. His website. All the resources I’ve seen so far for Systemic Consensus are in German. This Google website 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.com.

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