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Lately I have been enjoying a series of podcasts from a young Toronto-based group called The Stoa. Some of their recent discussions have been about deliberative processes — the work we do, both personally and in groups, to think things through in a balanced, and, well, deliberate way (etymologically, the term comes from libra, the scales — nothing to do with liberation).
The best of these podcasts IMO have been those that have featured Daniel Schmachtenberger and Forrest Landry. Daniel, a home-schooled vegan, has been working on multiple fronts towards the lofty goal of reimagining (and perhaps reinventing) civilization and, towards that end, improving our dialogic and collaborative processes, on the basis that this goal can only be achieved through better sense-making and improvements to the ways we surface collective wisdom.
Forrest developed the idea of Immanent Metaphysics, and then went on to produce what he calls Ephemeral Group Process (EGP), an essentially inquiry-based collaborative process where the questions are collectively developed using a “technology” somewhat analogous to Open Space, explored in multiple small-group sessions (usually 5-7 people), and then “harvested” to make sense of the group’s understanding, using a specific methodology.
As an aside, both Daniel and Forrest have rather peculiar entrepreneurial histories: Daniel co-founded a nutritional supplement company that purports to sell products that improve cognitive capacity and health, while Forrest’s company sells portable vaporizers (perhaps to feed your mind in a different way).
The ideas and frameworks that Daniel and Forrest have developed are every philosopher-geek-idealist’s wet dream, but you may be wondering why I, having disavowed the existence of free choice, would be intrigued about ideas and processes that purport, ultimately, to improve our collective choices and (re-)make the world a better place.
I could be flip and say I have no choice as to what ideas I choose to get infatuated by (and inflict on my poor readers). But the truth is I think there is a role, even in a free-will-less world, for better — more disciplined, more open-minded, more creative — ways of thinking about the world, about what we believe about it, and about what our role is in it. If some of Daniel’s and Forrest’s ideas and approaches inspire you to think about things differently and to ultimately act differently, then, while you would inevitably be drawn to them (or not), my exposing them to you could actually make a difference. Our lack of free will does not in any way equate to determinism. None of us may have any choice, but our unpredictable interactions with each other will change our trajectories, and no one can say what that might lead to. We can run a marble race down the same track a dozen times and the outcome will be different every time, no matter how we try to control the variables.
Over my long career as an advisor to business, I witnessed and participated in many excruciating meetings that exemplified absolutely ghastly deliberative processes, many of them “led” by executives earning seven figure incomes. And away from the office, I have witnessed an equivalent number of equally-dreadful deliberative and collaborative activities, in communities, on boards, and even in very small-group conversations.
When I got involved with the Group Pattern Language Project that ultimately produced the Group Works deck, I realized that deliberative processes didn’t have to be so awful, if they were well-facilitated, and/or more thoughtfully structured. And I’ve since learned of many other facilitation tools, methods and formats that can help.
But even well-structured, well-facilitated activities can be unsuccessful, and even dysfunctional, if the processes that the individual participants employ, and which the collective group employs (influenced by an infinite number of dynamics), are poor processes. There is only so much a facilitator can do.
Daniel argues that there is a need for us to develop both our personal cognitive capacities and processes (and self-knowledge), and our collaborative capacities and processes — in other words, our personal and collective deliberation capacities and processes. Without doing so, he says, we have little hope of improving the quality and effectiveness of our collective decisions and actions, and are likely to fall back to preconceived ideas, hidden biases, and dysfunctional power dynamics. His Consilience Project (consilience = the tendency of evidence obtained from independent, unrelated sources to “converge” on strong, compelling conclusions) is designed to provide a framework for improving our deliberative processes, focused specifically on improving sense-making and combatting misinformation. And he suggests Forrest’s EGP as a method to use within such frameworks.
Both Daniel and Forrest stress that this isn’t just a matter of intellectual skill — deliberative processes are as much about how we feel as about what we think, and as much about the emotional dynamics of the group (and beyond) as it is about concepts, perceptions and ideas. And it’s not just about analytical rigour — the richer creative output and “emotional intelligence” that comes from effective deliberative work is perhaps even more important. That’s one of the reasons they both stress the importance of play in such processes.
So that has led me to ponder two questions: (1) how do we go about improving our own personal sense-making and communication processes so we contribute more effectively and creatively to group deliberations, and (2) how do we go about employing EGP or similar methods to work better as a group?
My sense is that the simple answer to both these questions is: No one knows. Daniel and Forrest are still working on these questions. The Consilient Project and EGP are both still under development, and there is nothing much online yet.
But perhaps the answers to these questions aren’t as important as the process for exploring them. If we were to follow the processes that Daniel and Forrest espouse, then in order to try to answer these two questions we would formulate additional questions, the answers to which might help us address these two ‘primary’ questions. Such questions might be of some of these forms, which apply analogously regardless of what our primary questions are (they could be applied equally to questions like how we might best address homelessness, systemic caste-ism, or climate collapse):
- What are the assumptions built into this question?
- What would we want to know in order to better answer these questions, and who would we need to talk with to know these things?
- What have others done to try to answer these questions, and who else is asking them, and how are they answering them, and why?
- What approaches to these questions have worked, and not worked, in past, and why, and what stories illuminate these past successes and failures?
- For whom is answering these questions not even an issue, and why not?
- What are the benefits of answering these questions well, and what are the costs if we fail to do so?
- Why do we care (or not care) about these questions?
- How did the situation arise to the point where these questions have seemingly become important?
- What are the adjacent possibilities that arise from this inquiry?
- How might the situation constructively change such that these questions would be rendered moot, and how might we intervene in the situation, or creatively reframe the issue entirely, to bring about such a change?
- Who is or potentially would be affected by how these questions are answered, and how are we involving them in exploring approaches to those people?
- Are we ready (personally and collectively) to commit the time, energy and resources to exploring these questions enough to come up with and implement useful and practical approaches to them, and if not, why not and when might be the right time?
You get the idea. Every one of these questions begs further questions, and the inquiry-based approach enables us to deeply explore the issues at hand rather than jumping to conclusions (decisions, preferences, actions). One of the great values of questions is that they avoid the inclination for polarization and ego-reactivity that declarative statements, hypotheses and “suggested answers” can evoke, and hence encourage more group “binding” and thus collaborative energy and capacity.
There’s a question whether an individual or group thoughtfully and deliberately exploring such questions even needs to move from asking these questions to the ultimate question: OK so what do we do? It may be that the inquiry itself evolves ideas, approaches and collective knowledge such that the answer to this ultimate question is obvious.
In his book The Other Side of Eden Hugh Brody describes an indigenous deliberative process that involves story-telling and asking questions, but, unlike western processes, doesn’t conclude with a “who will do what by when” chart; it’s left up to the individuals listening to the stories and questions to decide tacitly what actions to take personally, and to discuss one-on-one (with the people affected) what actions they might want to take collectively. How might such a trust-and-personal-responsibility approach work in large, hierarchical groups and organizations? And how might such an approach enable such groups and organizations to evolve into self-organizing, self-managing groups and organizations, and eliminate the need for hierarchy entirely?
The most astonishingly productive, instructional, and enjoyable group activity of my life was a neighbourhood ‘barn-raising’ twenty years ago. A neighbour’s old barn, being used as a garage, was dangerously falling apart. An invitation was sent out to the neighbours to meet for tea and discuss ideas for converting it into a stable, more useful structure. In an entirely self-organized way, creative ideas evolved, others were consulted, and work bees happened. The result was an amazing multi-purpose space created without any blueprint or hierarchy. We all learned new skills. And every time we passed it, we could say “We did that!”
Forrest makes the point that our political processes and systems have evolved dysfunctionally much the same way our health care processes and systems have: to focus on ‘acute’ problems (eg the latest Trump executive order, a CoVid-19 spike, or a foreign threat) rather than ‘chronic’ problems (eg inequality, homelessness, caste-ism/racism, ecological and economic collapse). And that dysfunctionality stems largely from an incapacity of large groups to get their heads around very complex problems.
Listening to others with different perspectives, knowledge, ideas and experiences enables us to see an issue ‘stereoscopically’, he notes. Two perspectives are not only richer for problem-solving than one, they allow the seeing of multiple additional perspectives, much as having two eyes provides much more than just two monoscopic views of something.
Daniel makes the point that such a multi-dimensional perspective also allows groups to identify “synergetic satisfiers” — ideas and adaptations that satisfy more than one need at the same time. It also tends to nurture what Zeynep Tüfeckçi calls “epistemic humility” — appreciation that we don’t, and can’t, have all the knowledge, understanding, and “answers” we’d like, and sometimes presume to have.
Collaboration, he says, is only effective when there are three things in place: practice and experience working together, cognitive coherence (appreciation of others’ ways of thinking and communicating), and shared values. Connecting the collaborators at a more than semantic level is also helpful (prehistoric tribes did this through music and dance rituals, which allow for individual riffs that are in concert with the collective rhythm). Ideally, achieving a (non-western) culture of individual responsibility with shared, collective credit for outcomes is your goal.
The challenge we face, Daniel adds, is the context in which most of us have to work together: our destructive and debilitating globalized industrial culture. “There is no way to have your hands totally clean in a world that is built on institutional, structural violence”, he says. The only ethical resolution is to minimize the harms while maximizing our collective capacity to change things, which is especially difficult when so many of our harms are invisible to us personally (he uses factory farming as an example, though he could as easily have used our prison system, our education system, and toxic family and workplace environments). We all have to walk the razor’s edge between courage and sensitivity, he says, and not forfeit either.
Of course, this is easier if you have the background, the temperament, the capacity, the time, and the curiosity to work on these things. Expecting many or most people to be able and willing to do any of this is likely pretty unrealistic.
But it’s still worth keeping in mind. We can (as Daniel recommends) take training to become better facilitators. We can become guerrilla facilitators in situations when no one is facilitating, or the facilitator is floundering. We can use methods like Best Possible Outcome to exercise a group’s collaborative muscles.
And of course we can work on our own stuff. Not only the quality of our own work in groups, but the quality of our own internal deliberation — our capacity to ask the right questions of ourselves, and to be constantly self-aware and challenging ourselves about our biases, beliefs and blind spots.
So, in keeping with the theme of inquiry, instead of suggesting a process for evaluating your internal deliberation capacities, I will conclude with a question:
If you were designing a ‘scorecard’ to assess the quality of your own internal deliberative processes — leading to greater objectivity and openness, better articulation of your own thoughts and ideas, deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness, larger capacity for creativity, resilience, equanimity, effective listening, sense-making and ‘usefulness’ to yourself, others and the world — what elements would the scorecard score you on, how (highly) would you score yourself, and what one action might best improve your ‘score’?
And if you’re looking for a place to start with the process of self-inquiry, Daniel has — of course — a list of questions for you.