Issues vs. proposals

Publish Date: 
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 18:18

The simulations I ran in July 2011 were based on the idea of dealing with a series of proposals:

  • proposal → friendly amendment → amended proposal → friendly amendment → ... → ultimately consense or give up.

I think this may have been loosely inspired by my notes from Butler and Rothstein's book on formal consensus process, including this diagram:
 Diagram titled 'The Formal Consensus Process' that begins with a proposal and ends with adopting or rejecting the proposal
This diagram begins with a proposal, and ends with a decision whether to adopt the proposal. [In the July modeling I chose to simplify all this pretty drastically by not developing a way to model "concerns" except by having model agents say "I don't like the proposal as it is, let's change it to this similar one." See below for more on "concerns."]

I've also had the experience of being in various groups that use some version of formal consensus in which there's a boilerplate agenda something very much like "Introductions; working group reportbacks; possible special presentation; proposals; announcements and closing." That is, the only collective decision making takes the form of receiving a proposal and deciding what to do with it. In my experience in various groups, and I don't know how widespread this is, you're not allowed to make counterproposals while a proposal is on the table, or any other suggestions except in the form of concerns or friendly amendments. A decision has to be reached whether to block, postpone, or adopt the proposal (with or without amendments) before other things, including other proposals, can be discussed.

There is a fundamental asymmetry hidden in this: people are always allowed to bring proposals (room on the agenda permitting), while blocking is strongly discouraged. This means that a proposal that's not necessarily an improvement over the status quo for most people can still be adopted, and if there are several courses of action that are all acceptable enough to avoid being blocked, the first one proposed is likely to be adopted even if others are significantly better. [I have had citations about this in the past, but am having trouble finding them.]

Also, on a more positive note, in thinking about the general idea of looking for a good solution to a problem - i.e. a mutually acceptable location in the space of possible proposals for a given problem domain - I came to find this idea limiting. Wouldn't it be better in some circumstances to say, "Let's take a certain amount of time to talk about a certain issue, and see whether there's anything we'd like to do about it"? We could start by trying to clarify what we know about the issue, make sure we agree that there's a problem to be addressed, lay out multiple possible proposals and find out what people think about them, and then see whether an answer has emerged, or whether there's a need to pick out particular proposals and discuss them.

This seems more like what Tom Atlee describes here, and it's more like this diagram from Peter Gelderloos's book:
 diagram in which an issue is discussed, and possibly a proposal emerges after various other steps.
Like I wrote in my plan for March, I want to reconceive the simulation model so that it can include things like brainstorming and comparing multiple proposals, not just considering a single proposal at a time. Maybe I'll try asking what's the simplest possible extension of the model that can include brainstorming, to see how far it gets me. I'm curious whether that will reveal that brainstorming is at one end of a certain spectrum (I don't know what spectrum, yet), with taking one proposal at a time at the other end, and if so it'll be interesting to see what lies in between the two ends of that spectrum.

Modeling issues involved in this

In the July models, when I was only considering what to do with a model, I had the issue of how to formalize what a concern is. In my model, proposals were just anonymous points in a big space, and you could really just say how much you do or don't like one of them, and propose another one in its place: there's no way to say what you don't like about it. That requires some kind of language for talking about the proposal, or another way to look at it might be a way of naming sets of proposals and not just single points in the space. For instance, when I say, "I don't want to get the onion, mushroom and tomato pizza because I don't want onion", I'm saying that all the possible pizzas that include onion are, uh, off the table - which helps the process along quite a lot because it rules out a big chunk of the search space.

In the Gelderloos diagram something analogous is happening earlier in the cycle: first there's a cycle involving brainstorming that produces an "idea", then there's a cycle about "how [the] idea will take shape", which produces a "proposal" that has general support, and then there's a cycle involving concerns and friendly amendments that ends with consensus or failure to reach consensus. It might be safe to say these "proposals" are single points in the search space. They come at the end of a narrowing-down process, and the earlier phases deal with something more general: it seems like an "idea" is a lot like "let's get onions on our pizza", i.e. it corresponds to a whole region of the search space - all the different combinations that include onions - very much like concerns, or their counterparts, the "pros" of "pros and cons". This could be described as working with subsets of the search space, or, probably more usefully, characteristics of proposals that are wanted or unwanted. [As an aside, Gelderloos's three-phase diagram could probably be generalized to a simpler idea of narrowing down without discrete phases, starting with broad brush strokes (is group support behind a particular idea or approach) and then narrowing in more and more until there's an actual concrete plan for what to do. This might be worth exploring.]

It seems like I really need a clear way to handle this subset issue. Other issues have been emerging as well, which I might write up separately: what difference does it make that people don't change their point of view from listening to each other; what difference does it make that people don't consider "the good of the group" as well as their own desires, for instance wanting to come to agreement quickly or to avoid conflict; and are people likely to use strategy to get more desirable outcomes for themselves, not just something they're willing to accept.

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