In Focus: Tiny consensus.
INCM is a gathering of over 150 young and student architects. In 2019 myself, Ariana Zilliacus and Kyra Zwick were the given the responsibility to act as moderators for this large international event.
Because representatives from every single country in Europe (and many other parts of the world attend.) we decided to that this was an ideal situation to test anew political thesis. The question we asked ourselves was: How do we speed up collective decisions towards consensus with the most extreme international diversity? Is it possible to make decisions with 150 people just as quickly as we can with a smaller group of say… four or five. And in a way that doesn’t fall back to simple voting and adversarial debate?
There are good and bad consensus techniques:
Many of us have had an experience with consensus decisions going wrong. Im calling this bad consensus. There are so many horror stories flying around of people trying to organise collectively, and coming into arguments, collective fatigue, organisational breakdown, tyrannical frustration, and abrupt rudeness and arguments for the sake of nothing. A famous sketch by Monty Python paints this tradition in a hilarious sketch about an ‘anarcho syndicalist collective’
This sketch explores many of the ironies of modern labor relations. One of the most interesting thing this sketch points out is that consensus between anarchism syndicalism results in the member engaging in the simplest or most mundane or banal form of activity. Here the collective resort to spending their days toiling mud for no reason. This is a kind of result of what I’m calling ‘Bad Consensus’. Mainly its a consensus, but the result is not very good by any objective measure and the activities reasoning would seem totally absurd to an outsider entering for the first time. However, any attempt to changes the process are painted as authoritarian by those staunch supporters of consensus.
This is a classic joke, and paints many of the ironies around collective struggle. But jokes aside; our organising systems always relate to the needs that we have to address. This means that in some cases gaining conesensus is a nobel goal. For example consensus techniques can be used during AGMs and learning and teaching events and activities — they are really very good at helping us better understand one another.
In other situations gaining consensus can be a bad idea, in particular where the opportunity cost or plausible loss is too high. For example if somebody needs urgent medical attention we wouldn’t want to go through a consensus process because the person could die. If there is a fast moving once in a lifetime opportunity, then the opportunity could be lost. These examples that prioritise speed, because consensus is a process that takes lots, lots and lots of time, organisational capacity and resources.
If the group does desire to reach a consensus then is there a way to get to a better point? And to bring in multiple views without ending up spending our days simply scraping mud from the ground?
The more people, the more complex consensus becomes
The more people in the consensus process the more complex it gets. But the emotional nuances of each member mean it’s also potentially very dangerous if done wrong. It can destroy an organisation.
- The organisation might be rendered incapable of doing anything due to endless discussion.
- Collusion — people can echo their friendship group. Some people might try to game the consensus by having a pre planned ‘party line’. It can seem like everyone in the room agrees, when in reality only four or five people are leading the conversation.
- Those that are time rich can gain control because they don’t have other responsibilities.
- If not careful person will take political centre ramble on for an eternity, persuading the masses to form a single point of view. Resulting in ‘power to the blagger’ rather than power through merit or though good prior descisions.
- It can result in group level inequality in power, that might even be worst than a single person in charge, especially if the individual in charge is from a marginalised background, and the group is inaccessible and privileged.
- Politicans rule, and those who have learned political techniques. Frustration emerges with the creatives and ultimately the decline of the free thinkers in the group leave.
- Like a ‘three legged race with seventeen people, everyone keeps tripping over each other’(as mark parsons on group work)
Because of these reasons that the idea of conseunsus is put to the side by already functioning organisations
How do we get from Mob Mentality (more brains = less intelligence) to Crowd Wisdom (More brains = more intelligence)?
A desicion of 150 people may be much more difficult than making a decision 4 or 5. But why is this? Surely with all of this new brainpower decisions should be easier. Right? Isn’t there such a thing as the wisdom of the crowd?
In the right situation there is a wisdom of the crowd, in the wrong situation it can become the stupidity of the Mob. A mob mentality the is a symptom of bad consensus. The horrific things can occur and be justified.
What does ‘Crossed wires’
To innovate we reconciled that understanding came down to ‘crossed wires’.
The premise is: humans only have a limited capacity for attention and memory. As more communication pathways are introduced in a single conversation it becomes a lot harder to keep track of elements of miscommunication, or give time for clairification (See the exponential growth represented in arrows on the image on the left). This leads to wider misunderstaning and often adversarial conflict.
The formula n(n-1)/2 outlines this complexity formally. Proving that communication channels expand exponentially - as there are more members contributing, there is an exponentially larger chance for miscommunication.
The neuroscientist Robin Dunbar notes that you can see a human tendency to split into smaller groups when looking at a crowd of three or four and it becomes a crowd of say, ten people. My hypothesis is that this might be linked with human short term memory capacity which can only concentrate or remember around 7 things at a time. When conversations expand beyond five people a small social group, the communication chanels get too vast and ‘noise’ affects us. This means humans will normally split into two seperate social groups to self moderate this noise.
In INCM e successfully 150 people from every country in Europe, and trialed systems to speed up mass participatory decision making. To overcome potential for corruptibility in the consensus process. I believe we made major progress in doing this.
Tiny consensus: A tiny innovation but a big idea.
The key innovation was the ‘tiny consensus.’ Which is a way of forming individual opinions in a protected way.
-Making a ‘Tiny consensus’ first in a small groups of four or five people.
- Then tallying up these into a larger consensus. This fast track the consensus process, because it becomes a statistical or probability rather than a simple populist contest.
Carried out twice, or three times, or more, large consensus is easier. This is because all members in the room have a realistic understanding of what the lean of the room is.
Randomising and seperating groups to ensure collusion resistance:
To avoid collusion we made sure that people formed their own opinion first, independent of their historic social group, and only interacted with random small groups so they could share their true opinion with.
Once they gathered these together as a smaller group, and came to a descision these groups shared their consensus with the larger groups at once.
This led us to an understanding of something ‘verifiably’ or likely to be a genuine truth, as the data has not been influenced by an outsider.
The growth from individual opinion forming first and collective decision-making second.
The format of the tiny conesnsus was simple but effective. This grew from an understanding neuroscience behind human relations. Seeing crowds, groups and mobs as being inherently different — each with their own natural geometries that create interaction.
However, to hold and explain the process of moving from individual to collective, we borrowed a metaphor from the theory of Peter Slottedjikes ‘bubbles, foam and spheres’, Where the individual evolves from the bubble to foam, and finally to spheres.
This step by step process looked like this:
-Individuals (Where it starts) were asked to form their own opinion. is analogous to a ‘bubble’
-Small gatherings. Groups of 3–5 were asked to descuss and debate and come to consensus. Analogous to foam.
-Finally a large global community with everyone discussing, as tiny consensus was tallied up. Analogous to a sphere.
There were different rules that strictly applied to each of these social situations. The movement from individual to collective was designed very carefully within this threefold framework, to ensure coercion and that extensive lobbying doesn’t happen.
What tiny consensus means for collective descision making.
This strategy successful as a new kind of process. It sped up descision-making. I believe that ‘tiny consensus’ process also opens the doorway for an entirely new kind of political process in larger politics. It allowed:
- each groups feedback to be well composed and written in a group, and comments to be more considered and refined.
- The quality of discussion can be more rigourous, with more people speaking and traditional issues found in adversarial democracy.
- A kind of decentralised, and collusion resistant decision making and allows strategy to be developed collectively.
As well as this there were an array of other techniques employed, like ‘jazz hands’ and others that allowed sentiment in the room to be quikcly read.
Can tiny consensus change the world? Well.. It’s not for everything. But it is a lot better than the ‘big circle forever’ consensus process used by groups.
It was widely felt by the organisers that new decision making mechanism is not just useful for easa — but the magical system of tiny consensus could be rolled out to other organisations as a new process of running and managing AGM’s for projects, or talking about key important milestones in other areas. It’s probably not for everything, but it allows strategic input, and creates a more refined process for generating individual and group forms of rigourois feedback.
I’m not a big beliver in consensus at all costs approach. But in cases consensus is widely held as important, i think this process of building tiny consensus should happen.
It is not a panacea, there are certainly scenarios where it would not work - for example it might not be a good idea to get a consensus happening when a decision needs to be made with a degree of urgency, or there is some time sensitive existential goal. Sometime descisions need to be reached in the best interests of the organisation. In many cases it’s better to have a clear leader, or a group of leadsrs with some with descisionmaking power, in others some descisions are just better to vote in.
Ultimately the tiny consensus process is a better process than the big consensus process, and can allow us to talk about several new topics, and make decisions on them without getting into mud toiling. In easa these included environmental concerns, and financial structuring within the community and the sped up process made everything much more efficient and realistic as a process — in comparrason to a process that just eats all of our time and nobody actually gets much of a chance to speak.