Blog series (#6) Lessons Learned: Building Networks During a Crisis

Co-Authors: Nikki Uyen Dinh, Audrey Jordan, Leah Ferguson & Dee Washington


The Community Change Leadership Network began with the intention to create a treasured space for RWJF Change Leadership Programs alumni and participants to connect, collaborate and innovate together. 

This project is managed, in large part, by the work of a project team (consultants and CLP alumni) that is tasked with supporting the evolving scaffolding of this emerging network. While our team has deep expertise and experience in supporting network leadership, a pandemic has ways of shifting our collective focus as well as our communities’ needs. Adapting to this moment requires an openness to change and experimentation in approaches and strategies (i.e. taking risks, and growing and failing along the way).

To help unpack some of the behind-the-scenes work of this network, we have created this introspective on our journey as project team staff. It is our intention to use this space to both (1) lean into transparency in a time of uncertainty and (2) share learnings when the journey is not linear. 

July 21, 2020 – Circle Forward Partners, Leah Ferguson & Dee Washington

In Steven Johnson’s book Farsighted: How we make the decisions that matter the most, he lifts up the stark difference between the impact of short-and farsighted decision-making. One critical component of farsighted decision-making is creating space for dissent. So often the role of dissenter is a thankless mantle taken on only by those with a thick skin and stout heart. In a group context, the dissenter is charted with holding the objections of the group and standing firm. They are beloved, tolerated, or despised depending on whether or not they are on “your side”. Dissenters are blanched out by peacemakers who seek to find common ground. The imbalance of influence pushes the decision-making process to the space in between meetings where lobbying sessions seek to bring the ends together and tie everything up in a neat bow. 

In contrast, consent-based decision-making is founded on the idea that each of us holds essential wisdom and that moving forward with a decision without capturing that wisdom is folly. In consent-based decision-making, objections are a gift. When we center objections as a way of raising our awareness to “blind-spots”, no one needs to hold space for “devil’s advocate” or succumb to compromise and decisions are made transparently. Critical to actualizing the principle of consent, within the context of decision-making, is a process to ensure that the group has all the information needed to make a farsighted decision. We call this process picture forming. Then, we agree to take the time needed to make a decision that incorporates the wisdom of the group. To gather the group’s wisdom requires both a good process and for each individual member to check-in with their own experience of the process in real-time. In a departure from Consensus decision-making, we use a Range of Tolerance tool to illustrate that being out-of-consent or beyond your range of tolerance is not to prefer a different path, but to truly sense a risk that the group cannot afford to take. When we are out-of-consent, we talk about it as alarm bells, red flags, or feeling-a-kinda-way. 

Creating the space for people to “check-in” – not because we want to get through to a decision point, but because we truly care about the experience that they are having and the value they add– is a complete new experience for most folk. It takes a bit of getting used to. The reality is that making decisions in this way takes time. The primary critique of consent-based decision-making is that it’s pie-in-the-sky to require so much time for decision-making when some decisions are urgent. What we see in our work is that short-sighted decision making creates so much harm that prioritizing efficacy over inclusion is in itself a short-sighted decision. Right now, as a world, we might take guidance from Spanish poet Antonio Machado who wrote, “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” In other words: “We make the road by walking.” In this tumultuous time, it seems as if we are charged with forging a new path knowing that the only way forward is through. As we build our new world, let us not take the vestiges of the old one with us. Let us lean into each other and use our collective understanding and wisdom to make the future we want to be.