A Dynamic New Approach

by Liz Walker

There was a distinct sense of anticipation as 43 people gathered at the FROG Common House on a cold Friday night in November. Half of the participants were from EcoVillage Ithaca, and half were from six other cohousing groups, some as far away as Ohio and Maine. There was even a delegation from New Roots Charter School, a local public high school focused on sustainability.

Photo by Jennifer Rau

Photo by Jennifer Rau

We had all come to learn about Dynamic Governance (DG), a relatively new form of governance and decision-making which is rocking the cohousing and intentional communities world. Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, the lively workshop leader who is a founding member of Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst, MA , instructed us to get up and stand on one leg. We all complied. “Now, close your eyes.” This was surprisingly hard to manage. After wobbling around for a few seconds, we opened our eyes and shared what we had learned. It was all about the importance of ongoing feedback from all the senses – a creative way to teach people the importance of Feedback Loops, ( e.g. continuous experimentation, evaluation and adjustment),  a key principle of DG.

So what is Dynamic Governance?
It is meant to result in more collaborative and inclusive groups by paying careful attention to both the governance structure of a group and creating a clear method to reach decisions. “Drawing on cybernetics and systems theory and designed by an engineer in the Netherlands, DG gives everyone in an organization an ear, a voice, and informed influence over policy that affects them,” states one of the information sheets handed out at the weekend workshop. Many different types of organizations use DG, including businesses, non-profits, schools and community groups. “DG invites participation, inspires leadership, and allows an organization to flourish in a changing environment,” continues the flyer. Some of the underlying values include: equality, effectiveness and transparency.

Photo by Jim Bosjolie

Photo by Jim Bosjolie

But how does it work? While truly understanding DG takes training, some key practices can be adopted right away. For instance, to make sure all voices are heard one can initiate asking a question, then going around the circle to get each person’s input in turn. In my experience, this is a facilitation tool that works amazingly well. People who don’t usually speak may find they have special wisdom to share. Those who tend to dominate learn to listen and wait for their turn. At a recent Board meeting we held not one, but four consecutive rounds before reaching a clear decision. Everyone loved the process, and each person contributed a part of the final agreement. It was very empowering!

Another key DG practice is to limit committee or “circle” size to eight to ten people, and to clearly define the Vision, Mission, and Aims of the group. While this may seem unnecessary, it can actually sharpen the focus of a group considerably. When objections to a proposal are raised, the group can see whether the objections are in line with the group’s mission. The group is then encouraged to address such objections directly  in order to create a stronger proposal together.

While the intensive weekend workshop covered far more than I can address here, there are extensive resources available from http://www.sociocracyconsulting.com  (Another name for DG is sociocracy.)

Photo by Jim Bosjolie

Photo by Jim Bosjolie

Participants gave the Learn@EcoVillage workshop excellent reviews. Many said “It makes me feel hopeful,” and “I can see immediate application in my group.” In fact, both the TREE neighborhood and the Learn@EcoVillage Advisory Board are actively exploring using DG.  Six TREE members, including two who serve on the Learn@EcoVillage Board, are taking an online course in DG. Committees for each group are finding that DG techniques seem to free up energy and make meetings both more effective and engaging.  TREE as a cohousing neighborhood will soon be considering a proposal to try out DG for a trial period. We’re on a roll, and enjoying learning how this dynamic process works, together.