Archives for category: Consensus Decisionmaking

About a decade ago I migrated into community work [1] from a non-community background. This is the guide I wish I had read back then.

[1] When I say community work, I am talking about stuff like Wikipedia: large distributed groups of people doing something together, usually online, often unpaid. Usually international, often nerdy, often (but not always) FLOSS or FLOSS-adjacent.

You are going to be doing a lot of writing. Do it well. Phone calls and Hangouts don’t scale. Face-to-face is expensive for distributed groups and therefore rare. Real-time tools like IRC and Slack disadvantage people in minority timezones. And so, in an online community, your main way to communicate is likely going to be email. Which means you need to be good at it. Take the time to write carefully, fully and precisely. And since text is going to do so much of your communicative heavy lifting, consider being a little more explicit about emotional signal-sending than you might be otherwise. (“I am happy…”, “it is sad…”, “I am grateful.”)

In all your communications, be conscious of your group’s diversity. The group you’re speaking with is likely more diverse than what you’re used to. There may be children and teenagers as well as adults. For many or most, English won’t be their first language. They probably live in multiple countries, have had a broad diversity of experiences, and and hold a wide array of beliefs. This creates a bunch of potential pitfalls. Your jokes may fall flat or offend people. Cultural references (sports, movies, history) may be meaningless. Even for those of us who aren’t American, it’s easy to come across as U.S.-centric. Metaphors, allusions and convoluted sentence structures may not be worth the time they’d take readers to untangle, and make translations much more difficult. High diversity argues for a style that’s literal, straightforward, and well-structured.

Be cautious about creating an insider culture. This is a tough one, because inside jokes and shared history and assumptions foster a sense of belonging. But every in-group requires an out-group, and having a lot of shared lore is unavoidably exclusionary: it makes it harder for new people to join. A strong culture will also inevitably move you towards demographic/attitudinal narrowing, rather than the reverse.

Publish early, publish often. If you are building a plan or a proposal, don’t wait until it’s flawless and polished to publish: release it while it’s still raw and half-baked. For folks from a non-community background this will feel dangerous, like you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to criticism. But in a community context it builds trust and empathy, and will be understood as an invitation to collaborate. Do tons of signposting. Explain what you’re trying to do, and why. Sketch out how you imagine it may work.

Be aware that volunteer time is different from paid time. Staff need to begin their public work as soon as they possibly can (sooner!), and to build in lots of elapsed time for community discussion. Community members have other priorities: school, jobs, families. You can’t expect them to make your work their top priority, so you need to give them the biggest-possible window in which to contribute.

Write (and publish) a greater volume of stuff than you think you should. This feels counter-intuitive for people who’ve been execs in traditional contexts, because in an ordinary executive context the scarcest resource is time, and so we get used to providing summaries, bullet points, upshots, and key takeaways. Succinct=good. In a community context though, comprehensive beats succinct. This is only logical: if you’re writing for a wide diversity of stakeholders, they’re going to want to know a wide variety of stuff. Manually asking and answering questions is slow and laborious and splinters the information so you can’t get it all in one place: it’s faster and better, as much as possible, to anticipate questions and answer them in your original communication.

Assume good faith. This is so easier said than done ;/ But for real, assume good faith. When someone asks a question and you think they are trolling, it’s entirely possible they are not. (Maybe they are 15 years old, or their English is imperfect, or they have an impairment of some kind.) Even if they are trolling: there will always be onlookers who don’t know it, and who, whatever the provocation, will recoil if you are curt or unkind. Trolling also gives you an opportunity to equip onlookers with reasonable arguments that they can go on to use themselves.

Bias towards transparency. Way, way, way more than you think you should. I remember being taught change management back in the early 2000s. Our instructor beat into us that wherever there is a communications vacuum, it will be filled by gossip and fear. That is a million percent true, and even more so in online communities. Gossip and fear grow out of power imbalances and information asymmetry which are to some degree unavoidable in distributed and voluntary groups, and you need to compensate for that. Publishing everything also scales well, because it equips everybody, not just you and your inner circle, to help explain what’s going on.

Note that if you’re the boss it’s insufficient to ask your staff to be transparent, because as long as there is any risk of penalty for over-publishing, they will do the opposite. You need to make it clear that nobody will ever be punished or shamed for being transparent, then you need somebody to publish something they shouldn’t have, and then you need to not punish them. Only then will people begin to take you seriously about transparency.

When you change your mind, say it publicly, and explain why. This is another one that’s tough for execs from a non-community context, where we got trained to express more confidence than we felt. But for real: in a community context, changing your mind and explaining why will not erode your credibility; it will earn you more.

Pay attention to people you disagree with. In an ordinary work environment executives get insulated and protected from honest disagreement. This is bad for them and for their company. Community work is different: there is no shortage of people who will disagree with you, loudly and repeatedly, in public. It’s natural to avoid or ignore those people, but if you do, you’re wasting an opportunity. Consider instead that they may, occasionally, be right.


I spent part of last weekend at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, in New York’s financial district. It was a terrible weekend to be there, with the slush and snow making life pretty miserable for the protestors. Friends who’ve gone have reported a festival-like atmosphere with music and food and day-tripping families: what I saw was mostly just sodden people huddled in tents.

But it was fascinating, and I’m glad I went. You probably already know that the Occupy movement aims to operate via consensus decision-making, which makes it especially interesting to me because the Wikimedia projects operate the same way. OWS does it slightly differently though — because they’re making decisions via face-to-face interactions among large numbers of people, they use a variety of hand signals so that people can give simultaneous input without obstructing each other or interrupting speakers. Different gestures signal agreement and disagreement, the desire to raise points of process or ask clarification questions, and so forth.

As I watched the General Assembly, held at seven every evening, three things struck me as useful for the Wikimedia movement:

The “progressive stack” notion could help Wikimedia combat systemic bias in our projects. I want to immediately note here that the progressive stack is not uncontroversial in the Occupy movement: the New York General Assembly has agreed to use it, and is using it, but a couple of facilitators openly expressed ambivalence towards it. I am well aware that anything hinting at a progressive stack would be generally disliked in the Wikimedia movement, for lots of reasons.

The progressive stack is based in the premise that people who come from culturally dominant groups have throughout their lives been encouraged to speak, and rewarded for speaking, whereas people from other groups are more likely to have been ignored or silenced. Therefore, when GA participants line up in a “stack” to speak, the movement has agreed to privilege the marginalized by moving them forward, ahead of others. In practice this means that women, people of colour and gays and lesbians may get to speak before straight white men. You can read more about the progressive stack in this article from The Nation, this Feministing article, this discussion on the Occupy San Jose site and this discussion on Occupy Nashville.

I don’t flat-out love the progressive stack either: it’s obviously problematic. But it does strike me that it’s got application for the Wikimedia projects and our problems with systemic bias. I wouldn’t advocate that we give people from underrepresented groups a louder voice than others, or that they be given particular extra privileges of any kind. But I would recommend that if for example we’re arguing about a topic related to India, and there’s an Indian person in the conversation, given that we know Indian people are underrepresented on the projects, it would make sense for us to listen to that person extra carefully, since he or she would be bringing information we’d otherwise be likelier to miss. Same goes for women, and other underrepresented groups in our community.

I loved how the facilitators deliberately created space for new people by minimizing and making fun of their own contributions. The man who facilitated at my second GA did this explicitly, saying things like “I hate facilitating; I am really bad at it,” and “Nobody trained me to do this. I learned how to do it by reading magazines at Barnes and Noble, which means I don’t really know how to do it.” I thought that was great. In the Wikimedia projects, too often we do the opposite: we use impenetrable acronyms and jargon, sending the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that there is a lot to learn, and you, the new editor, might not be quite up to the task. That’s a shame.

We used to create more space for new people: I remember Florence Devouard, then the chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, telling me that in the early days of the French Wikipedia she used to deliberately make crappy messed-up pages full of misspelled words, so it was easy for people to imagine themselves making things better. I’m not advocating for that today, at least not in the large, mature Wikipedia language versions, but I do think that demystifying our work and making it clear that most policy is just common sense, would help new people to find us more approachable.

I loved how multiple random people in the assembly took personal responsibility for its success. Consensus decision-making can be frustrating, and a couple of times I saw angry people try to circumvent or ignore the process by interrupting or starting up side conversations. Every time that happened, someone in the crowd near the disruptive person would patiently, but firmly, explain the process and ask the person to respect it. I saw one woman do this repeatedly, and I was surprised to eventually figure out she’d only arrived at Zuccotti Park from California earlier that day, and didn’t have any prior experience with the Occupy movement. The fact that she felt empowered to help the GA succeed, and that she wanted to, reflected well on her — and also on the organizers.

By contrast in the Wikimedia movement, too often I see people stand silently aside while somebody else acts destructively. It’s most obvious on our mailing lists, where promising threads sometimes devolve into flame-wars and snark. When that happens in a thread I started, other people will often write me supportive e-mails off-list, wanting to commiserate about how awful so-and-so is, or how terrible the lists are. I appreciate those mails (really, I do!), and I have written a couple like that of my own. But it would be so much healthier for us all to take responsibility for creating a constructive space, rather than standing by as though we are helpless, while stuff is set on fire. That Californian woman was correct: it’s her movement too, and she has every right, and arguably a responsibility, to keep it from being damaged.

So those are three quick things I think the Wikimedia projects might usefully learn from the OWS movement. Please don’t write me angry comments about NPOV: I am not talking here about the substance of OWS: I’m talking solely about its process :-)

I’m writing this fast tonight, even thought I’m a bit of a jet-lagged wreck, because I’m in Paris kicking off a two week trip to Europe, and I’m hoping to visit the Occupy movement while I’m here. I know about Occupy London at St. Paul’s Cathedral, but I don’t know if there are ongoing protests taking place in the other cities I’m travelling to. If you know that there are protests happening in Paris, Utrecht, Vienna, Berlin or Hanover, please tell me in the comments where they are. I’d love to see how they are, or are not, different from the one in New York.

For some reason I can’t make the cutline show up (sleepy!) but the image at the top of this post was taken at Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street, by David Shankbone. The woman shouting in the foreground is still there, but now she’s wearing mittens and a parka.

The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees met in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and had a long and serious discussion about controversial content in the Wikimedia projects. (Why? Because we’re the only major site that doesn’t treat controversial material –e.g., sexually-explicit imagery, violent imagery, culturally offensive imagery– differently from everything else. The Board wanted –in effect– to probe into whether that was helping or hurting our effectiveness at fulfilling our mission.)

Out of that agenda item, we found ourselves talking about what it looks like when change is handled well at Wikimedia, what good leadership looks like in our context, and what patterns we can see in work that’s been done to date.

I found that fascinating, so I’ve done some further thinking since the meeting. The purpose of this post is to document some good patterns of leadership and change-making that I’ve observed at Wikimedia.

Couple of quick caveats: For this post, I’ve picked three little case studies of successful change at Wikimedia. I’m defining successful change here as ‘change that stuck’ – not as ‘change that led to a desirable outcome.’ (I think all these three outcomes were good, but that’s moot for the purposes of this. What I’m aiming to do here is extract patterns of effective process.) Please note also that I picked these examples quickly without a criteria set – my goal was just to pick a few examples I’m familiar with, and could therefore easily analyze. It’s the patterns that matter, not so much the examples.

That said: here are three case studies of successful change at Wikimedia.

  • The Board’s statement on biographies of living people. Policies regarding biographies had been a topic of concern among experienced Wikipedians for years, mainly because there is real potential for people to be damaged when the Wikipedia article about them is biased, vandalized or inaccurate, and because our experience shows us that articles about non-famous people are particularly vulnerable to skew or error, because they aren’t read and edited by enough people. And, that potential for damage –particularly to the non-famous– grows along with Wikipedia’s popularity. In April 2009, the Board of Trustees held a discussion about BLPs, and then issued a statement which essentially reflected best practices that had been developed by the Wikipedia community, and recommended their consistent adoption.  The Board statement was taken seriously: it’s been translated into 18 languages, discussed internally throughout the editing community, and has been cited and used as policies and practices evolve.

  • The strategy project of 2009-10. Almost 10 years after Wikipedia was founded, the Board and I felt like it was time to stop down and assess: what are we doing well, and where do we want to focus our efforts going forward. So in spring 2009, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees asked me to launch a collaborative, transparent, participatory strategy development project, designed to create a five-year plan for the Wikimedia movement. Over the next year, more than 1,000 people participated in the project, in more than 50 languages. The resultant plan is housed on the strategy wiki here, and a summary version will be published this winter. You can never really tell the quality of strategy until it’s implemented (and sometimes not even then), but the project itself has accomplished what it set out to do.

  • The license migration of May 2009. When I joined Wikimedia this process was already underway, so I only observed first-hand the last half of it. But it was lovely to watch. Essentially: some very smart and experienced people in leadership positions at Wikimedia decided it made sense to switch from the GFDL to CC-BY-SA. But, they didn’t themselves have the moral or legal right to make the switch – it needed to be made by the writers of the Wikimedia projects, who had originally released their work under the GFDL. So, the people who wanted the switch launched a long campaign to 1) negotiate a license migration process that Richard Stallman (creator of the GFDL and a hero of the free software movement) would be able to support, and 2) explain to the Wikimedia community why they thought the license migration made sense. Then, the Wikimedia board endorsed the migration, and held a referendum. It passed with very little opposition, and the switch was made.

Here are nine patterns I think we can extract from those examples:

  1. The person/people leading the change didn’t wait for it to happen naturally – they stepped up and took responsibility for making it happen. The strategy project grew out of a conversation between then-board Chair Michael Snow and me, because we felt that Wikimedia needed a coherent plan. The BLP statement was started by me and the Board, because we were worried that as Wikipedia grew more popular, consistent policy in this area was essential. The license migration was started by Jimmy Wales, Erik Moeller and others because they wanted it to be much easier for people to reuse Wikimedia content. In all these instances, someone identified a change they thought should be made, and designed and executed a process aimed at creating that change.
  2. A single person didn’t make the change themselves. A group of people worked together to make it happen. More than a thousand people worked on the strategy project. Probably hundreds have contributed (over several years) to tightening up BLP policies and practices. I’m guessing dozens of people contributed to the license migration. The lesson here is that in our context, lasting change can’t be produced by a single person.
  3. Early in the process, somebody put serious energy towards achieving a global/meta understanding of the issue, from many different perspectives. It might be worth pointing out that this is not something we normally do: in order to do amazing work, Random Editor X doesn’t have any need to understand the global whole; he or she can work quietly, excellently, pretty much alone. But in order to make change that involves multiple constituencies, the person doing it needs to understand the perspectives of everyone implicated by that change.
  4. The process was carefully designed to ask the right people the right questions at the right time. The license migration was an exemplar here: The people designing the process quite rightly understood that there was no point in asking editors’ opinions about something many of them probably didn’t understand. On the other hand, the change couldn’t be made without the approval of editors. So, an education campaign was designed that gave editors access to information about the proposed migration from multiple sources and perspectives, prior to the vote.
  5. A person or a group of people dedicated lots of hours towards figuring out what should happen, and making it happen. In each case here, lots of people did lots of real work: researching, synthesizing, analyzing, facilitating, imagining, anticipating, planning, communicating.
  6. The work was done mostly in public and was made as visible as possible, in an attempt to bolster trust and understanding among non-participants. This is fundamental. We knew for example that the strategy project couldn’t succeed if it happened behind closed doors. Again and again throughout the process, Eugene Eric Kim resisted people’s attempts to move the work to private spaces, because he knew it was critical for acceptance that the work be observable.
  7. Some discussion happened in private, inside a small group of people who trust each other and can work easily together. That’s uncomfortable to say, because transparency and openness are core values for us and anything that contradicts them feels wrong. But it’s true: people need safe spaces to kick around notions and test their own assumptions. I know for example that at the beginning of the Board’s BLP conversations, I had all kinds of ideas about ‘the problem of BLPs’ that turned out to be flat-out wrong. I needed to feel free to air my bad ideas, and get them poked at and refuted by people I could trust, before I could start to make any progress thinking about the issue. Similarly, the Board exchanged more than 300 e-mails about controversial content inside its private mailing list, before it felt comfortable enough to frame the issue up in a resolution that would be published. That private kicking around needs to happen so that people can test and accelerate and evolve their own thinking.
  8. People put their own credibility on the line, endorsing the change and trying to persuade others to believe in it. In a decentralized movement, there’s a strong gravitational pull towards the status quo, and whenever anyone tries to make change, they’re in effect saying to hundreds or thousands of people “Hey! Look over here! Something needs to happen, and I know what it is.” That’s a risky thing to do, because they might be perceived in a bunch of negative ways – as naiive or overreacting, as wrong or stupid or presumptuous, or even as insincere – pretending to want to help, but really motivated by inappropriate personal self-interest. Putting yourself on the line for something you believe in, in the face of suspicion or apathy, is brave. And it’s critical.
  9. Most people involved –either as participants or observers– wanted more than anything else to advance the Wikimedia mission, and they trusted that the others involved wanted the same thing. This is critical too. I have sometimes despaired at the strength of our default to the status quo: it is very, very hard to get things done in our context. But I am always reassured by the intelligence of Wikimedia community members, and by their dedication to our shared mission. I believe that if everyone’s aligned in wanting to achieve the mission, that’s our essential foundation for making good decisions.

Like I said earlier — these are just examples I’ve seen or been involved in personally. I’d be very interested to hear other examples of successful change at Wikimedia, plus observations & thinking about patterns we can extract from them.

Below are some raw notes I took this weekend at the Quaker workshop I posted about yesterday. This is super-rough; if anything doesn’t make sense just say so in the comments, and I will try to reconstruct what it meant :-)

How meeting attendees are expected to behave:

  • The tone of the meeting is supposed to be unhurried, calm and thoughtful;
  • People are expected to come with an open mind;
  • People are expected to pay attention and listen carefully;
  • People are expected to try to avoid clever debate or heated argument: to try to speak with love rather than judgment;
  • Quakers wait to be called upon by the meeting clerk;
  • Expressing agreement with other people is fine. Quakers will nod and say “this Friend speaks my mind.”
  • People are expected to be open to learning and changing their minds;
  • They’re expected to be honest, and call out other people who are behaving badly;
  • Quakers used to vote but don’t any more: a decision isn’t taken until the weight of the meeting is behind it;
  • People are expected to be open to exploring disagreement. Avoiding conflict means avoiding the opportunity to learn;
  • People should speak appropriately – if they are talking too much, they should restrain themselves. They shouldn’t interrupt other people. Once they express a view, they should refrain from repeating themselves, or bringing up the issue again once the meeting has moved on;
  • If Quakers are feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they should say that in the meeting, in order to get the impediment –whatever it is– resolved;
  • In Quaker meetings, some work is done offline and presented to the meeting by committees. In the meeting, Quakers are expected to trust the diligence and the care of the committees, rather than aiming to second-guess or redo the committee’s work;
  • When people at meetings behave badly (compulsively wordsmithing other people’s work, compulsively standing in the way of consensus, and so forth), the others at the meeting help everyone by encouraging that person to let go;
  • Quakers are expected to not gossip about each other. Useful conversation is accurate and caring, promotes greater understanding, and does not break confidences. It has the result of increasing trust rather than diminishing it.
  • Quakers are expected to express appreciation to the presiding clerk for their work. They’re also expected to try to help the presiding clerk do better.

How meeting clerks [1] are expected to behave:

  • Clerks are responsible for establishing the appropriate tone for the meeting – setting the stage at the beginning, and controlling the tone throughout;
  • The clerk’s expected to know more about every topic than practically everyone else. Most of that is research and thinking and other prep that happens outside of the meeting;
  • The clerk’s expected to help the group trust the work of the committees. This may involved working with committee chairs offline prior to the meeting, to ensure the material’s in good shape and ready to present. The clerk is also expected to help the committees draft appropriate rough minutes in advance of the meeting, so the meeting has a starting point for its deliberations. The clerk should aim to establish a tone in which the committee’s work can be appropriately received;
  • Remind people how to behave in the meeting. Remind people of the higher purpose;
  • Pace the meeting – providing for silence where necessary;
  • Be conscious of their own effect on other attendees (e.g., hugging one person and not others can foster suspicion of cabals);
  • Park their own strong opinions;
  • Be humble and patient and loving, but not wimpy;
  • Park their own desire to be popular;
  • Have a sense of humour, and leaven the seriousness sometimes;
  • Surface and aim to resolve conflict, rather than letting it fester under the meeting’s surface;
  • Build bridges among different constituencies in the meeting;
  • Pay attention to the tone of the meeting, especially to people’s complaints or problems that are keeping them from letting the meeting move forward. A lot of this is emotional work – understanding when people are feeling unheard, and helping them fix that.
  • Right after the meeting, check in with the recording clerk to see if they accurately captured the sense of the meeting;
  • Right after the meeting, connect with any participants who found the meeting particularly difficult, to help them resolve whatever the conflict is;
  • Look around the group and see which other people may be able to lead [2], and encourage and help develop them.

[1] Quakers call the people who facilitate their meetings ‘clerks.’ The job of the clerk is to listen, understand and document meeting decisions. When clerks think they’re understanding the ‘sense of the meeting,’ they will draft a minute and read it back to the meeting for acceptance or refinement. At the Wikimedia Foundation, all our leadership roles contain elements of clerking.

[2] Quakers say “we don’t find Quaker leaders; we grow them.”

How recording clerks [3] are expected to behave:

  • Does not facilitate;
  • Listens really carefully during the meeting and creates the minutes that discern the truth of the meeting (“what does the meeting think”). The minutes are intended to capture all decisions, including who will do things, and by when;
  • The recording clerk will draft the minutes during the meeting itself. Often the meeting pauses to have a draft minute read back to the group – this will surface dissent and misunderstandings, and allow for them to be resolved and reflected in a revised minute;
  • Good minutes are thought to be brief but complete. They typically aim to show how a decision was arrived at, but try not to revive dissent. Points raised in discussion typically aren’t attributed to individuals, because ultimately consensus is achieved and disagreement resolved, so there’s no benefit to retaining a record of who said what. Good minutes aim to reflect the fact that everyone in the meeting is seeking unity;
  • Minutes need to include sufficient rationale so that people don’t need to have the discussion all over again;
  • Responsibility for the accuracy of the meeting resides with the clerk – both the recording clerk and the clerk signs the minutes
  • Minutes should be published as soon as possible after the meeting, so that people’s memories are fresh, and they are reminded of what they’ve committed to do.

[3] Recording clerks are the people who actually capture the minutes of the meeting for the clerk. Once the minutes are captured, both the recording clerk and the clerk sign them. Essentially: the recording clerk keeps the records, which frees the clerk up to do active facilitation.

How committees are expected to behave:

  • The job of the committee is to actually do the work well, offline, out of the meeting. The meeting doesn’t have sufficient time to go through issues with an appropriate level of detail and rigour: that is what the committees are for;
  • Committees should bring to the meeting clear draft minutes (resolutions). Clerks should look at the minutes in advance and tweak them if he or she thinks it will help;
  • Committee membership should not be determined by who is free, or most interested – people should not ‘volunteer’ to be on committees. Instead, committee membership should be determined carefully, by weighing what skills and abilities are needed, and who has them;
  • Committee meetings should be open: unless confidentiality is required, anyone should be able to attend them;
  • Committee work has the incidental benefit of creating time and space for committee members to develop personal relationships with each other, that strengthen the entire community;
  • Committees are expected to do the hard work and resolve difficult issues. They are not expected to throw up their hands and bring back unresolved issues to the meeting;
  • The meeting is asked to trust the committee, and the clerk is asked to help the meeting trust the committee. The committee needs to live up to its part of that bargain, by meeting its deadlines and doing the work it’s committed that it will do.

Here are some examples of Quaker meeting minutes. I have no reason to think these minutes are particularly exemplary – they’re just examples I could find quickly, on the internet. Here are minutes from a 2005 Davis (California) meeting, minutes from a 2010 Eastbourne (UK) meeting, and minutes from a 2010 national UK meeting. (All PDF.)

I spent this past weekend with Wikimedia trustee Phoebe Ayers at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California, attending a workshop called Business Among Friends: Clerking as a Spiritual Discipline.

Neither Phoebe nor I are Quakers, but we’re curious about them. I first read about the similarities between Quaker and Wikimedian decision-making practices in Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new analysis of the Wikipedia community Good Faith Collaboration – and since then, I’ve read a dozen or so Quaker books and pamphlets. I’ve been especially interested in the practice of “clerking.”

The job of the Quaker clerk is to facilitate Quaker meetings – to create the agenda, set the tone, traffic-cop the discussion, listen, help resolve conflict, and understand and document agreement. It’s a role that reminds me a lot of leadership (both formal & informal) at the Wikimedia Foundation, and so I’ve been curious to learn more about it. The purpose of this post is to share some impressions and identify a few Quaker practices that I think Wikimedia could usefully adopt.

Disclaimer! Experienced Quakers will probably find that my grasp of some practices is shaky, and I may have mischaracterized things. People who attended the workshop may remember things differently from me. And, I am going to use words like “consensus” in the non-Quaker sense, so that they’ll make sense for readers who aren’t familiar with Quakerism. My apologies for errors and misunderstandings.

Based on what I’d read, I expected the Quakers to be mostly middle-aged or older, mostly white, and really, really friendly. They were exactly that.

But I was surprised to discover also some unexpected commonalities with Wikimedians. Both speak in acronyms (WP:NPOV, meet M&O, FCL and FAP). Both are really proud of their work, and yet tend towards self-criticism rather than self-promotion. Both talk a lot, and are precise and articulate in the way they use language (the Quakers I met spoke in complex sentences, studded with caveats and parentheticals). Both resist speaking on behalf of their group. And both have a strong individualistic streak, and describe themselves as skeptical about leadership and authority.

(To that last point: On Saturday night, Quaker adults and teenagers played a game called Big Wind Blows, which is kind of like musical chairs. Everyone’s in a circle and the person in the centre, who doesn’t have a seat, calls out “Big wind blows for everybody who [has X characteristic].” Everybody without the characteristic stays in their chair; everybody with it runs around looking for a new seat. On Saturday night, the first person in the centre said something like “Big wind blows for everyone with brown hair.” Second was “everyone who’s wearing blue jeans.” Third was “everyone who’s gone to jail for a matter of conscience.” Four Quakers in the group had chosen jail rather than, say, serving in the military or paying taxes. And doing that was considered ‘normal’ enough to be fodder for a game.)

Tomorrow, once I’ve cleaned them up, I’ll post some detailed notes I took. For now though, I’ll elaborate on a few Quaker practices that I think we Wikimedians could learn from. Most of this will be applicable for face-to-face meetings (i.e., our board meetings, Wikimania, meet-ups), but there may be relevance here for on-wiki work too.

Everybody who’s part of the movement shares responsibility for helping it succeed. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and watch things fail.

The Quakers talk a lot about “clerking yourself,” which basically means taking personal responsibility for the group’s collective success. People are expected to behave in a disciplined fashion, including managing themselves emotionally. They’re expected to be open-minded, open to learning and changing their minds. They’re expected to pay attention and listen carefully to each other. They’re expected to avoid the temptation to get mad or show off, and to instead speak “with love rather than judgment.” They’re expected to restrain themselves from talking too much, from interrupting other people, and from repeating the same arguments again and again. Quakers are expected to be willing and able to calmly, thoughtfully, explore areas of disagreement. If they’re feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they’re expected to say that, so that other people can find ways to support them and ensure they’re heard. And if other people are behaving badly, everyone is expected to try to help them behave better.

All this, obviously, is aspirational. As someone at the workshop said, Quakers aren’t paragons, and they’re just as likely as anyone else to be childish and whiny and egotistical. But they’re expected to try really hard not to be.

Setting the right tone is critical for success.

All weekend, I was struck by the Quakers’ skill at establishing and maintaining a rich, healthy emotional tone.

The most obvious example of this is the Quakers’ use of silence. Quakers really value silence: it’s built into all of their religious meetings and their discussions, and during the weekend, we probably spent a combined total of two or three hours together in silence — sometimes for long stretches, and sometimes just for a few minutes. That does something really interesting: it makes everybody more judicious. You have time to reflect, to organize your thoughts, to calm down. You get to listen to other people, rather than using their speaking time to plan what you’ll say next. What you say is smarter and more thoughtful than it would’ve been otherwise.

That’s just one technique the Quakers use: there were lots of others. Elizabeth and Eric, who facilitated the workshop, modeled warmth and patience and respect. They thanked people, a lot. They acknowledged and welcomed the new people. They opened the meetings in a circle, with everyone holding hands.

It reminded me of something Sal Giambanco of Omidyar Network once told me – that he recommends non-profit boards kick off their meetings with a recitation of their mission statement. It’s the same kind of thing – rituals and practices designed to remind us that what we’re doing together is meaningful, so that we can approach it in a spirit of love and respect.

Sometimes you have to kick out difficult people. Maybe.

The people attending the workshop were all experienced Quakers. And it was clear from the stories they told and the questions they asked, that Quaker meetings suffer from difficult people.

This reminded me of Wikimedia. Because it didn’t seem like difficult people were necessarily over-represented inside Quakerism. Rather, it seemed like a normal number of difficult people created stress and anxiety disproportionate to their actual numbers. Elizabeth says that many clerks have shared with her stories about a single problematic member in their meeting, who wants attention or influence and takes advantage of the consensus process to grandstand and delay or block action for months or even years. Quakers call these people ‘dissenting spirits’ or ‘chronic objectors,’ and characterize them as “needing to hold themselves out of alignment with the group.” Elizabeth describes them as people who, no matter how much trust is extended to them, are unable to develop trust in others. Their disruptive presence can drive away others, and sometimes even threaten the survival of the group.

Which sounded sadly familiar to me.

Here’s what I think happens. Where other groups might unhesitatingly excommunicate a person who repeatedly broke their rules, it seems to me that the Wikimedia projects and the Quakers both tend to agonize instead, presumably because both groups pride themselves on being highly inclusive and tolerant. (Remember I said the Quakers are strongly individualistic? I suspect that, like some Wikimedians, some Quakers have a history of getting kicked out of various groups, and so they have a lot of empathy for people having that kind of difficulty.)

But even the Quakers, it seems, have their limits. As Elizabeth wrote in her book on clerking, “A healthy meeting will provide spiritual nurture for the ‘difficult’ Friend, but will understand that protecting the safety of the meeting has priority. It will not confuse ‘being loving’ or ‘being Quakerly’ with tolerating the destructive behavior of an individual, but will understand that setting firm limits is loving.”

This was probably the most uncomfortable topic that got addressed during the workshop, and it was the only time I remember when Elizabeth and Eric seemed to disagree. It’s a tough topic, both for the Quakers and Wikimedians.

I want to thank Jacob Stone and Gretta Stone, directors of the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, as well as Elizabeth Boardman (Davis Meeting) and Eric Moon (Berkeley Meeting), facilitators of the workshop. Everybody at the workshop was enormously welcoming to Phoebe and me: we are really grateful. Seriously: it was lovely.

I’ll publish more notes –rougher, longer– probably tomorrow.

I never thought much about the Quakers [1] until I read Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new book Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (forthcoming from MIT Press in September), in which Joseph references the Quaker consensus decisionmaking processes – and specifically, how Quakers resolve dissent.

Joseph cites the sociological study Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Society of Friends – an exploration of Quaker decisionmaking by Jesuit priest Michael J. Sheeran, who had spent two years observing and interviewing Quakers for his Princeton PhD thesis, which afterwards was published by the Quakers and is now considered a definitive guide on the subject.

Consensus decisionmaking (CDM) is a really interesting topic for Wikimedians because we make most of our decisions by consensus, and we struggle every day with CDM’s inherent limitations. It’s slow and sometimes tedious, it’s messy and vulnerable to disruption, and –most problematically– it’s got a strong built-in bias towards the status quo. CDM creates weird perverse incentives – for example, it gives a lot of power to people who say no, which can make saying no attractive for people who want to be powerful. And it can act to empower people with strong views, regardless of their legitimacy or correctness.

Beyond Majority Rule was so fascinating that it’s sent me on a bit of a Quaker reading binge, and in the past month or so I’ve read about a dozen books and pamphlets on Quaker practices.  I’ve been interested to see what values and practices the Quakers and Wikimedians share, and whether there are things the Quakers do, that we might usefully adopt.

For the most part, Quaker practices likely aren’t particularly adaptable for mass collaboration, because they don’t scale easily.  They seem best-suited to smallish groups that are able to meet frequently, face-to-face.

But some Quaker practices, I think, are relevant to Wikimedia, and we are either already using versions of them, or should consider it. The Quaker “clerk” role, I think, is very similar to our leadership roles such as board or committee chair. The Quaker decisionmaking process has strong similarities to how our board of trustees makes its decisions, and I think Quaker methods of reconciling dissent might be particularly useful for us.  (Quakers have better-codified levels of dissent and paths to resolution than we do — I think we could adopt some of this.) And the Quaker schools’ delineation of roles-and-responsibilities among board, staff and community members, could I think also be a good model for us.

I plan to write more about the Quakers in coming weeks. For now though, here’s a list of what I’ve been reading:

[1] Quakers have their roots in 17th century England. There are about 360,000 Quakers today, mainly in Africa, the Asia Pacific Region, the UK and North America. Most consider themselves Christians, although a few identify as agnostic, atheistic, or as members of non-Christian faith traditions such as Judaism or Islam. Quakers are probably best known for their belief that the word of God is still emergent rather than fully known, their silent and “unprogrammed” religious services which have no leaders, hymns or incantations, their centuries-old tradition of pacifism and social activism, and their consensus decision-making process.

Read more about the Quakers at Wikipedia.