Participating in text-based synchronous online decision-making meetings

How to get the most out of the collective decision-making process

This article starts from the assumption that collective decision-making for groups ranging between three and 150 is more democratic than the alternative. It also makes the assumption that that’s a good thing and is desirable. If you’re not comfortable with that precept, you may want to stop reading now.

First things first, if you’re interested in collective decision making, I have two principle suggestions which have deeply influenced how I think about the issue. There are plenty of others as well. Leave a comment for any decision-making systems you know of that you think I should include here.

Robert’s Rules — Robert’s Rules provides a formal structure for collective decision-making. Even if you choose not to adopt it, knowing about it can be extremely helpful in navigating the complexity of group decision-making.

Modified Consensus —This is my personally preferred way to make group decisions. It’s a form that allows for everyone’s voice to be heard. It’s specifically designed to address the problem of the tyranny of the majority, while also providing a way to avoid the tyranny of a minority, so to speak. That said, it is more vulnerable to abuse than some other systems such as Robert’s Rules.

Collective decision-making is more democratic and that’s a good thing

To start, I want to start with the assumptions this article makes. As stated above, the assumptions are that collective decision-making is more democratic than the alternative, and that that’s a good thing. For clarity, here are my definitions of those terms:

  • Collective decision-making: when three or more individuals make decisions together and no one individual has a unilateral power of decree or veto. In other words, no one member of a group should be able to make a decision or prevent a decision from being made without some way to challenge that person.
  • Democratic: I mean democratic in its general sense, not in its specific sense. The Oxford-English Dictionary provides a fourth definition of democracy as “the practice or principles of social equality,” and that’s the meaning I’m using here. I do not mean the primary definition of “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”
  • A good thing: I’m making the assumption that to be more democratic is inherently better than the alternative, in other words the power of decision-making concentrated into the hands of just one or a few people. This assumption extends outward, but does not go so far as to say that universal direct democracy is the ultimate goal.

Here are some additional concepts which we should cover right away:

  • Dunbar’s number: a researcher by the name of Dunbar studied group dynamics and suggested a limit of a functional cohesive group at around 150 people. Now there are plenty of criticisms of that number and concept, but I’m going to use it for convenience’s sake.
  • Group size limit: For the purposes of this article, I’m going to limit the size of groups I’m talking about to between three and 150 people. So, my assumption that collective-decision making is more democratic than the alternative is limited to groups of 3–150. I’m not saying that direct democracy above 150 people is not good, but the complexities involved with decision making on that scale are beyond the scope of this post.
  • Asynchronous: Not at the same time. As an example within the digital realm, email is a form of asynchronous communication. When sending an email, in most cases, we don’t expect the person receiving the email to be waiting for it and to respond immediately. For that reason, we typically don’t wait for a response to an email to come immediately.
  • Synchronous: At the same time. In the digital realm, this is more of a chat-style communication. In a chat scenario, we expect that the person or people in that chat are sitting at the screen and reading our comments immediately after we make them. We may then sit and wait for the response. In the context of decision making, we expect individuals to express their votes in less than a minute’s time or even less.

Collective decision making is hard

I am privileged to have experience in several decision making bodies in physical space, ranging from groups of three to groups of 50 or more. In any situation where more than two people are empowered to make decisions, there will be challenges. In any situation where no one person can make unilateral decisions, either positive or negative, either by decree or veto, there will be challenges.

Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

Be prepared

The focused attention of individuals is precious

When a group of, for examples sake, 30 is synchronously connected to make decisions, every minute you spend making a point becomes 30 minutes of other people’s time. That puts a responsibility upon people who have the floor to be respectful of the time of the people listening. In as much as each voice deserves to be heard, the attention of those listening deserves respect.

Do what you can

For almost every item in this post, these recommendations are not always possible. In some cases, important decisions may need to be made in a short time frame, and it was literally impossible to learn about it before needing to make a vote. In some cases, you may have physical or intellectual limitations which prevent you from doing as much research or reading as someone else. Disabilities of that sort shouldn’t limit a person from participating. So, do what you can.

For many people, it’s both possible and relatively easy to spend some time before a synchronous meeting reading materials, preparing questions, or even drafting specific proposals. If you’re someone that this is true for, then you have a responsibility to do so. This responsibility is akin to the responsibility to refrain from voting on issues in which you have a conflict of interest. It is up to you to hold yourself responsible to this, and in most cases no one will claim you’ve broken a rule by not doing so. Instead, it’s the responsibility everyone to put the work in beforehand, if they are able to. It shows respect for other people and the attention they’re freely giving you.

Look for answers yourself before asking questions

When working in an association or some other big decision-making body, there are often a *lot* of materials available to read. Generally, no one is expected to read all of those and fully understand them. However, much of the work in participating in collective decision-making bodies is doing research and drafting proposals. These are the cornerstones of this mode of self-organization: reading and writing. And because it’s self-organization, that means the work is left up to every able individual.

Another way to put this is this: if something is important to you, find out as much about it as you can. If you think an issue is of a high priority, then it’s up to you to take a lead on learning about it and creating proposals for it. Find out as much as you can before hand, so you can ask the right questions. Try not to assume that points have not been considered, and look to see if someone has brought up a point before. Chances are, if you care about something, someone else also cares about it and has already brought it up. Maybe they haven’t, but maybe they have.

Find out if something important to you has already been discussed, and if so find out exactly what was said. That way, you can make an efficient use of time by pointing out exactly what you think should change. In a best case scenario, you’ll discover that decisions have already been made that meet your standards. In that case, the group won’t need to spend any time on it. That means, the group can make progress on other things. Doing the research and crafting an informed question before the group meets makes the process more effective and productive. It also shows respect for others and their attention.

Draft what you want to say

The best way to show respect to the time of others is to prepare what you’re going to say before you speak. This isn’t always a priority and isn’t even always possible, so it’s meant as a general principle rather than a hard-and-fast rule. In both digital and physical environments, one of the best ways to do this is to draft what you’re going to say if you have time to do so.

Let’s say an issue is brought up, and you realize you feel strongly about the issue and have a unique perspective. Great, so you indicate that you’d like to speak and are put on the speaker’s list behind two other people. While I don’t recommend completely checking out of the conversations going on, in many cases it should not be difficult to scratch out some notes at this time. You can write out the first couple lines of what you want to say, or even just keywords of important points you want to make. There’s nothing like the pressure of 30 people hanging on to your every word to make an idea disappear into thin air.

If the meeting is purely textual based, drafting out your comment saves everyone time. The amount of time you spend writing out your comment before it’s your turn to take the floor can save 30x that time in a group of 30 people. The larger the group, the more impact writing out your thoughts before hand has. In a group of 150 people waiting for you to write out your thoughts for 30 seconds, you would have saved 75 minutes of people’s collective time by writing that out beforehand.

Meetings

What belongs on the agenda?

What follows is my personal perspective and preference. Documents that are still in a draft state should not be brought to a vote for approval. Fundamentally, documents should only be approved which are ready to be adopted. If a document still has place-holders, typos, or differences of opinion pending resolution, approving the document gives the subsequent versions less authority. If the standard for what can be adopted as an official document includes something that is clearly still in a draft form, then the standard of all adopted documents is lowered, giving them less credence.

If you know beforehand that something is important, ask for it to be added to the agenda

If you know that there’s an issue which you feel is a priority, contact whomever runs the meeting to add it as early as possible. This gives others the opportunity to see that the topic will be brought up and give them a chance to prepare for discussion as well. If the goal is to have fruitful and productive discussion on a topic, providing advanced notice is a great way to accomplish that.

On the other hand, if, at the last moment, you insist that a topic be covered and it’s clear you’ve been thinking about it, that reads as a power play. This doesn’t happen often but it does happen. Adding an agenda item at the last minute for an issue that you’ve clearly prepared to talk about, shows you didn’t want to give others a chance to think about it and, possibly, prepare rebuttals to your proposal. I’m not saying that doing this is proof of you stacking the deck in your own favor, but it definitely can read that way. In some communities, proposals of this sort are simply not allowed unless there was advanced notice they would be discussed.

Draft before, amend as a group

By draft here, I mean “a document that has been carefully prepared for adoption pending any changes the group may wish to make.” I don’t mean “a document which is unfinished.”

Synchronous meetings are times to amend documents that have been brought to a nearly-complete state. They’re also a good time to decide to collectively draft documents in some other setting, such as in an working committee, a drafting process that allows for the participation of all members of the group, or one that even includes input from people outside the group. However, as a group size grows, the drafting size is increasingly inappropriate for general voting meetings. The process of drafting documents includes a lot of down time. One member may be actively scribbling away a line, but everyone else in the room will be waiting that time. Returning to my earlier example, if a group of 150 people wait 30 seconds for one person to draft a line, that’s 75 minutes of collective time spent waiting.

Besides this inefficiency, there’s another, and arguably more important, reason to draft before general voting meetings. The reason is that drafting documents is best done when the people participating have time to think about their proposals. Sleeping on a draft document after writing it can bring understanding and clarity that may not be available in the moment. For the sake of drafting the highest quality documents possible, drafting it over the course of at least a couple days will lead to creating the best document possible. Give yourself time to think about a draft after writing it, before proposing to vote on it.

Make sure quiet people have the chance to speak

When a person has already had time to speak on a topic, give others a chance to speak before chiming back in with another thought.

It’s awesome that you’re in a brainstorming flow, and all those thoughts are super valuable. But, speaking multiple times about the same topic, or commenting on several discussion topics in a row, doesn’t give others a chance to speak.

This is another idea that is formalized in some groups, which is to put people who have already spoken in the queue to speak behind those who haven’t spoken yet. This is specifically difficult in text-based online situations, because the stream of chat is linear. So, if someone has already spoken wants to speak, and right after someone who hasn’t spoken yet wants to speak, someone must reorganize the list. Ensuring this is done fairly and equitably is not a trivial task. However, if this problem is ignored, discussions may very quickly be dominated by the most talkative people. Meanwhile, someone who is just as passionate but perhaps less quick to raise their hand may find their voice marginalized. If a more democratic system is sought, this problem must be intentionally addressed. To not do so lets a few very vocal people dominate the conversation, whether they are intending to or not.

There’s always more to learn

I’ve been involved with collective decision-making groups more-or-less without interruption for the last five years. My first real experience with in goes back 12 years. Every group I join, and perhaps even every meeting I attend, teachings me something new about the process. These notes I wrote above barely scratch the surface of best practices for participating in this kind of process. However, I think these principles do form the foundation for productive involvement in a group which makes decisions together.

There’s a lot of reading and a lot of writing required of this kind of work. Typically that is done by people who are volunteering their time. Try to keep in mind that people in these kinds of groups are often volunteers. They may giving generously of their own time because to do so is in line with their principles. These kind of people are often some of the kindest, most intelligent, and most respectful people I’ve ever met. Be sure to treat them well, and they will surely treat you well in return. Thanks for reading.