To manage the working relationships between the national organization and its chapters in an environment of rapid evolution, the United States Green Building Council adopted a model called “dynamic governance.” See how the process works, why it is gaining traction in the United States among both corporate and nonprofit organizations, and what it might mean for other component organizations.
Useful resources and contacts:
- Visit http://www.sociocracy.info/sociocracy-faq/ for more information on sociocracy and dynamic governance;
- Visit http://www.sociocracy.info/we-the-people/ for information on one of the first books in English on the history of dynamic governance, We the People by John Buck and Sharon Villines;
- Contact John Buck, one of only three certified trainers in North America,(firstname.lastname@example.org) for a copy of his writings on the subject of dynamic governance
Dynamic Governance, Dynamite Components
ASSOCIATIONS NOW, June 2006
When runaway expansion intersected with cumbersome decision making, the U.S. Green Building Council saw trouble in paradise. Its leaders turned to a dynamic governance model to facilitate a nimble network of national and component groups.
Kris Prendergast joined the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) as President and CEO in 2007. Her prior position was Vice President for Governance and Organization Development at the U.S. Green Building Council where she pioneered an innovative governance model within the USGBC’s volunteer committees, chapters and regional councils. During her tenure at the USGBC, Kris helped to establish the headquarters in Washington, D.C.; grew the membership from 300 to over 6000 organizations, and initiated the Council’s chapter program, which grew to include 50 local chapters and 8 regional councils. Kris serves on the Council of the Fourth Sector Network and was an initiator of the New Economy Roundtable, a collaborative aimed at highlighting strategies that support an equitable and sustainable economy. Kris has a M.A. in Environmental Studies and an interest in sociocracy, a system that rewires decision-making to activate deep intelligence and creativity within organizations.
Going “green” is in. More and more people are recognizing that high-performance buildings are energy efficient, water mindful, profitable to build, environmentally friendly, and healthy places to live and work. As a result, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington, DC, the nonprofit organization at the forefront of the movement to “green” the built environment, has experienced exponential growth at every level.
Membership has grown from a mere 300 member companies and organizations in the year 2000 to 6,000 members today. As national membership doubled annually, 65 chapters and affiliates formed in cities across the country in the space of five years. And while headquarters staff grew from five to 60 in the same time period, maintaining a sense of community and connectedness across the organization in this high-growth environment has remained a challenge.
From my vantage point in leading the chapter-development program since 2000, it was clear that we had to develop an organizational relationship to take into account the separately incorporated local organizations, which increasingly wanted a voice in headquarters’ decision making. The question was, “What did we want that to look like?”
We ultimately decided on the “dynamic governance” model, because it held the promise of accessing creativity and leadership across the organization. Developed in the Netherlands as “sociocracy” in the 1980s, dynamic governance enhances productivity through an unusual decision-making structure that changes an organization’s internal dynamics.
“USGBC’s chapters have been organized from the grassroots by individuals with a passion for bringing green building to their communities and a vision for market transformation at the local level,” says Michelle Moore, vice president of community and communications. “We needed a governance solution that responded to their entrepreneurial spirit, respected diverse regional needs, reinforced USGBC’s leadership role, and reflected our dedication to consensus. … [Once introduced to] dynamic governance, I knew we’d found a solution.”
Our results in the way that our chapter network has been redesigned to leverage overall capacity and facilitate membership growth have been so significant that you may want to consider the dynamic governance model for your own association.
The principles of dynamic governance are being adopted by a variety of nonprofit organizations and forward-thinking corporations. I first learned about the concept through the cohousing community where I live. In this collaborative housing arrangement, residents consciously commit to living as a community, participating in all decisions (typically made by formal consensus) about its design and operations. A number of cohousing communities have adopted dynamic governance as an alternative to consensus, because it saves time while still protecting the equivalence of each participant’s voice relative to decisions being made.
“Proposals that are developed [via the dynamic governance model],” says Grady O’Rear, president of Green Advantage and resident of EcoVillage of Loudoun County, a cohousing community in Virginia, “will fall within a range of tolerance that all participants can live with. [When we implemented the process], the tenor of our meetings changed, we had fewer meetings, we routinely got to everything on the agenda, and we made decisions with a higher level of creativity.”
We’ve found this to be true for USGBC as well. Dynamic governance allows us to build on our core value of inclusiveness, while giving us a mechanism to keep multiple agenda items at all levels of the organization moving in alignment–not a small thing when your organization includes people representing as many different disciplines and industry perspectives as you find in our membership. The model uses insights from systems theory and self-organizing phenomena to provide a powerful new tool for producing organizational effectiveness. One of the useful features about it is that the dynamic governance methodology is overlaid on an organization’s existing structure and respects manager-staff positions. Here’s how the process works.
- Uses consent decisions instead of consensus or win-lose voting. Governing processes based on majority rule create winners and losers. However, minority viewpoints may in fact represent significant perspectives or concerns that, when overruled, may leave us all worse off. Consensus is a process that seeks to remedy this by crafting proposals that everyone is for, but it can be an arduous and time-consuming process.
By contrast, the consent process enables any paramount objections to be incorporated or addressed in a proposal or decision. The process takes place in the form of “consent rounds” conducted by a facilitator. A proposal is developed and put on the table, and, rather than focusing on whether they are completely “for” the proposal, individuals react quickly, indicating whether it falls within their range of tolerance for achieving the group aim. Amendments can be made to the proposal during the consent round, based on the parts of the proposal that people find objectionable, until the proposal meets all the concerns. The facilitator then tests for the consent of everyone, seeking only that individuals be “not against” the proposal. In this way, consent depersonalizes decision making and places primary emphasis on the needs and limits of the group, with individual concerns viewed as clues to the limits or range of tolerance of the system.
Sandy Wiggins, vice chair of USGBC’s national board, says, “There are inevitably winners and losers around the table when using Robert’s Rules, but dynamic governance always results in a decision to which everyone present has consented. This aspect of dynamic governance holds interesting potential for a world in which majority-minority tensions abound.”
- Fills leadership positions by conducting consent elections. Consent elections are an efficient way for groups, particularly committees and task forces, to select leaders from their ranks. Elections take place through facilitated open dialogue that includes all candidates. The facilitator or election leader describes the responsibilities, qualifications, and term of office. Everyone then submits his or her nomination, each explaining why the particular candidate is qualified. After all candidates have been nominated and discussed, the election leader asks all members of the circle if they would like to change their individual vote based on arguments they have heard for all of the candidates. If necessary, discussion helps to clarify which candidates have the most compelling qualifications. Eventually, all of the information from the discussion and the nominations–or changed nominations–organizes toward a preferred candidate that everyone consents to. The election leader then tests for consent around the candidate with the strongest arguments.
We used consent elections when building USGBC’s new national-chapter governance system, in which we activated eight new regional councils across the country. At the first meeting of each of the councils (composed of two representatives from each chapter in the region), the council members crafted an action plan for the year. At the end of the meeting after they’d had a chance to get to know one another, they conducted consent elections to choose their council chair. Within a relatively short period of time, all the members of the council considered the arguments for the various candidates and self-organized toward a final candidate that everyone consented to.
It’s a simple and elegant process that can be applied anytime someone needs to be chosen by a group for a task. Because everyone has given their consent to the selected candidate, candidates feel fully supported, which avoids the political fallout from a situation in which some members of a group voted for a losing candidate. An additional benefit is that the elections process generates for the group valuable information about and common understanding around the open positions and the needs of the group that you simply don’t get in traditional voting.
- Establishes communication circles that work like living cells. In a typical corporate hierarchy, managers make decisions, and department teams implement them. Those implementing the policies don’t always have input into the decisions, and feedback on implementation doesn’t always get conveyed back to management. In contrast, dynamic governance mimics feedback loops found in naturally occurring systems–in ways similar, for example, to how the human body continuously responds to changes in the internal and external environment. In such natural systems, both positive and negative information is continuously fed back through the system so that incremental adjustments can be made. This makes dynamic governance appealing in today’s rapidly evolving environment, where business decisions and adaptations need to be made and executed quickly in order to stay competitive.
“That was extremely attractive for us,” says Brian Robertson, CEO of Ternary Software, Philadelphia, one of the first corporations in the U.S. to embrace dynamic governance. “We do outsourced software development in the U.S., and our primary differentiator [from our] offshore competition is our ability to be nimble, agile, and adaptable. Our competitors use up-front, predict-and-control management to get customers what they think they might need; we use dynamic governance to get our customers exactly what they actually do need, through continual feedback and course correction every step of the way.”
Explains Robertson, “In addition to pushing much of the decision making down from management to the team level, we actually invite our customers to join their project team’s decision-making circle. The team views the customer as not just an outside stakeholder but as another key team member in implementing the project. The customer regularly reviews in-progress products with the rest of the team, and we use that feedback to adapt the project direction to best meet [the customers’] needs.”
- Creates a circle structure for policy determination while respecting the existing linear structure for execution. With dynamic governance, every voice counts in policy making, and yet there is a clear role for the leadership function of steering the organization. For this system, a hierarchy of circles is overlaid on the existing organizational hierarchy. A circle is a semiautonomous group of people–such as a board, committee, or team–working toward a common aim that is given by the next higher circle. At least two people from one circle participate in the decision making of the next higher circle. For example, at USGBC two representatives from each local chapter have a seat on their regional council, and two representatives from each council have a seat on the national steering committee. Each circle sets policy for achieving its aim, which means that decisions are made at the level where they apply. This distributed decision making frees the leadership at the top to focus on setting the direction of the organization. With the people who will be involved in implementing a decision having a voice in making that decision, the process increases the quality of decisions made throughout the organization and raises the effectiveness of execution.
Embracing the Model
USGBC’s chapter steering committee, composed of elected volunteer leaders that oversee policy and strategy for our chapter programs, has used dynamic governance to transform our chapter network. Following a series of training presentations and several positive successes using dynamic governance to make group decisions, committee leaders, including chair Frank Sherman and cochair Charlie Tomlinson, took a bold step: They proposed to the USGBC board of directors that the chapter steering committee reinvent itself around the principles of dynamic governance, a move that potentially meant sacrificing the committee members’ own individual positions of leadership.
The committee’s main goal, however, was to create a national framework that would help USGBC’s chapters to grow–both in terms of their own organizational capacity and their impact on greening the built environment of their individual communities. Dynamic governance’s unique ability to harness creativity and entrepreneurialism of the individual for the benefit of the whole was a critical factor in this decision.
As a first step in the process, the committee resolved to engage USGBC’s 65 local chapters and affiliates in the decision, applying the dynamic governance’s “power with” instead of “power over” governing process. Drawing together more than 100 board leaders representing every local chapter and affiliate, our annual chapter retreat in 2005 presented the right opportunity.
The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The principles of consent were successfully used in resolving a number of nettlesome issues plaguing the chapter organization, including the decision to allow trade associations to become members of USGBC. To address this significant policy change, chapter leaders (who had learned about dynamic governance only the day before) requested an unplanned consent round to address the issue. Within a facilitated 30-minute consent round, all 140 chapter leaders were involved in developing and modifying a proposal to allow trade associations as members, to which everyone consented. The relief and buy-in for the process by which an emotional issue had been transformed in that one day into a concrete proposal for action–with everyone’s concerns incorporated–has carried over to sustained enthusiasm for the model.
But the most extraordinary example, referred to earlier, was how quickly the entire network adopted, self-organized, and created a plan for implementing the redesign of the chapter network. Using the dynamic governance model, the chapter steering committee presented a proposal for organizing the chapters into regions: a move intended to help provide administrative and organizational support critical to managing our rapid growth. Once the proposal was on the table, the committee stepped back. Chapter representatives, within the space of a couple of hours, self-organized into eight regions, taking the baseline proposal presented by the committee and improving it based on what made sense to them in terms of common culture and practices they had discovered through the consent process.
The chapters then elected a task force, via a consent vote, to work with staff to create an implementation plan. In it, they addressed the development of a new process for creating eight regional councils focused on governance and planning, using dynamic governance elections to select both a leadership and an at-large representative from each chapter. In turn, each regional council would use the dynamic governance election process to select its own chair as well as another representative to sit on the national chapter steering committee. Coupled with consent decision making, this “double-linking” structure provides for each of the 65 chapters to have a direct voice to one of the regional councils and for every regional council to be directly represented at the national level.
Not surprisingly, this also changed the scope of various chapter leadership positions. But because of the transparency of the process and the consent of everyone in the decision making, no one affected by the changes had issues. Some positions were eliminated, some duties were split among other leaders, but as is typical of this dynamic governance process, affected individuals selected their own path forward. Some had officer terms that were expiring; others decided to devote their talents to roles elsewhere in the organization. In only one case–again, typical of dynamic governance solutions–an exemption was made for an individual to have a one-year extension until his term would have expired under the original structure. The end result was consented to by the entire group.
The chapter-regional-national structure is traditional, but the policy-making process means that all viewpoints are represented at every level of decision making such that the tensions of “not being heard by national” (an all-too-common refrain in the association world) are addressed immediately.
Much of this work was done in the course of two days–light speed in organizational development. The rest of the process–training for each region in dynamic governance, elections, and resolution of the administrative/programmatic balance between the regions and their individual chapters–has all been accomplished within six months. The result has been a revitalized organization that has benefited from strong grassroots involvement that will get significant credit for taking the green-building movement to the next level.
Keeping the Momentum Going
A year from now, we anticipate that our organization will be operating with greatly enhanced efficiency and productivity. Already we’re seeing important change in two areas:
- Chapter capacity. Our chapters are increasing their activities by putting in place mechanisms that enable an efficient sharing of resources. For example, monthly meeting programs and speakers are beginning to be recycled through neighboring chapters, instead of each chapter struggling to deliver unique programming every month on its on.
- Member engagement. We’re also experiencing a definite upswing in member involvement because of the sense that all voices matter–and we expect that to translate into increased membership. After all, people gravitate to organizations that make things happen, and our chapters are beginning to enjoy a reputation as a place where real work gets done rather than just talked about.
“USGBC started out as a passionate group of volunteers that rapidly needed structure if we were to be effective,” says S. Richard Fedrizzi, president, CEO, and founding chairman. “But for all the significant impact the national board and staff have had, it was when we made the chapters the front door of our organization that our momentum towards market transformation exploded. … Dynamic governance will compress the period of time in which we reach our market-transformation goal, because it’s inclusive, transparent, and action focused.”
The benefits of dynamic governance within our council’s chapter network have spilled over into other areas of the U.S. Green Building Council. A number of our member committees have adopted consent decision making, and the national board has formed a task force to look at how dynamic governance might help to structure the national board.
While it has been only one year since the idea of dynamic governance first arrived at the council, we anticipate that supporting our leadership across the organization and conducting policy making at the most appropriate level will result in better distribution of capacity across USGBC. The national office won’t be responsible for originating all decisions, and yet the steering function of the national strategic plan and goals will guide the entire association through the double-linked levels operating by consent.
As the system taps into the intelligence of every individual in particular circles of decision makers, more creative solutions and more generative governance will guide us into the future. For an organization that values the environment, a governance model with all these benefits and based on natural systems is irresistible.