Pattern #47


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Proposals Emergent

By Courtesy of  Vorarlberg Tourism Austria

Proposals usually promote arrival at particular outcomes. This often prematurely narrows attention into pro/con responses and amendments. So, when possible, start with the situation, issue, or inquiry and treat proposals as data about possibilities en route to greater understanding—until a proposal finally triggers a group ah-ha!

Related: 43 Possibility Thinking, 22 Enough Time, 29 Generative Interactions, 44 Power of Listening, 45 Powerful Questions, 66 Well-Utilized Life Energy, 53 Safety First, Then Challenge

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

Parliamentary procedure – “Roberts Rules of Order” in the United States – usually starts with somebody’s proposal, with a motion someone submits for a vote. There’s some discussion and then checking to see if anybody wants to amend the proposal. So people start adding amendments. They vote the amendments and the proposed law or agreement up or down – and there can always be another proposal offered later.  So the process tends to focus primarily on proposals and proposed amendments rather than on exploring the broader issue in any kind of open-ended way.

And I notice the impulse in a lot of people to arrive at a conversation with their sense of what needs to happen, whether it is a former proposal or not. They think from the start: “I think this is what needs to be handled, this is what needs to be done.”  They have in mind their proposal and they are not really engaged with whatever exploration happens because they already know what is supposed to happen.

To what extent can we – on both the group and individual level – view any proposal as just an idea, like “Here is something we might do“ rather than “Here’s something that we should – or shouldn’t – do“?Then we can look at it and use it as a stimulus for further thinking: like, “if we did that, then we might not do this” and whatever.  True, a proposal can kind of get lost in the flow of the conversation and exploration. But if it is a really good proposal it won’t get totally lost. But more importantly, we don’t want our explorations to get bogged down in pro-or-con energy.  It is polarizing and divisive.  And it intrinsically shuts down thinking unless it is embedded in a process where there are lots of little pro/con things done lightly, like straw-poll voting, in which we ask how people are feeling about a proposal, just as a temporary “temperature check” and then go back into the flow of conversation with that additional piece of information under our belts.

The sense of needing to decide can block the unfolding of collective intelligence. A friend and colleague of mine, Kenoli Oleari, once suggested that perhaps “We decide when we get tired of thinking“.  And in a wise democracy we want to encourage people to think through something thoroughly.  And so any proposal should be at the service of thinking things through thoroughly rather than being a termination point for our thinking.

Very often proposals are actually pushed in order to prevent people from thinking something through thoroughly. The person proposing it doesn’t want people to think very thoroughly about the issue at hand.  They use the proposal to prematurely focus people’s attention where they want it focused and to marginalize other thoughts, feelings, and options.

So in our wise democracy efforts we usually want to start with the situation or issue or inquiry and then treat proposals as data about possibilities and a possible route to deeper understanding. For example, we might deconstruct the proposal, think about its assumptions, think about what the outcomes might be, and so on – not to critique it particularly, but to understand the situation better.

Then sooner or later when our exploration is carried on long enough and well enough, there is usually an emerging sense of shared understanding.  The group experiences something similar to what Native American leader Oren Lyons referred to when he said: “We talk until there is nothing left but the obvious truth“. We have explored it enough to go: “Oh, yes, that’s it! That’s what makes sense and so we’ll do that!“ And it ceases to be a proposal launched into the group so much as something that occurs, that arises, that emerges from the group’s increasing understanding. This can happen from one person but it is particularly fun when it happens for a number of people at once. It sort of shows up as if it is from the outside, even though it is from the inside, from the group’s evolving center of awareness.

So this is what I mean when I refer to “proposals emergent” instead of proposals dominating the discussion. They arise out of rather than cutting things off or being forced into the group. If we want to have wise policies and wise actions which take enough into account, we do not want to stop at any proposal that is insufficiently taking things into account.  Although it is true that sometimes we are short of time and our situation is urgent, we might be wise to realize that that is one of the realities that we need to take into account. It is not as if everything needs to be taken into account and you have to talk about things forever. The conditions under which you are deciding is one of the things that you have to take into account and learn from.  Sooner or later, it may be very important to ask: “Why are we deciding such things so late in the game?“ The answer to that may be another important piece of information we should take into account! If the need isn’t totally obvious to everyone, someone should probably say: “Perhaps if we are going to make this decision now we should buy at least a little more time to really look at what is happening here! Why are being forced to do this now, so suddenly and urgently?“  For it is usually far better for proposals to show up rather than to be driven like a fully-formed vehicle into the midst of our thinking looking for riders.

Video Introduction (10 min)

Examples and Resources

Nonlinear processes like Dynamic Facilitation are all about group “aha!”s with emergent proposals.

Nonviolent Communication explores people’s needs and all the things that could be done to address those needs.  It helps people with different needs work together to figure out what actually would handle most of the needs that they have. Proposal shows up out of that exploration and get considered.

Consensus process treats proposals as information to explore.  You don’t want a proposal right away.  You want to explore the issue and there often comes a point when somebody says “Well, we could do X” and everybody goes “Ah, wow, that makes sense! That is what we are going to do!“

“Framing an issue for deliberation“ involves giving deliberators a set of 3-5 perspectives which are largely solutions that various advocates in the society’s political debate have come up with. In the main discourse on this issue we present 3-5 main arguments or approaches to dealing with it. You don’t want more than five approaches because people can’t hold more than five things in their minds and you don’t want fewer than three because then the discussion gets polarized. So you say,  for example, “Here are four very different approaches: Should we have public schools or should we have private schools or should everybody do any kind of homeschooling they want, or should we send kids overseas? These are different choices of what education is all about. Here are all arguments for each of these approaches.”  You are basically acting as if these are proposals, but not telling the deliberators to decide pro or con on each one.  Rather, they are information to get the deliberators started. Right at the start the deliberators are given multiple proposals that make them go “Whoa, there is way more to this than I realized!“. That is a another application of this principle based on the assumption that we are going to get them thinking more openly because they have to wrestle with this matchup of four or five different proposals.

Scenario Planning involves working with quadrant models in which four different scenarios are featured – one in each quadrant – and you look at each of them. You have to figure out what will happen under the conditions specified in each quadrant and think about how your group will react to whatever is emerging there. The Mont Fleur scenario work in South Africa near the end of apartheid produced a proposal that all the very different political groups bought into as the only one that would work.  But that was only after examining several different scenarios that various parties had created that they thought they preferred, but which – once the explored them together – they discovered were probably unrealistic.

There are also other similar scenario processes which are just exercises. You are not trying to arrive at what you’re going to do.  You are just strengthening your ability to think on your feet and respond to different combinations of factors. Shell Oil developed this kind of scenario work and it was used in South Africa.

All processes like this involve emergent proposals.