If your team, organization, the project doesn’t seem worth your time or smells fishy, check governance. Change is tough without understanding who makes decisions and how. Activists, professional people, community folks – anyone who’s part of a team knows the difference between a well-run team, an effective meeting, and the duds.
I first realized the guts of an effective group when my wife and I were invited to join an intentional community (we didn’t call it a commune). We retired in our early 30’s and moved to West Virginia to be with four other families on 160 acres and one house, bought for $30,000 by the one resident who could get a mortgage. We had no interest in crowding into that Sear’s house (yes, ordered from Sears in the 1920’s). So we built our own house. We had only ever built a changing table out of a single piece of plywood. But we had ignorance and chutzpah in our favor. We built the whole thing with friendly help (except the drill the well). We saw right away that the community had no written governance (they had something called the toilet papers- very informal, aspirational, non-specific). We knew we needed more if the community was going to sustain. Who owned what? Who has a voice? How were decisions made? If there were roles, how did the roles get assigned and what was expected of them. How would people be added or subtracted? Who paid the bills? How were the rules changed? How would the community break up? So we incorporated. Sold the land to the corporation. Everyone got stock. Officers were elected. The taxes got paid. We were Jupiter Hollow, Inc. We built the house, had home births, homeschooled and grew veggies and kept bees. We stayed for 12 years, sold our house and an acre of land for $1. The company dissolved a couple of years ago after 40 successful years with significant transition over the years. Five families still live there. We got it done and pretty much got along. Nobody died – except my grandmother (a story for another day).
That’s pretty extreme. However, I’ve learned to kick the tires before joining a company, a close relationship, a team, an initiative, a clutch, troupe, gaggle, crew, band… Kick the tires for governance. How are decisions made? How is money managed? What are the deliverables? How do you add or subtract yourself or other members? Who’s the keeper of the documented, agreed upon governance? Is it the president, the chair, the boss, a defined entity? Are they respected, consulted and listened to? If I don’t check this out before joining, I do it soon and often wish I had done it sooner.
You know the signs: It’s not worth your time. Moral is low. Follow through is weak. Decision making is opaque. Something feels unreliable or just smells bad. The group’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs. If you feel like quitting, yet you care, it may be worth trying to make it better. If not, move on, leave. What follows is work. If you want to stay and give it a shot – check out governance. Who runs it, who leads it, where are decisions made? Is there an agreement or bylaws? Can you find them without asking? If not, who has them? Does leadership follow them? Do the documents and practice differ? Are decisions documented? Does the group have any money-even $1? What are their bills? Do they pay them? Do you smell conflict of interest? Follow that smell. If you can’t find documents or they’re behind a security wall, ask to see some. Match words, paper, and deeds at least a couple of times. You’re building trust.
Sometimes governance can be downright simple. I’m part of a podcasting fellowship (#TPFAlumni). About 100 people, worldwide, supporting each other virtually to build and deliver podcasts on 100 different subjects. We have a few conventions. 1) Triads – all activities have three admins or it’s not worth doing. 2) those who show up decide. 3) someone takes away the job of communicating decisions to everyone else on our collaborative platform. 4) be as generous with your time, skills, and experience as you can. No more. That’s it. It’s early days, but so far, one of the most effective of tens of groups I’m part of and totally worth my time.
If you want whatever you’re doing with other people to be worth your time and it isn’t, change is needed. It’s almost impossible to be an effective change agent without understanding the documented and actual governance – unless you resort to brute force. Internally or externally. I have no skill at brute force. I fall down and cry. May the force be with you.
Images: The house we built and the family that built it. What a hoot!
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