I lead a small group of makers and builders (~5-10 ppl), who are very busy people. If you have to decide on a policy, you could

  1. take a vote on a policy decision, and go with the majority?
  2. take a stand, implement the rule and then ask for feedback on how the policy helps the group? OR
  3. implement the policy, and then if people don't follow through, you should just find new people?

I frequently have to make such decisions, but I am not sure what criteria to use to chose any of the above paths. I am wondering if any of you had to make decisions, how would you go about deciding what path to follow?


For lower-impact decisions, like setting a deadline for something or (for a local community) choosing a restaurant for our informal get-together, I usually announce a plan barring objections:

I'm planning to freeze the wiki Sunday at noon for a few hours to upgrade the server. If that time doesn't work for you, please let me know by the end of Friday.

This approach means we don't have to have the long email thread about when to do the upgrade, but it still gives people the chance to weigh in.

For higher-impact decisions, like whether to migrate to a different service or whether to change an important part of the bylaws or the like, you really need everybody to feel they had an equal voice. If you use this approach, some people will resent it because they'll feel that you're forcing them to be the "bad guy" who says "no". For these kinds of decisions, you need to have a discussion somehow -- email thread, scheduled chat session, or whatever works for your group. If, after that, the consensus is "we don't care; do whatever you want", then you can announce your plans as in the first case and then go do it.

Volunteer associations are vulnerable to disenfranchisement -- if people feel they don't have a voice, they might find other groups to hang out with. It can also cascade; after some people leave, others might follow. A larger group can absorb some departures, but a small group like yours probably can't. So give people a chance to speak up before you implement changes, but don't make them convene a meeting for every small detail.

This approach has worked well for me in small online communities, a small local (in-person) community, and my team of a dozen or so at work.

  • @monica-cellio..Thanks. Appreciate your advice. What you mentioned about disfranchisement, has been very much my experience. I had the same intuition, based on experience, but one of our long time members suggested that I make a decision about a big policy and go with it, and I found out that my intuition was very similar to what you mentioned and that is what is likely to happen. I will implement your advice and this gives me a great framework to work from..
    – alpha_989
    Dec 4 '17 at 20:52

For many smaller groups, most people agreeing is essential, but getting this consensus is much easier. It definitely does depend on the impact of a particular change and which details of that change matter to the group.

A community, for example, may care less about where a game server is hosted than what program everyone uses to communicate with each other.

In most cases for either temporary or minor changes, either a notice of the change or a "voice vote" per se formatted like either:

  1. After W, X will be changing to Y, because of Z. [...]

  2. In order for Z, X needs to change to Y. It's currently planned for W, but if this is an issue, contact me here.

The former is often used for routine changes (for example announcing that a service may be unavailable for some time) and for things that should have a minimal availability/usage impact, and the latter is sometimes used for that.

If these changes impact the rules that people in a community adhere to, it's almost certainly a high impact change, and just doing it without getting feedback can cause people to feel like they are not heard (even if they do agree with the underlying change).

It is worth noting that sometimes, there is either not much of a choice or not modifying something could have potentially dangerous results. In this case, you may have to make the decision unilaterally, but should still listen to feedback that you get and do your best to explain the reasoning behind the change.

Communication is important in this scenario, especially in smaller groups where each member, by definition, is a larger portion of the group than one in a larger group.

  • 1
    thanks for your advice. I have to stratify the decision between something which may break the group and something that is trivial. Yeah, I have been getting better at getting feedback. I found that if I just ask the whole group, people tend to be hesitant to provide feedback, because they feel they may be conflicting somebody else's opinion. If I ask them directly instead, I do get better feedback.. which is what I have been doing recently.
    – alpha_989
    Dec 29 '17 at 16:37
  • 1
    We are also completely remote, that adds other challenges.. which I learnt about recently: s12k.com/2015/08/25/…. It has been a very good learning experience, nonetheless..
    – alpha_989
    Dec 29 '17 at 16:37

Have you looked into Sociocracy?

It may be a bit too heavy and formal for small organizations, but you can pick and choose from its features to suit your community.

Basically, it is a system of "decision circles" that typically concern one aspect of a community. These circles send delegates to other circles that have intersecting interests.

We adapted this to our concept of Stewardship. A "steward" speaks for a resource that cannot speak for itself. Generally, you want the person with the most knowledge about a situation to be empowered to make decisions about that situation.

The "circles" are typically small, with 5-9 people max. This is the largest number that I think one should attempt to use consensus with! I have seen "pseudo-consensus" destroy communities!

In consensus, people are supposed to "go along" unless they have a "principled objection." But what the heck is that? In Sociocracy, the idea is supposed to be, "Can I get along with this?" This is a much lower bar to pass, and the smaller number of people mean it is generally more streamlined.

To take your points individually:

1) Majority vote. Democracy is two wolves and a sheep, voting on what's for dinner. To be purposely provocative, democracy doesn't work, and never has. You simply end up with two halves, one that is self-satisfied that they got their way, and the other that is resentful and increasingly bitter. In community, you need a process that keeps people friendly with each other!

2) Take a stand. Has all the disadvantages of democracy, without the advantage of having at least 51% buy-in! Even more resentment. You need to at least obtain "buy in" to your leadership. (See below.)

3) Find new people. Ugh. How much time and effort will that take? Almost anything seems better.

In our Stewardship model, Stewards are elected for their expertise in certain areas, and are empowered to make routine decisions about those areas. Get your buy-in up-front, before having to "take a stand!" And even then, if your decision impacts the areas of other Stewards, you'd better consult with them.

For example, I'm the "Finance Steward." I am empowered to make decisions like, "Should we use QuickBooks or a home-grown SQL accounting system?" If you put that to a vote, most people would be bored to tears, and yet, they would feel it their duty to weigh in, no matter how little they knew about it! On the other hand, if we're going to spend several thousand dollars on a project, I have a duty to at least collaborate with others who have funding needs — but not with everyone!

We strive to make everyone a Steward of something. This helps with buy-in, as everyone gets to experience the joys and demands of leadership, and they are thus less likely to create problems for other Stewards.

Bottom line: involve many people in your decisions who have intersecting interests, but avoid formally involving all of them, which, as others pointed out, is unavoidable for certain classes of decisions. "Should we sell the farm we all live on?" That's a decision for everyone. "What should I do about this hang-nail?" I've seen five-hour consensus meetings on such things!


I work in construction with a handful of people who like to do things 'their' way. The approach I typically take is announcing it like this:

In order to avoid issue x, I'm thinking about changing our process to something more like this, but I'm not sure yet. Over the next week or so, I'd like to hear any input anybody might have or other ideas about how to address this specific issue.

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