A Road Trip to Consensus
Sandy had arranged for her non-profit group, Managing Change Northwest, to participate in a three-day retreat. As her official chauffeur I looked forward to roaming about the Palouse Country with a map, shooting film and photos while she sat in a dusky meeting room for hours on end. So, after a 4:30 wakeup call and some coffee we were off on our adventure.
We arrived just before noon on Sunday. The Wheatfield Farm was not what I expected. It is an old-fashioned farmstead completely and beautifully renovated with modern conveniences.
It reminded me of a very upscale B&B, and Doug and Patsy’s gracious hospitality was even beyond that. The upstairs had two large bedrooms (one with a small living room, which was happily mine) and one smaller bedroom between two larger bedrooms. Downstairs there is a large living room with a grand piano, dining room and a beautifully designed kitchen. There is also a master bedroom, office, mudroom and pantry. Just outside, joined by a deck and walkway, were three outbuildings—a one room office, garage with a beautiful upstairs apartment and a large tractor shed. Trees and ornate landscaping surround the house and outbuildings and an iconic field of golden wheat surrounded all.
Just across the field to the south flowed the Touchet River on its way to feed the Walla Walla River to the south. Beyond the Touchet rose the tall and steep hills of the Palouse. The beds were soft, the meals divine—Wheatfield Farm was well chosen for the Managing Change Northwest retreat.
Managing Change Northwest, began in 1996 from a team of participants in a two-year training project to become certified educators in Holistic Management. Holistic Management is a goal-centered decision-making process emphasizing sustainability, profitability and quality of life. MCN’s mission statement expresses the intent to “…help people achieve their goals while improving the environment and society toward a sustainable future.”
Our own business, Raincrow Film, specializes in documentary film emphasizing both sustainability and social change. Sandy has been part of Managing Change Northwest for 15 years and we both have an interest in seeing it succeed. Specifically, I am interested in filming and documenting both its projects and its progress. So, when the first meeting was called soon after our arrival, I decided to “sit in” for a little while—just out of curiosity.
The meeting was called around 1:00 pm after most of the members had arrived. Present were Doug Warnock and his wife, Patsy Adams, Craig Madsen, Maurice Robinette, Dick Wedin, Sandy Matheson and myself (final MCN member, Donald Nelson, sacrificed a very busy schedule to arrive in time for Monday’s meeting, much to everyone’s joy).
I had been a part of a meeting for a short time last year so I knew partly what to expect. I recalled that, in their meetings, everyone sits in a circle and one person speaks at a time, going in order. I vaguely remembered that participation is not required but…encouraged.
Sandy was chosen as Facilitator for the meeting and Doug stood in front of the board as Recorder to write down all of our comments. We began by answering two “grounding” questions—what are your expectations for this meeting? How do you feel about being here? Each person listened with respect to the speaker. While speaking, the Recorder captured the words as spoken (careful not to paraphrase). Each question went around the circle until everyone had expressed themselves to their satisfaction. This began the process called Consensus Building.
Initially, I was very nervous about speaking to the group. Since I wasn’t a member of Managing Change Northwest I wasn’t even sure if I should be listening in on the meeting, much less participating. Yet, I was encouraged to stay and contribute. And, of course, this was not a typical meeting. After a round or two it became obvious that there were shared concerns. They all felt that MCN was a little “stuck”, “spinning it’s wheels” and, what is more, they longed for a significantly “successful project” that they could look back on to give them the “confidence” and energy to “move forward” with other projects. It sounded very familiar to me. This was also my concern for Raincrow Film. I thought, “Participating in this process may have some direct benefits.” In truth, I found myself completely wrapped up in what was happening and decided to stay for the rest of the meeting.
As we progressed, the overall goal, the “Holistic Goal”, of Managing Change Northwest was reviewed. We acknowledged the obstacles and pitfalls of moving MCN forward toward that goal, as well as the successes and attributes that will help move MCN forward. We spoke of our fears: What is the worst possible outcome of changing the way things are currently being done? And then, to our hopes: What is the best possible outcome in changing the way things are done? We talked about what beliefs and behaviors need to change in order to move toward the best possible outcome, as well as strategies and actions that would lead MCN in the right direction. Then we talked about what was to be done and when and by whom.
Through this process, I began to realize that what was being built was not just a consensus but a new vision built upon the collective experience, talent and expertise of the group. It dawned on me how incredibly useful this process could be for other groups and, for my interest, artists and film teams. We artists, in general, struggle with the collaborative process for fear of losing our personal vision. We dislike groupthink, in part, because the artistic process is so often a private, internal exercise. When exposed to conventional group participation our vision is too often misunderstood and new decisions end up working against the overall vision. At the same time, if we avoid working with others, our art suffers anonymity or incompletion for lack of support. Certainly this is my feeling and current situation, as it is for many artists I know.
Yet, through this consensus building process amazing things happen. As we listened to each other speak in turn, with respect and without interruption, discussion or critique, a truly creative process opened out. There was a sense that, with each speaker’s contribution, there was a shift into a higher gear, a shift in thinking, and a real power building within the group. Naturally, each speaker built on the comments of the others until a resonating idea had been reached. It was magic—an almost effortless process that resulted in amazing insights and strategies. I ended up participating in nearly twenty hours of meetings that weekend, yet it felt as though we were outside of time. It felt like…well; it was a spiritual fellowship, though it was in a completely secular setting.
So, what came out of this weekend was a new vision for Managing Change Northwest—stronger and more achievable and beneficial than each private vision, yet it was built upon each private vision. It is implicitly supported because it is truly inclusive—a vision ready for action. And as a filmmaker I began to see how my skills could effectively contribute to the overall progress of MCN—moving them closer to their holistic goal.
On the way home Sandy and I stopped at Palouse Falls State Park for a little picnic and photo session. Under the shade trees we discussed how we could also apply this process to our own lives—to our farm (Matheson Farms), our film business and our families. I have not felt so much hope in the future in quite some time. By participating with others in a project that grew beyond our finite vision—that the whole is truly greater than its parts—forced me to realize that a gathering of people is not a source of conflict but a potential for engendering real, brilliant solutions and progress. I suspect that what I learned this weekend is, perhaps, a very natural process that has been around for thousands of years—yet lost, somehow, in our modern emphasis on both the individual and hierarchy. It is a community building process that is bonding, healing and effective. It was healing and inspiring for me to come to this understanding. I am eager to learn more about Holistic Management and Consensus Building. I am eager to apply this to filmmaking, art and my life in general.
So, thank you, Managing Change Northwest, for letting me drop by and participate in such a business energizing, enlightening, life-changing weekend. I have no doubt that it was a weekend that many have paid hundreds if not thousands to experience. I guess we never know where a road trip will take us. This time, consensus was on the map.