We live in a golden age of consultation. Institutions are constantly asking people to share their opinions, from focus groups to opinion polls to social media. Consultation is all the rage inside organisations too. Today’s managers want to present themselves as progressive—unencumbered by old-fashioned hierarchies—without changing the underlying power stuctures of their organisations. They do this through so-called “participatory” decision-making processes.
Led by facilitators who claim to be neutral, these processes appropriate the language of democracy to obscure oppressive power dynamics. They construct a fake consensus that forces people to compromise their values in the name of unity. Most participatory methods are scams based on the dubious claim that having your perspective heard by those who wield power over you is an effective substitute for challenging the systems which sustain that power.
Our approach foregrounds these questions of power by directing stakeholders’ attention to the consequences—from failed projects to burnout to workplace strife—of decisions that masquerade as change while perpetuating the status quo.
Our facilitators are unabashedly biased towards decisions that everyone buys into, even when they entail substantial loss of privilege for beneficiaries of the status quo. We encourage groups to confront the power structures which underlie their disagreements and imagine a future free of them. In practice that means helping groups to agree common principles, design proposals that satisfy them and find willingness to stretch towards collective action that enables real change.