Let me tell you a story about group decision-making – essential reading for communal dwellers.
When the Shedders moved into our new shared home, we brought with us two refrigerators from our previous lives. We contributed them to the community and popped them into the kitchen. This will do for the moment, we said. We’ll try it all on for a few months and then design the right solution.
That was three and a half years ago. As I confessed a few posts back, we don’t tend to rush into decision-making here.
Here is the story, plus, with benefit of hindsight, the rules of the game:
1. No point fussing until somebody develops serious unease.
Before any action ever gets taken, somebody’s got to be uncomfortable with the current situation. In our case, for most of our first three years together we had only two couples living in the house. Two fridge-freezers for four people worked fine. No unease.
Then a few months ago Michael and Judy arrived permanently, bringing with them their own food, food tastes, and food storage preferences. Suddenly there I was, sharing a fridge, losing track of my cheese, neglecting the celery until it turned to mush, and accidentally drinking someone else’s milk.
Combine this problem with that posed by our fertile gardens, which are churning out enough vegetables to feed a neighbourhood. Suddenly the freezer compartments were full of tomatoes and zucchini. When you start freezing produce, you soon discover a freezer compartment holds very little.
Our casual conversations about, “We really must do something about our fridge space,” turned into, “We’d better get to Bing Lee and buy something now.”
I, all of us, really, had developed serious unease. Time for action.
2. Be prepared for the oddest opinions to emerge.
So the six of us sat down after dinner a few nights ago to work out what we wanted, while an amiable houseguest cleaned up the dishes.
You might be amazed at how complex this issue of cold storage became.
For example, there were varying views about energy efficiency. How many stars should you have? What kilowatt usage? And what difference did the ratings make anyway?
There were opinions about quality and appearance. Did we need a water cooling unit in the door? Upright freezer or chest? Frost free? Stainless steel? Did everything have to match? Should we keep one of our existing fridges?
There were issues about configuration. What we wanted wouldn’t fit/would fit just fine, depending on who you talked to. A new freezer would have to go downstairs/must not go downstairs.
There were of course varying judgements about price. Why not spend the money and buy exactly what we wanted? Rather, why spend money we didn’t really need to? Why not get something that would still suit us ten years from now?
A surprising debate came up about freezer space. Michael said he didn’t care if we had ANY freezer space: his family had never owned a freezer and he’d only ever used the freezer compartment for ice cubes and ice-cream; you should eat your food fresh. I was aghast. My family always had a freezer the size of a Volkswagen; you can’t have a garden and you can’t buy in scales of economy without one. Ghosts from the past that we hadn’t even dreamed of were haunting the table.
Needless to say, the atmosphere got a little thick. There was no shouting, but barely-detectable threads of sulking, sarcasm, bewilderment and righteousness began to weave their way into the discussion. I was aware that I had strong views and felt that nobody was listening to me. I was perhaps less aware that exactly the same thing was happening for everyone else.
As some point we pushed our chairs back from the table. Well, we’re not going to solve this tonight, we said. That’s enough for now.
3. You’ve got to get unattached.
I awoke in the middle of the night. Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that I wasn’t so much concerned about getting my way, as I was about the condition our little community was in. We certainly weren’t in BAD shape, but we were teetering near a couple of nasty precipices: one was that no decision would be made at all and we’d fall into another month or year of discomfort; another was that somebody would get railroaded into something they didn’t like.
So there, eyes wide open in bed, I saw that I’d formed a view and hadn’t been willing to look at other options. And I saw that that in itself was enough to kill off other people’s being able to listen and think openly. I recalled that I’m wrong a good deal of the time and when I finally get down to really listening I always discover something. I began to realise that I could actually trust any one of my housemates to make a decision that would give us more and better cold storage space.
It was liberating.
So then I thought, still lying there eyes wide open: what would have us all get unattached and aligned?
A plan formed.
I hopped out of bed and got out several sheets of paper – enough for each of the suggestions that had been floated the night before. I roughly mapped each of the ideas against our floor space, discovering to my delight that one centimetre on the paper nicely equalled one metre in our kitchen. Even better, did you know that a post-it note is about the size of a fridge on that scale?
I drew a box on each sheet for calculating the important numbers: fridge and freezer capacity, total cost of purchase. There was room left over for a big “S” and “W” where we could record our speculations about the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal.
These plans were wisely labelled Plan A, B, C, D etc. (as opposed to “Heather’s”, “Daniel’s”, “Michael’s” etc.).
It was a work of art, and best of all, I was no longer attached.
4. Strike while the iron is hot.
The next morning, after a big sleep-in, I showed the plans around and left them on the kitchen bench. Through the day, there were spontaneous discussions about pros and cons, costs, optimal arrangements.
We set a make-up-our-minds meeting for late afternoon, and ended up taking less than half an hour to come to a unanimous decision about what we wanted. Michael confirmed our preferences with Choice magazine online and we ordered the items (one new fridge and one new freezer; keeping one older fridge) the next morning.
Yesterday, all the units slid into place.
5. Be satisfied.
The solution isn’t perfect – given life’s constraints, it was never going to be perfect. But it’s excellent and that’s enough.
One decision down (and a gazillion to go).