How Can Virtual Communities Make Good Decisions Together? – Part 2

Originally published as one article at

This is Part 2 of 3 parts. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.

Decisions can be made autocratically, democratically, by consensus, or using other models. Your virtual community must establish and draw from a combination of different decision-making mechanisms that meet it’s unique needs.

Decisions can be made autocratically:a small group or an individual makes all of the decisions with little or no consultation with others. They can also be made democratically:all members deciding on everything.

While autocracy is counter-community, highly democratic decision-making can be a barrier to involvement for some members. Decisions that are made using a democratic process can get delayed by time-consuming consultation and decision-making processes.

The spectrum of available decision-making mechanisms is broad. As this graph indicates, it is not necessary to choose and apply only one mechanism. Virtual communities can use multiple decision-making modalities that suit the type of decision they’re trying to make. Which mechanism you choose will be determined by how many people are needed to effectively make an informed decision as well as the time-sensitivity of the decision.

Source: Ouishare

Decision Makers

In “How to Activate Others”, you learned how to define the roles, responsibilities, and levels of participation within your virtual community. A common question you will be asked when creating decision-making processes is: Who is included and why?Not everyone in every role needs to be included in each decision. Create clear criteria to define who needs to be involved.

Divide decisions by considering the area of activity or expertise and interest of members, and be mindful of their geography. It is possible to either assemble a multi-disciplinary group that discusses all the needed areas of decision-making processes or create tailor-made groups based on decision type. However you decide to divide decision-making, it is important to ensure that your group will act in the interest of the community as a whole.

Choosing decision-making mechanisms
Once you know your community members, it’s time to begin asking important questions that will help you decide which decision-making mechanism to use. To make sure your processes grow with your virtual community over time, review and update your mechanisms regularly.

What type of decision is being made?
What are the types of decisions is your community making? Are they strategic or operative? Is there another classification that is more appropriate?

Who are the members and/or groups making the decisions?
Is everyone who should be involved (due to impact, expertise, experience) included in the decision-making?

What decision-making mechanisms will you use?
What decision-making mechanisms are aligned to your community’s values and the way it behaves?

For example, if your community is built on co-ownership and members taking the lead, choose decision-making mechanisms aligned with that model.

Tension between leadership and community

Communities typically begin under the leadership of one or more people. In order for a community to thrive, it must evolve over time to decentralise power.

Leadership from one person is typically needed in the beginning to steward the community while it is growing. This leadership model comes with the power to make all initial decisions by developing a strategy, selecting a platform, and launching the community.

“When the community is more established and stable, leaders must begin decentralising power by distributings tasks among members. But holding decision-making power makes people feel needed and relevant. These feelings can make it difficult to let go of decision-making power.

A great strategy is to help past leaders find a new role in the community by asking members where they think past leaders could apply their skills as they transition out of a decision making role.” ~Daniel, The Borderland

Through this process, their leadership becomes servant leadership.

Hierarchies will always exist

The structure of your community must align with how decision-making power is distributed. Do not waste time trying to avoid hierarchies. They are a natural and unavoidable part of human interaction and will inevitably form.

Having a flat formal structure does not prevent the creation of informal hierarchies. When members have more information and influence than others, informal hierarchies will form. Be aware of hierarchies that develop within your virtual community and change the dynamics if too much decision-making power is concentrated among certain individuals.

Ongoing reflection is the key to addressing hierarchies.Don’t be afraid to have honest conversations with members who may be influencing the group out of all proportion to others in your community.

Tension between engagement and ownership

There are two key elements of decision-making (governance):

  • Power
  • Ownership

Tensions can occur when the people who make decisions are not legally liable (responsible) for the outcome of those decisions. This typically happens within decentralised organisations that are part of a company, or belong to an individual.

Keep liability in mind when developing your community’s decision-making strategies and mechanisms. Ask yourself, how will your decision-making model give power to those who are responsible for outcomes?Will they have a veto power or a seat in strategic decision groups?

One way to avoid tension over liability is to create a distributed ownership model or cooperative. Cooperatives can face similar participation, engagement, and decentralised decision-making challenges, but they do allow members to be co-owners.

Now read Part 3 here.

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Some paragraph spacing and Featured Image added by Enlivening Edge Magazine. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay