If it were a movie, you might call it The Case of the Never-Ending Meeting, or maybe The Indecisive Board. Whatever its title, it could be playing at your local boardroom already. The scenario is familiar to the vice president of a Manhattan co-op who has been involved in seemingly endless board discussions of the issues facing his property. The discussions would become so broad that they involved essentially everything that the board does, from capital work to subletting policy to lobby redesign. “Setting clear borders, and staying with them is difficult,” sighs the member. “It easily becomes a discussion of everything. Board decision-making needs to be crisper in format.”
Managers and other professionals – and many exhausted board members – agree and there are a variety of common remedies, from setting an agenda to limiting the discussion. But a relatively novel solution for co-ops and condos is the one used by Jan Zegarac’s 183-unit Manhattan co-op. Zegarac says that for the last year of his two-year tenure on the five-member board, the directors used a method to made discussions crisper and more pointed and also helped the directors resolve problems more quickly. Dubbed “Community Problem-Solving” (CPS), it is used frequently in non-residential non-profit groups. And experts say that applying it to your property can not only simplify decision-making but increase the sense of community as well.
Robert’s Rules of Disorder
Many boards try to operate under the format (or a variation of it) suggested by Robert’s Rules of Order. But some who have used it claim that Robert’s is not well-designed for the unique communal nature of cooperatives and condominiums. Robert’s is relatively complicated, and built upon a contentious decision-making model: you are either for an agenda item or against it. There is no room for mixing and matching ideas, working together in a communal manner to arrive at a solution.
“Probably the most difficult thing about living in a cooperative is living cooperatively,” says Herb Cooper-Levy, formerly the executive director at the National Association of Housing Cooperatives. “To actually think about the meaning of the word ‘cooperative’ as opposed to ‘I live in a co-op.’ What does that word mean? It means cooperatively. It doesn’t mean living contentiously. You want to be able to put an idea on the table and then let the people around the table construct the idea, so that, at the end, the motion may not look like the maker’s – it will have the core of the maker’s thought in it – but it’ll be modified by the conversation so that the ultimate action that’s taken incorporates the best thinking of everybody.”
Another difficulty with Robert’s approach, argues former board member Zegarac, is that it is limited in the way it examines the issues. Under the rules, a member proposes a motion to solve a problem, but there is no provision made for clarifying or identifying the actual problem.
“So,” says Zegarac, “if a board member said, ‘I move that we forbid all homeowners from subletting. Do I hear a second?’ ‘Second.’ And you have a brief discussion along the lines of, ‘Okay, well I think it’s a good idea.’ ‘Well I don’t.’ Then, ‘We’re ready to vote.’ And the motion fails,” Zegarac observes. “You can go through all six or seven of those, and every time you do that you have a brief discussion about one issue, you have all the motions, all the seconds, all the discussions, all the voting. Then you’ve got to go to the next one. Meanwhile, they may not even be clear about what the problem is. The system doesn’t have the flexibility to explore different solutions.”
What’s the Problem?
One of the goals of Community Problem-Solving, and other techniques like it, is to add focus and clarity and to remove the subjectivity from the issues, to “objectify” the problem, so to speak, and offer an easy-to-follow format for making decisions. “This leads towards professionalizing the structure and approach to problem-solving,” observes Arthur Davis, a consultant to boards, “which is the right direction to go in because then you have everyone’s opinions and you don’t have any structured format.”
Zegarac first encountered the CPS technique when he sat on various non-profit boards in the 1980s and 1990s. “A lot of non-profits use the Community Problem-Solving model,” he notes. “It just expedites everything. We used to be at board meetings for a social service organization that would take three hours. Using this, we cut them in half.”
According to information available on the Community Problem-Solving website (www.community-problem-solving.net)
and to users of the system like Zegarac, the steps in CPS involve:
Identifying the problem. This is, perhaps, the most crucial step: agreeing on what the problem actually is. “The first step is you find a consensus,” says Zegarac. “Everyone may not agree that there is a problem.” On the ever-thorny issue of lobby redesign, for instance, is there a consensus that the lobby even needs to be redone?
With CPS, the board will first pose the question: what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? This makes sense, Zegarac says, “because until there’s a critical mass of thinking about an issue sufficient to move it forward, it isn’t going anywhere. That’s what the problem-solving model does. It creates that critical mass.”
Adds Davis: “You define how it impacts the community and then decide, ‘Well is this something that we want to act on or something that we don’t want to act on?’ Each one of these steps is a building block towards consensus and solution.”
Once you agree on what the issue is, you can examine it in more detail. Why does the situation exist? Examine its scope and severity. How widespread is the problem? Who and what does it affect? Is it large or small? Is it a regular or occasional event? Does it require immediate attention?
Take the issue of subletting, a potentially contentious issue. Rather then frame the question as, “Should homeowners be allowed to sublet?” – a “yes” or “no” set-up – a better discussion question might be broader: “What is the problem with subletting?”
“Then you can actually look at other possibilities,” says Zegarac. “If you limit it, if you say, ‘Do you forbid subletting?’ and you say, ‘Yes,’ then you’re down that one track. If you say, ‘What’s the problem? (1) It brings down the value of property by having subtenants who don’t care about the building. (2) Banks don’t lend to properties with a high sublet rate. Two issues come up: one is a quality-of-life question; the other is an economic one. Those are the problems everyone agrees on. If there’s a critical mass of agreement, then you can move forward toward, ‘If that’s the problem, how do we address that problem? What are some possible solutions to that?’”
“By defining the problem, you get clarity of approach,” Davis notes. “Once you have that, it is easier to find out what needs to be done, and people can be delegated to tasks to either get additional information, or they can be delegated to serve in some other function that further refines the problem.”
A Matter of Choices
Considering Options. The next step is to consider your options. Frame them by deciding what your objective is. You need to look at your goals and look at what you’re going to accomplish, and put the policies in place to achieve that. “When you’re making a policy decision you need to understand what you’re trying to gain by creating that policy,” observes Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate.
This is where intense discussion comes in. You should brainstorm with other members of the board and with your professionals. Let them give you data to help you develop your choices.
“On sublet policy, for instance, you really need to understand, do you want to curtail subletting?” says Greenbaum. “Do you want to use that as a profit base? Do you want to make sure that you see every sublet or that sublets don’t go on forever? You really need to think, before you put this policy into place, what your ultimate goal is. And you need to discuss that with your managing agent. And, hopefully, your managing agent has other buildings that have sublet policies and you can use things that worked for them.
“Not every building is alike,” he adds. “So let’s say, with the sublet policy issue, if you want to really limit transiency, maybe you’ll put in that you can only sublet three out of five years, or each sublet can only be for a one-year renewable term for two years at most. So you have the ability of finding out what is the goal, and what’s the objective, and then you could tailor that policy to that goal and objective.”
“You need to discuss your possible solutions,” agrees Zegarac, who says on subletting, they could include: (1) forbidding it outright; (2) requiring a strict review process; (3) limiting the sublets to 25 percent of the building; (4) limiting the term of the sublet to one year; (5) forbidding it, except in unusual circumstances (like a temporary relocation for a job); or (6) allowing family members to sublet. But after discussion, he notes, a board might remove the last item because “it doesn’t really address the problem.”
Weighing Options. Evaluate your plan based on your objectives and limitations. Eliminate the options that don’t work and prioritize what’s left over. Then decide on the best option.
“During that process you find out that, for example, a lot of the solutions just don’t work, either financially, or else they’re just impractical,” explains Zegarac. “One we can eliminate [in the sublet scenario] is absolutely no sublets. Everyone agrees that if their concerns are addressed, you don’t need to prohibit sublets. The other thing we need to address is: are any of these options mutually exclusive? Can they work together? There is nothing inconsistent with most of them; only the ‘forbid in unusual circumstances’ stands alone. We really have two solutions that are a little bit contradictory; one would not allow sublets even if those other requirements were in place.
“At that point, the board focuses on: ‘Do we want to impose ‘unusual circumstances’ as a prerequisite to sublet? Here are two competing interests – one is the shareholder’s desire to sublet balanced or offset by economic interests and quality-of-life issues in the building. Given that, who wins that balancing act? In New York, the entire community is [usually] more important than the interests of a single shareholder. But you have to get an agreement about that. The board has to conceptually agree that the community interest outweighs the individual interest. If that’s true, then we’re looking at unusual circumstances as our first option.”
Implementing the plan. Put the plan into effect.
Monitoring the plan after implementation. Check to see that the plan is working. If it isn’t, you should remain flexible: either redefine your objectives, or go to the second option on your list. Or else start over and redefine the problem; you may have misdiagnosed it.
One caveat to using CPS: everyone has to buy into the system or it doesn’t work. For example, if you can’t agree that there is a problem, it is impossible to move forward – as Zegarac found in a situation at his property.
“We have a two-level garage in the building. The second level, the top level, has never been sealed. So it’s concrete with reinforcing bars [rebars] of steel in the inside. And over the years, as it gets wet, particularly in the wintertime, as salt water gets into the slab from the streets – you know, they salt the streets – it oxidizes the rebar. The rebar, when it oxidizes expands, cracks the concrete. And, if this happens over a period of time – which it has, because the building is 40 years old – eventually the whole slab has to be replaced, which is very expensive. So I proposed sealing the slab and patching the concrete that was damaged because of its expansion.”
One stumbling block: there had never been a consensus on how pressing a problem this was. “Our engineer said it was a problem. When an engineer says this is a problem and you need to address it, I assume – and I assumed incorrectly – that other people would take that at face value. I don’t think they did,” observes Zegarac. “Somebody hasn’t said, ‘A catastrophic failure is about to occur unless you do something immediately.’ The engineer said, ‘It’s a problem that needs to be addressed within five years. It’d probably be better sooner than later.’ There wasn’t a consensus about the [urgency of the] problem. So, without that initial agreement [on the definition of the problem] nothing else follows.”
It also takes an agreement that everyone will use the CPS approach. “If everyone is not playing with the same rules, you don’t get buy-in,” says Davis. “If the president is doing this by himself or herself, it doesn’t affect everybody else. It happens to be his or her methodology. And you need it to be a universal, global – everyone has to have buy-in on something like this to make it really effective. It’s not something one or two directors could say, ‘This is the way we’re looking at it.’ That’s not what you want. The way it usually works is you say, ‘Okay, we need to be more effective as a board. Let’s try this, and let’s try it before five months and see if we’re more effective. Let’s just run it up as a test and see what happens.’ And then if it’s not effective, you go back to yelling and screaming at each other. But what it does is it takes it out of the hands of the individual and puts it in the hands of everybody, thus setting universal guidelines for everybody in the room. And that’s a very healthy, constructive thing.”
Many argue that systems like CPS also build a sense of community, as well as offering a wealth of ideas. “Effectively engaging stakeholders in analyzing a problem together and identifying promising solutions (charting a course) is crucial in problem-solving,” notes the CPS website. “...Done well, participatory planning can produce better substantive ideas, useful relationships and institutions, new agreements across stubborn divides, and wider support for action.”
Community Problem-Solving creates better solutions because it gets everyone working together, cooperatively building one idea on another. “It’s better if more people are involved in the process, and you get more ideas put on the table,” argues Cooper-Levy. “Good ideas can come from the strangest places.”
“With Robert’s Rules, all you have is an up-or-down vote,” says Zegarac. “It doesn’t have the flexibility to explore different solutions. And people feel they have to defend that one solution, if they voted for it, and there may then be some lingering resentment if it’s defeated. With Community Problem-Solving, it’s a collective effort, so no one feels like their credibility is being impugned. Everyone contributes to the process. It’s a collective effort. It explores the issues a lot more intelligently, and allows people to tailor the solution for community. The board begins to get the real issues here because it actually forces boards to think.”
In the end, the success of methods like CPS is partly dependent on what kind of board you want to have. Says Cooper-Levy: “What personality is the board going to have? Will it be a contentious one? Will it be a problem-solving one? Will it be one in which the best thoughts of all are involved, and not just the board but those who can be engaged to solve the problem through the committee structure or however, get built into the conversation so that the best decisions can be made? Is there a method or is it just madness?” H