I love hearing my clients’ and readers’ success stories, especially when they involve new contexts for application of their consensus, persuasion and communication skills. This week, Gracie of Austin, Texas wrote to me, “While reading Bridges to Consensus, I volunteered to organize a project with my quilt bee, fifteen professional, talented, and strongly-opinionated women.”

Gracie’s volunteer group of fifteen undertook the design and crafting of 135 miniature quilts to attach to the tops of the award ribbons for a quilting contest associated with the Quiltfest biennial show. [With Gracie’s permission, I’ve included an image of one of the awards with this article.]

Volunteer and affinity groups have even greater consensus needs than commercial organizations. In this respect, they are more like religious and nonprofit organizations. In the business world, the old command-and-control paradigm can function for at least a while, although collaborative processes often work better. A boss can tell a worker what to do, and the worker is less likely to rebel if he’s getting paid to do what the boss wants. The worker may look for another employer who values his contributions and meets his need better, but he takes time to do so, and usually gives notice if he quits.

However, in groups like Gracie’s, as in churches and nonprofits, members can more easily vote with their feet if their needs are ignored, and they can do so on the spur of the moment. So building consensus among volunteers can be even more important than in commercial settings.

A natural leader and talented artist, Gracie excels at envisioning a good plan for a project such as the contest awards. It’s tempting for such leaders to simply present their visions and push for acceptance. However, Gracie writes that, inspired by Bridges to Consensus:

Rather than force the group to meet my goals, I used the “Three Magic Questions” and was thrilled with the results. I found that my group was open minded and motivated to work together. Instead of making an executive decision when we encountered issues, I rallied for dialogue on a solution.

It was a challenge for me to simply document the process the bee developed, but it turned out to be one of my best contributions to the team. During a key month of production, I was out of town helping my mother recover from hip replacement surgery. My quilt bee used the production documents I wrote to continue in my absence.

The project is complete six months ahead of schedule and my quilt bee members are thrilled with the results. I am very proud of the 2012 QuiltFest Awards and of the friendships that we strengthened during their creation.

Like Gracie, many people find that, when it comes to team leadership, less can be more. She found it challenging to ask questions and listen more than she spoke, but once she tried it, Gracie learned that soliciting everyone’s ideas resulted in a better plan from her own perspective as well. And asking the right questions inspired fifteen “highly opinionated” people to want to work collaboratively.

As explained in Bridges to Consensus, when you offer most of the solution ideas, you often wind up contributing more effort than other group members. When we focus on the interests we wish to satisfy, rather than rush in with a full-blown plan, we may find that others have ways to address our interests even better than we ourselves imagined.

Did Gracie “demote” herself from a team leader to a mere scribe by taking notes? Not at all. She was still the leader, and her production documentation led the group in her absence. In her own words, “Your book made me a hero on this project. I can’t thank you enough.”

But the part of Gracie’s story I like best is her comment about how the process she used strengthened friendships among the group members—proof positive that our consensus skills really do build bridges.