Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Pitfalls of Proposals from Meetings People Miss

I'm trying to navigate some tricky dynamics right now as the administrator of a group whose representatives are spread across North America and have never been in the same room together. There are nine reps from nine groups which share common values and have pooled money to self-insure against catastrophic health care costs. As the administrator, I take care of day-to-day business and organize the agenda for discussion whenever there's a policy issue, yet I have no official say in the decisions. The group has existed for more than 20 years and generally operates with little difficulty. This last year has been different.

There has been considerable turnover among reps over the years, to the point where no one currently involved goes back more than 10 years, and most less than two. In the last 12 months we have bumped up against questions about program objectives, the criteria on which we evaluate loans, our investment philosophy, and how we define acceptable risk. There's more, but you get the picture: more or less everything is now being called into question. Because of the expense (in both time and dollars) of calling a face-to-face meeting, we've tried valiantly to make progress on our issues through a combination of email and conference calls. However, good intentions aside, these are not the kind of issues that lend themselves well to email resolution, and we've been mostly bogged down in our attempts to make progress. (No small part of this is our never having met in person before; turnover among reps being what it is.) In light of this, I'm advocating that we now must have a face-to-face meeting in order get traction on our agenda, regardless of the expense.

While I think people will agree with this assessment, there is, understandably, considerable interest in having this happen sooner rather than later, and with minimal cost. It happens that there is a regularly scheduled meeting happening later this month where six of the nine participating groups will be sending delegates. (To add to the confusion, the delegates to this subgroup of six are, with only a single exception, different people from the reps to the group of nine.) With good intent, someone suggested that the other three groups send their reps to this mtg and we create space for the face-to-face mtgs about the health care group there.

This was a decent idea, but it came too late for busy people to free up the time and it was quickly apparent that only a small fraction of the reps could attend (maybe two out of the nine). Despite this, one of the attending reps has proposed going forward with whoever is in the room to discuss the issues. Their forward-moving intent was clear enough: we have a lot to do, so let's get started where we can.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. And that's the point I want to make in this blog. Under consensus, there is certain flow to making solid progress on issues. In essence, it's important to first flush out all the factors that a good decision needs to take into account before starting to problem solve (that way, you have a decent screen to test proposals against—how well do they balance the factors that everyone has agreed are in play?). When people are missing from the opening discussion (which is sure to be the case in the upcoming mtgs of the subgroup), then there is considerable danger of engaging in problem solving before the missing people have had a thorough chance to add to the mix of factors that need to be taken into account. It's a classic example of the cart being placed in front of the horse.

Of course, the missing people may have nothing to add to what those in attendance were able to surface and there may
then be no awkwardness in how the conversation proceeds. But if there is momentum built about solutions which have not taken into account factors that the missing people name later, there can be considerable tension around honoring the investment of time by the problem solvers versus really being open to input from those missing from the first conversation. Remember, the object here is solving problems with energy that brings the group together. While it doesn't happen often, sometimes more communication (with stakeholders missing) is less helpful than waiting for a time when everyone can be in the room.

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