Sunday, May 4, 2008

Navigating the Swamp of Plenary Discussion

Once a topic has been deemed appropriate for plenary consideration (for more on this, see my blog of Jan 25: Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas) the heavy lifting is best accomplished in two phases: Discussion and Proposal Generation. These should happen in sequence and are best not mixed. Today I'll look at the Discussion phase. Next blog I'll tackle Proposal Generation.

The object of Discussion is to flush out all the factors that a good solution or response to the issue needs to address. It is important that this phase be completed before you begin problem solving—else how will you know whether you have a good proposal?

There is a wide variety of formats that might be used—singly, or in combination— to achieve this. While the default format for groups is typically open discussion, you have a wide menu of other formats to select from, including (but not limited to):
—go round
—guided visualization
—individual journaling
—small group breakout
—conversation cafe

What you're trying to weigh in assessing which to choose from is what will give you the best combination of completeness (hearing from everyone) and efficiency (you want it to happen in this lifetime). I style this the "Swamp of Discussion" because you don't know at the outset:
o How deep the water is
o Where you'll come out
o When you'll come out
o How dirty you'll get in the transit
o How bad the bugs will be

While you hope for the best, sometimes it can be a real slog. Is there guidance about how to improve your chances of doing this well? You bet! Here are the five (easy?) pieces of advice I think will help you navigate the Discussion phase with accuracy and alacrity:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize (insist that comments be on topic).
2. Minimize repetition (you can accelerate the process by liberal application of the phrase "ditto," or "[so-and-so] speaks my mind" if someone else has already said your piece; while each member has the right to be heard, mtgs are not "open mic night"; be concise and respectful of group time).
3. Sort the wheat from the chaff (test for which viewpoints need to be labored with—because there are linked with group values—and which are simply personal preferences—which you'll accommodate if possible, but are not obliged to take into account).
4. Divide and conquer (if the topic is complex—and most of the interesting ones are—it is generally an effective strategy to chunk it down into more digestible smaller pieces, which the group is capable of chewing on and swallowing; you do not score bonus points in the Akashic Record for trying to discover the Unified Field Theory for a complex topic by treating it as a gestalt concept).
5. First among equals (are there any factors that should be given a higher priority than others when crafting a proposals for what to do?).

WARNING: no matter how well the plenary discussion goes, don't forget to take into account that some people may have missed the mtg and need a chance to have input on the Discussion before you launch into problem solving. Because missing members will be expected to abide by any agreement that comes out of this, they have the right to add their piece if their views are not already in play (Hint: for this to go well, your minutes need to be sufficiently detailed that people not present can get an accurate picture of what factors have been identified.)

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