Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Poor Minutes Lead to Wasted Hours

I recently got a request from Rebecca Krantz, a friend in Madison WI who is also a process consultant. She asked me my thoughts about a number of questions regarding consensus, and I've used my responses to her as a series of four blog entries. Here's what she wanted to know:

1. How to choose a decision-making process (in what contexts should groups adopt consensus, and in which contexts shouldn't they) See my blog of March 14.

2. So you want to make decisions by consensus? (basic definitions of what this means and choices the group has in how to go about it)
See my blog of March 17.

3. Consensus decision-making from soup to nuts (highlights of the key steps—agenda setting, initial discussion, delegation/committee work, proposal generation, conflict resolution, decision-making) See my blog of March 20.

4. But who seconded the motion? (recommendations for how minutes should be structured for consensus process meetings)

In this entry I'll address the fourth question. Good records of what happened at meetings are important for a variety of reasons:

—Informing members who missed the meeting what happened (with sufficient detail that people will be able to tell if points dear to them have already surfaced in the conversation—if this is not clear, you’ll can be certain you'll hear comments repeated the next time that topic is addressed).
—Providing a record of decisions and task assignments, which can serve to clear up ambiguities when memories fade or don’t agree. This is particularly valuable for committee mandates and for explaining to prospective members what they are joining (in a consensus group, new members must abide by the full body of agreements already in place—this generally works better if new folks are fully informed about those decisions ahead of time, rather than surprised by them afterward).
—Helping the agenda setting crew figure out exactly where the plenary left off and where it needs to pick up when the topic is next considered (re-plowing old ground can be the height of tedium).
—Providing background on the rationale for decisions. This can be crucial in deciding whether it’s relevant to reconsider a prior agreement. For my money the litmus test on whether to reconsider is "what's new?" If the minutes are good enough to spell out what factors were taken into account the last time the group grappled with that issue, you'll be in an excellent position to discern whether anything has altered enough to warrant a fresh look.

• • •
Groups can benefit enormously from discussing what they want minutes to accomplish and the standards they want to set for them. This is a plenary conversation. Following is a list of questions to consider:
o Timeliness (how soon after a meeting should they be posted?)
o How will they be disseminated (is email to a list serve enough, or should there be a hard copy posted on a bulletin board as well—and if so, where)?
o How will minutes be archived?
o Minimum standards for what content will be covered (keep in mind the need get enough sense of the discussion that people who missed the meeting will know whether their concerns have surfaced or not—if this is not done well enough, you'll be condemned to hearing comments repeated in plenary.
o Process by which people can propose revisions to the minutes, and how it will be decided what changes should be incorporated if there's disagreement about it.
o Suggestions for formatting such that readers can easily scan minutes for decisions and tasks. (Do you want executive summaries of the minutes to help those with limited time get the gist?)
o What will be your standard for recording attributions (who said what)? In general, the two situations where it tends to be most valuable are when someone is expressing upset or when they are speaking in an official capacity (for example, as a board member, manager, or committee chair)?
o Do you want to create an (indexed?) Agreement Log, which would provide a place for people to look up more easily what the group has agreed to?
o What compensation (if any) will notetakers get for doing minutes?
o What committee will be responsible for seeing to it that notetakers are trained, and that minute standards are being adhered to?

Not Just for Secretaries Any More
It can often be challenging for a group to find enough energy among its membership for taking, editing, and organizing minutes. Here's a hint for how this might be enhanced: ask folks who want to learn to be better facilitators to take turns doing minutes. The art of quickly crafting a concise yet accurate synopsis of a speaker's comments is the same as that used by facilitators to track and summarize conversations. Though the facilitator is doing it orally, while the notetaker is doing it in writing, it's still the same skill. This awareness might help generate some additional enthusiasm for practicing the noble craft of taking minutes—and doing the group a good turn into the bargain.

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