Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rules of the Road: Beware of the Potholes!

I recently got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards? [See my May 26 blog on Meeting Architecture]
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer vary by topic? [See my blog of May 29, Asking Children to Play in Traffic]
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings? [See my blog of June 7, When Process Agreements Expedite & When They Congest]
4. What can be done about getting input from, and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings? [See my blog of June 16, Working with Ghosts]
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll warp up this series by addressing the fifth and final question, on rules.

As a group process consultant I often find it useful to look at how a collection of people will position themselves along a spectrum of views on a pivotal topic. Attitude toward rules is a great example of this and it's essential, in my view, to grasp that members of a typical group (while my observation here will apply to most small groups, it will be a statistical certainty in groups of 20+) will join the group with a predictable and widely divergent fundamental attitude about rules. Thus, even before you've had your first conversation about whether you want to record the hours members spend cleaning common facilities, you have a problem. As I essentially laid this spectrum out in my aforementioned blog of June 7, I'll not repeat it here.

I believe the best strategy for rule development is to promulgate enough that there's reasonable clarity about what's expected, and a solid basis for a conversation if there's tension. Other than that, I recommend doing without. Pro-rule folks sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if they just spelled everything out there'd be no ambiguity or confusion. There are a couple of reasons that that dream is a mirage.

First, it's impossible to anticipate all the situations you'll face, so no amount of foresight will lead to a set of "rules for all seasons." Second, well-intentioned people will disagree about how to interpret rules, no matter how unambiguously you think you crafted them. Further, there's a wealth of complications that falls under the heading of "extenuating circumstances."

On top of the potential confusion about what rules mean, there is delicacy about deciding how to handle perceived violations. It will serve a group well to anticipate this and establish norms
about how to proceed ahead of need. This will include both a) the process by which the charge will be examined, and b) the range of possible sanctions if the group determines that an agreement has indeed been broken (note that I said "possible sanctions"—you don't want to tie the group's hands when it comes to the judicious application of clemency).

Beyond all this it's a good idea to go back every so often (at least once in five years) and prune the orchard, removing rules that no longer apply or make sense. If you neglect this, new members will quickly catch on to the reality that there are rules that are either silly (or at least inappropriate) or otherwise ignored, and this will undermine the effectiveness and respect that you'd like them to give to the rules that are still appropriate.

Embedded in this is the idea that it's good to have a readily accessible place where the group's rules and explicit norms (perhaps an Agreement Log) are kept (and better yet, indexed). Inaccessible rules, or ones that exist only in oral tradition, widen the gulf that separates grizzled veterans from starry-eyed rookies. This tends to significantly complicate and retard the goal of integrating the new folks into community life. The more rules you have, the more important it is that the group commits to laying them out clearly for prospective members (so they know what they're joining) and to helping newbies make sense of group norms and culture.

In any event, to get good results from rules, they need to be seen more as a guide than as a weapon; as a pathway to understanding what the group considers appropriate behavior, rather than as shackles or opportunities to judge. Any rule can be misused. Any rule can be bent. The biggest trap of all is allowing the substitution of rules for discernment and compassion. Rules can invite people to sort behavior into a black & white assessment that is a perversion of the shades-of-gray reality we live in, and I want to warn against that.

Though I am emphatically not saying that it's inappropriate to have boundaries nor that you shouldn't hold people accountable when they stray across them, I want to close this focus on rules with a reminder that a primary motivation for forming groups is to build relationships and that this goal can be utterly perverted if a group drifts into a culture where rules are applied with the mindless zeal of fascism. I object to the notion that bringing heart into the application of rules equates to being weak-willed. We need groups which hunt strongly for relationships, not groups that strongly relate to witch hunts.

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