Monday, June 7, 2010

When Process Agreements Expedite & When They Congest

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?
4. What can be done about getting input from and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll respond to the third question, examining the pros and cons of formality in how meetings are run.
First of all, “formal” needs to be defined. In general, this translates into explicit structure, meaning how things are done is clearly spelled out, or routinized. It may also imply lots of structure, though not necessarily. It probably means doing things the same way, with minimal deviation or exceptions. In the extreme, it means that work is not valid, or information or opinions can (even should) be ignored if they don’t come through approved channels in a timely way.
In general, how much a group leans toward structure or formality (or away from it) will tend to reflect where the members fit on the pro-rules/anti-rules spectrum. On the pro-rules end, folks like clear rules and agreements because it allows them to relax. They know where they stand; they know when they've done their fair share; they know when they're out of bounds; expectations are well-defined. Formal structures tend to put people on this end of the seesaw at ease. Conversely, lack of meeting structure makes people of this persuasion edgy, as minimal rules translates into "jungle ball" in their experience, where crafty people can take advantage of process flexibility to manipulate meetings through inappropriate outbursts and off-topic digressions.
On the other end of the polarity, the anti-rules folks view formal agreements as straight jackets that force people into cookie cuter homogeneity, quashing creativity and individual freedom and expression in the name of mindless conformity. The folks on this end are suspicious that the request for increased formality is simply a disguised maneuver to control meetings through parliamentary chicanery. They fear that the heart of the matter will be inaccessible through the barricading complications of structure.
You can see the problem. Since neither end of this spectrum is wrong, the challenge is finding a place somewhere toward the middle where everyone can co-exist. Typically, you'll want enough routine and formal structure that there's no ambiguity about the following:
—How things get added to the agenda.
—What issues are worthy of plenary attention [see my blog of Jan 25, 2008 on Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas].
—What comprises a concise presentation.
—What kind of behavior is expected from members in meetings.
—What kinds of contributions are appropriate at various stages in the consideration of a topic.—What permission is there for offering emotional input on topics.—How will the group work with conflict that emerges in meetings?
—When a binding decision has been made.
—What you expect minutes to cover.
When all is said and done, the crucial question is whether the group made a good decision that everyone understands and can abide by; it is not crucial how the group got there. Process agreements are meant to help make the journey from issue to solution easier, and if they don't meet that standard I'd be suspicious of how well the group is being served by the structures in place.
Of particular note is the degree of clarity that exists around the authority of the facilitator to run a meeting. While flexibility can be a good thing, ambiguity here can be especially expensive in that most facilitators will drift toward passivity in challenging moments if there is a lack of clarity about what license they have to step in to guide tender moments.
High Tension Lines
Finally, I want to offer a word of caution about the context in which the request for increased (or decreased) formality arises in the group. If it's in response to the observation that trust has degraded in the group, and tensions have increased, proceed carefully! While there is a tendency for the pro-rules people to see additional structure as an aid in bringing behavior into conformity (and holding people accountable for deviations from acceptable process), this same request will tend to be seen by folks on the other end of the spectrum as a platform for punishment (rather than a request for clarity).
My advice is to address the tensions first, and try as hard as you can to get everyone feeling better connected, before you talk about making adjustments in the formality of your meeting structure. At the end of the day, trust is built through actions, not through rules (or their lack).

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