Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Working with Ghosts

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?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll respond to the fourth question, working with people not in the room.

In most groups of size (10+ members), it's common for some portion of the membership to miss meetings—people get sick, they forget, their must-see show is on TV, they're on vacation, etc. In fact, if the group is large enough, there may never be a time when everyone is in the room. The challenge is figuring out how the partial group can still do legitimate work and yet the rights of those who missed the meeting have not been abrogated.

What to do?

The Rule of Three
After decades of observing and working with groups to solve problems, I've distilled what I've learned into a six-step sequence which I label An Issue's Journey:

Step 1: Presentation of the Issue (what are we talking about and what aspects of it are appropriate for the group's attention today?)
Step 2: Questions (does everyone understand what was just said?)
Step 3: Discussion (what are the factors that a good response to this issue needs to take into account?)
Step 4: Proposal (what's the group's best thinking about how to balance the factors identified in the previous step?)
Step 5:. Decision (is the group ready to formally adopt a proposal?)
Step 6: Implementation (what are the tasks, deadlines, and budget appropriate for putting the decision into action?)

I further recommend that groups get in the habit of breaking this sequence into three steps, where they automatically pause between Steps 3 & 4, and again between Steps 4 & 5. If you adopt this, it translates into a minimum of three meetings to fully address an issue (and it may take more if the group struggles to complete any of the steps in one pass). In summary, I recommend that the plenary's consideration of an issue be broken into three phases, where there's an intentional pause between each phase:
Phase I

Phase II

Phase III

While there are a number of advantages to this, I'll name three of them here, one of which directly relates to today's focus on absent members:

a) The pace of meetings does not work equally well for everyone, and if you pause between Discussion and Proposal it allows room for people who attended the meeting to add reflected input that they were not ready to offer in session. If you pause between Proposal & Decision, it allows people a chance to reflect on whether the proposal on the table is really the best one available while the concrete is still wet. This adapts to the reality that some people are not as quick on their feet (or, in this case, on their butts) and can do a better job of forming and articulating their thoughts if given more breathing room.

b) It is often convenient—and efficient—to assign to a committee the task of drafting a proposal based on the factors that the plenary has identified in Step 3. If the plenary insists on moving from Step 3 to Step 4 in one go, that option is not available. In the case of complex and/or volatile topics (which, uncannily, the most challenging issues almost always are), it is often a poor use of group time to barrel ahead into problem solving immediately after the factors have been flushed out. Put your committees to work!

c) Finally, the pause gives you a leg up in
solving what Nancy Drew might style The Mystery of the Missing Member because it protects the opportunity for people who were absent to offer input as well (not just those who were there).

Of course, for this to work well, it requires that your minutes are sufficiently reliable (both in terms of breadth and promptness) that people who missed the meeting can tell what people said and why. Here's how it can work: adopt a norm whereby there's a guaranteed window to receive reflected input on paused topics, and delay any work on next steps until the window closes

Let me give you an example. Suppose you have a standing committee for dealing with children issues called the Parents Committee, and the issue you're wrestling with
is child behavior norms in common spaces. In addition, suppose that plenaries happen the first of every month, you've established that the window for reflected input is seven days long, and the first meeting on this topic happens May 1. Finally, for the sake of this example, let's say the group successfully completes Phase I steps during that initial meeting.

After the minutes are posted (let's say that happens on May 4), the window for reflected input officially opens. It closes May 11, at which point the Parents Committee can start its deliberations to draft a proposal that balances the factors that surfaced from two sources: the work done in plenary May 1 and any additional input that comes their way during the May 4-11 window. Let's say the committee completes its work in a two-week period (meeting as often as necessary) and distributes its proposal to everyone by May 25, in plenty of time for people to look it over before the June 1 plenary, when you'll move onto Step 4, using the committee offering as a springboard.

At the June 1 meeting, the group briefly reviews the output of the May 1 meeting and launches into Step 4 considerations. Let's say the group tweaks the proposal slightly and is satisfied they have a good proposal. Again they pause, this time to allow people who missed the meeting (who may or may not be the same folks who missed the May 1 meeting) to reflect on whether the proposal that the plenary is poised to adopt seems like the best balancing of the factors that came out of Step 3—this second pause is not a second chance to identify new factors; that window has closed.

If the plenary did a good job at the June 1 meeting, nothing may surface in the subsequent window and the plenary will officially adopt it at the July 1 meting. They will also handle Implementation at that time, wrapping up the plenary's work on that issue. If there is new thinking about the proposal that comes through the window following the June 1 meeting, then that will be the starting point when that issue is tackled at the July 1 meeting.

Key to this working is that everyone agrees that the windows are the places where people who missed the meeting have a guaranteed opportunity to have their input considered. The obverse is that people who missed meetings do not have the right to demand that steps be repeated at future plenaries simply because they weren't in the room when those steps were taken and they are unhappy with or confused about how things are going (while they can ask that the plenary back up and redo steps, the plenary is not obliged to do so). Nor does anyone have the right to demand that the group work with input that is delivered after the window closes. While it may be smart for the group to work with late input, the group has the right to decline—honoring all the good faith effort of those who showed up and protect the group from the possibility of its work being monkey-wrenched by those arriving late to the party.

Working with the Dispirited or the Passive
While the above set of agreements is meant to balance the rights and responsibilities of active and motivated members who miss meetings, it may not help much with those you rarely hear from. In this dynamic I suggest a different approach: go door to door and ask them why they aren't coming to meetings or otherwise being heard from on group issues. Silence is one of the hardest things to accurately interpret and I recommend that you make a reasonable effort to find out directly why people are opting out.

There are a number of possibilities for non-participation (which may apply singly or in any combination):
o They don't care about that issue.
o The way meetings are run doesn't work for them.
o They're discouraged about whether the group is really interested in their views.
o They've low confidence in their ability to be articulate and don't want to be embarrassed.
o They're too busy or overwhelmed to take time for meetings.
o They're confident that others will speak for them, and trust the group to make good decisions.

As you can see, some of these potential reasons (and I'm sure there are more than I've listed) are more troubling than others, and if you're just guessing, your potential "solution" could land wide of the mark. When all else fails, ask.

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