Saturday, June 16, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Wordsmithing in Plenary

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Wordsmithing in Plenary.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary
IV. Redirecting competition
V. Bridging disparate views
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
There's a key moment in meetings that occurs whenever the group makes a decision. Right after the cheering or exhaling—whichever seems more appropriate—there's an important wrap-up step: what gets recorded in the minutes?

To be clear, I'm not talking about procedural decisions internal to the meeting (what will we talk about next; are we ready to lay this down and move onto the next topic; should we take a break?). I'm talking about decisions that will have lasting effect beyond the meeting. These could be procedural (what authority do we give facilitators to run meetings; what is our standard for minute-taking; how will we create opportunities for people who miss meetings to have their input considered on plenary topics; how will we archive agreements?), behavioral (pet policy; work expectations; norms around children in common space), or operational (approving the annual budget; empaneling the Steering Committee; defining the mandate for Membership Committee).

Question: When does it make sense to take time in plenary to get the wording of an agreement exactly right for the minutes?

Answer: Rarely.

While this may be a surprising view, I'm weighing the cost of having the entire group wait while a small number of folks work under pressure to tinker with phrasing. Usually, this is a poor trade-off. Beyond eating the clock, this kind of activity is typically an energy eater as well. 

The argument going the other way is that if you allow the moment to slip away without pinning down the details—that place where the devil resides—what you thought was clear may blur. At the extreme, the agreement may unravel and the group will be condemned to recreate it in a subsequent plenary to resolve the confusion. No fun.

While fuzzy (and therefore ineffective) decisions are a real issue, I question the appropriateness of getting into the habit of drilling down to wordsmithing in plenary. If there's substantive confusion about the agreement, that should have been resolved before you tested for agreement. If however it's a question of semantics or word choice (which is what I mean be wordsmithing), then I think groups are well served to develop and use a protocol for offline tweaking.

As a professional facilitator, it's relatively common for me to help the client group navigate to a complex agreement (by which I mean one with multiple clauses or caveats) that has been fully presented orally, but which the minute taker has struggled to capture. In those moments I often propose that the group trust me to write the minute (the technical term for what gets officially recorded) afterwards. I commit to doing this within 24 hours (while my memory is fresh) and distributing it to the group right away. This has worked well and informs my recommendation. The group saves plenary time without loss of nuance.

That said, there are some cautions. For this choice to function well, the group will need to identify who among the membership is good at this (clear and thorough written articulation is a non-trivial skill and not everyone can answer the bell), and get a commitment from someone in that pool to handle that assignment as the need arises. In general, you want to stay with the question long enough in plenary to make sure you've captured clearly all the concerns about the wording, before turning it over to the wordsmith(s).

Further, there needs to be a clear mechanism for someone to voice a concern with what gets posted (the output of wordsmithing) in the event that memories of the agreement diverge. If this is going to work well (read save plenary time) it will be crucial that the turnaround time between the statement of the oral agreement and the posting of the written translation be as short as possible.

Having advocated for developing the capacity to wordsmith outside plenary, the ultimate test is whether you're actually saving time. If pushing word crafting outside plenary isn't working, you'll need to: a) get clearer guidelines for what's wanted; b) improve the capacity of your word crafting pool to deliver the goods; or c) fall back on completing the written minute on the spot.

At the end of the day, what will ultimately matter is whether the minute was clear and accurate; not whether it was written in or out of plenary. 

No comments: