Sunday, July 29, 2012

Consensus Challenges: When to Be Formal

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 When to Be Formal.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
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

• • •
I'm not talking about tuxedos and evening gowns—I'm talking about how much to rely on structure and protocol. When to be firm, and when to be loose. How much formality should a group use in conducting business? It depends.

First of all, you need to have protocols (agreements about how you will conduct business) in order to invoke them. At the outset, all groups doing anything serious in the world (for example, the Every Other Thursday Beer Swilling Club may not need to take this admonition to heart) are well advised to establish process agreements and norms. 

If you're confused about why this is needed (won't love and good intentions see us through?) imagine the dynamic where two people strongly disagree about how to handle an issue, and one of the two attempts to invoke a point of process that the other doesn't acknowledge is an agreement. It can be an absolute bitch to try to sort out tensions around how when there is already tension in play around what. In most cases, the second person will suspect that the first is trying to control the outcome through parliamentary maneuvering—which they may or may not be doing—and it can be exhausting extricating the issue from the muck. The point of establishing guidelines ahead is so that you've already defined what's a "fair and reasonable" way to tackle an issue before tensions arise.

Here's a checklist (not exhaustive, but suggestive) of the kinds of agreements I mean by the above:
o  How you make decisions
o  How you record decisions, including how you notify members of them, and how you archive them
o  How the plenary can proceed when members miss meetings
o  What you want from plenary minutes, and how they will be indexed and archived
o  What's appropriate for plenary consideration; how plenary agendas will be drafted
o  To what extent do process concerns trump content concerns
o  How will the group work emotionally 
o  How will the group handle conflict among members
o  What authority do facilitators have to run meetings 
o  To what extent are committees expected to operate under the same process guidelines as the plenary; to what extent are they permitted to be self-governing
o  How one becomes a member
o  Rights & responsibilities of members
o  What avenues of feedback are members expected to provide one another about their behavior as a member of the group
 o  Under what conditions could a member suffer an involuntary loss of rights, and by what process will the group examine the claim that such conditions obtain

OK, let's suppose you're in good shape on all this. There still remains a question about how much to be stickler for structure. Partly this is a matter of taste. In a typical group, members can map themselves onto an illuminating spectrum when asked where they stand on the question of how much structure they prefer: at one end will be those who find it relaxing and reassuring; at the other will be those who find it constricting and coldly impersonal. 

Thus, how much structure a group uses is a balancing act. If the group has a preponderance of low-structure folks then it makes sense that they'll tend to conduct business with less formality, and vice versa.

Beyond that there are additional other nuances to take into account when determining how formal to be in meetings. I'll give you half a dozen.

1. Size
This is mainly a question of how many are involved in the conversation. In my experience, you seldom need high structure when a group is six or fewer, and it rarely works well to be loosey-goosey when the group is 10 or more.

2. Trust
When the flow among participants is good and people are not being reactive or triggered by each others' comments, then the need for formality diminishes. When tensions run high, it's often better to be more deliberate.

3. Weight
If the impact of the topics being discussed is limited or minor, this usually translates into less need for formality.

4. Discipline
If the group is fairly comfortable with and accomplished at operating within the desired meeting culture, then members will be self-disciplined about using time appropriately and keeping their contributions appropriate without the need to be externally constrained by structure. In essence, if members have internalized the structure it obviates the need to invoke it formally.

5. Management
Sometimes you use formality to control difficult or threatening behavior, as in the case where you have members who tend to hog air time, or speak in a voice and style that is intimidating to others.

6. Need for a Record
To the extent to which it's important that the results of the meeting be shared widely and accurately, it's often a superior idea to be more formal, so that the foundation upon which the summaries are built is solid.
• • •
In conclusion, I offer the following three guiding principles when considering how formally to proceed:

A. What degree of formality will most effectively and efficiently elicit the viewpoints of the participants?

B. How much do we need to proceed formally in order to protect the integrity and solidity of the results we obtain in this meeting?

C. What degree of formality will most honor or enhance the relationships among participants?
• • •
Once, about 15 years ago, on a hot summer day in Virginia I participated in a semi-annual network meeting where it happened I was the only man in a group of eight and all the women spontaneously decided that they'd be more comfortable taking their clothes off. Oh boy. Though I'm someone who has attended an untold number of meetings, this was a unique experience for me, calling for a high degree of self-discipline in a most informal context. Somehow I made it through. Though today I haven't the foggiest idea what we were discussing, I still retain a vivid recollection of the setting.

In any event, if you're inspired to wear a tux (or your birthday suit) to the next plenary, you have my support. While I'm not guaranteeing that it won't be disruptive, I've always had a soft spot for whimsy and I think as a culture we have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously.

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