Saturday, October 27, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Knowing When to Accelerate & When to Brake

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 Knowing When to Accelerate & When to Brake.

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 [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices [posted Sept 18 & Sept 30]

XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
Good meetings rarely operate at a uniform pace. Mostly they follow a rhythm that includes faster and slower stretches, rather like breathing. The trick is matching the pace to the need (and keeping in mind that it's damn hard to inhale and exhale simultaneously).

Here are some general guidelines about pace:

When to Hit the Gas
o  When reviewing things that people already know and are noncontroversial, as in when you're setting the stage for a dialog and reminding people of prior work.
o  When listening to reports.
o  When conducting brainstorms.
o  When people are getting bored.

When to Tap the Brake
o  When people are lost.
o  When emotions are running strong.
o  When you're about to make a non-trivial decision around which there was disagreement.
o  When you're about to switch from discussion phase to problem solving phase.

Generally speaking you want to move expeditiously through the opening housekeeping (where you cover an opening, introductions, announcements, scheduling, ground rules for meeting behavior and the facilitator's authority to run the meeting, and review the draft agenda) and the closing caboose (finding shepherds for any incomplete business, summarizing the product of the session, evaluating the meeting, and closing).

When you're working an issue, I think in terms of six phases:
—Introduction of the issue
—Questions (does everyone understand what was just said and what we're talking about?)
—Discussion (where you're trying to name the factors that a good response to the issue will need to address)
—Proposal generating (where you're trying to identify the response that best balances the factors)
—Decision-making (which proposal to adopt)
—Implementation (who will do what by when with what resources)

For the most part, the heavy lifting is done in the Discussion and Proposal Generating steps, so that's when you'll move more deliberately. Often, for the other four you can often pick up the tempo.

Despite this general guidance, there will be times when the group will be split about what pace is desirable. Some will want to slow down while others will want to speed up. Which pedal to push? The prime directive here is to work as efficiently as possible, without leaving anyone behind or asking them to swallow something that has been insufficiently chewed. Thus, a portion of the time, you may need to slow down to allow for adequate ingestion by the slow chewers, and this may require selling the need for that to those in the group ready to move on. 
 Hint #1: Sometimes you can get an energetic lift not by changing the pace, but by changing formats—the way you are engaging, rather than how quickly you are engaging. This might be the savvy choice, for instance, when some in the room are feeling bogged down, yet you aren't yet out of the swamp.

Hint #2: Sometimes it's a better choice to lay something down—temporarily—rather than to push it through. That is, instead of forcing a premature decision or standing on the brake to protect those still sorting out what they think, it may be a better strategy to stop having that be the focus of attention for a while. Let it season and come back at a later moment (perhaps something as short as the next day, or even later in the same session). So long as you don't lose momentum or clarity about what's being considered, a pause may be highly productive without feeling stuck in a Go Slow zone.

Hint #3: Sometimes frustration about pace is more about a lack of discipline. Think of the meeting as a tour group, with the agenda as the exhibits. If you start the tour at 1 pm and want to end by 3 pm, one of the ways to get to all the exhibits and still catch the bus home is by asking everyone to jog instead of walk (which strategy is roughly analogous to picking up the pace). It might be better however (from the standpoint of enjoyment and depth of enlightenment) to have the tour guide (the facilitator) do a more active job of reminding everyone where we are on the schedule, which exhibit we're looking at now, and making sure the stragglers are close enough to the pack that they can hear one another's comments. In other words, efficiency (and a sense of productivity) may be more about focus than pace. Maybe there will be adequate time to walk to all the exhibits if the group is sufficiently dedicated to traveling in a tight group.

Finally, a word of caution. Processing speed is independent of quality of thought, and it is dangerous to attempt to map wisdom onto speed. People will naturally work at different paces even if they have the same intelligence, same comfort working in group, same degree of receptivity to how the information and viewpoints have been shared, and the same familiarity with the issues—none of which will be the case! 

It is a poor bargain to have accommodated the quick by forcing those who need more time to act precipitously.

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