Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Sucks the Air Out of the Room

I was asked recently what can be done when a member of a consensus group reported dreading plenaries because there were frequently times when they "experience mind-numbing process that sucks the air out of the room." OK, that doesn't sound very good. As I contemplated what might contribute to that condition—and what the remedies might be—a number of things occurred to me. In fact, it got interesting enough that I thought I'd write about it…

o  Working Below Plenary Level
One of the big energy eaters for consensus groups is not being sufficiently disciplined about what's appropriate to handle at the whole group level. Lacking clarity about what's plenary worthy, I regularly encounter groups that inadvertently drift into discussing details that ought to have been handed over to managers or committees.

When groups are sloppy about this, and fail to delegate appropriately, members who are not interested in those details are trapped. If they attend the meetings at which this happens, they are forced to sit through conversations about what color to paint a wall, the menu for Thanksgiving dinner, or whether to buy Nantes or Danvers carrot seed for next year's garden. Shoot me now. If they don't attend the meetings (to avoid the mind-numbing conversations), then they're at risk of being accused of slacking and not sufficiently supporting the group. Some choice.

—The Remedy: It's important that the group has agreement about what kind of things should be discussed in plenary, so that agendas are drafted with that boundary in mind and facilitators know when to call people on coloring outside the lines. Further, there need to be clear mandates (and minutes) for handing off work to managers and committees, so that they'll know what they can decide on their own and when they'll need to return to the plenary for consultation.

o  Welcoming Passion
The default meeting culture in the US is modeled after the tone, pace, and civility characteristic of dinner table conversation in Northern European countries. That is, one person talking at a time in well-modulated voices. If someone raises their voice or speaks on top of another it typically means upset. While there's nothing wrong with that culture per se, it's not the way everyone was raised.

In Southern European cultures dinner table conversation is much different: people talk on top of each other, and with considerable energy—not necessarily because they're upset; but just because they're paying attention.

As groups of any size are likely to have people from both sides of the aisle, there's a natural tension about what culture prevails. In most cases calm and deliberate dominates, with the consequence that the southern inclined are often discouraged from participating with their full range of expression. Essentially they're damping down their energy to accommodate their northern-oriented compatriots, who tend to get tense in the presence of passion, and struggle to differentiate between excitement and upset at the upper range of the register.

The Remedy: Most groups could benefit from a conversation—and an intentional decision—about how they're going to work with emotions. When groups don't do this, allowing any emotions air space in meetings is scary (where are the boundaries?) and passion tends to be the casualty. When people are not certain of what's OK, nothing is—and everyone gets the message (intended or otherwise) that you better keep a lid on it. The good news is that this can be turned around. Just have a conversation about how to take the lid off… without taking anyone's head off.

o  The Purpose of Meetings
While pretty much everyone knows that groups have meetings to address issues, that's not the only reason. In cooperative groups there is also the objective of building relationships among members. The reason that's important is that when groups haven't made that dual purpose explicit—and few have—there will come times when those purposes, which most of us intend to play nice with each other, can be at odds.

Here's how it might work. The group is discussing an issue and building momentum toward a unified agreement about what to do when someone says, "Wait a minute, something doesn't feel right." When the group dutifully asks what that something is, suppose they get, "I don't know; it's just an uneasy feeling." Now what? If you're at the let's-get-er-done end of the why-do-we-do-meetings continuum, you might respond to this exchange with irritation—where you had been building momentum nicely toward a solution the conversation has been suddenly shunted into a siding and there was no telling when you'll get back on track. For the let's-get-to-know-each-other contingent, however, it's just getting interesting.

The point here is that if you position yourself at one end of this spectrum, then you can get frustrated with meetings that are focusing more on the other end. It can even feel like the air is being sucked out of the room.

The Remedy: Have a conversation that illuminates these two objectives for meetings, so that the group will be able to navigate accurately when tension arises (a la my example above). Hint: Neither of these objectives is wrong, but it takes nuance to balance them from meeting to meeting, and from issue to issue. That will hardly be possible if you haven't got the language and concepts in place.

o  Understanding the Role of the Disinterested
For every issue that makes its way onto a plenary agenda, every member will be in one of two relationships to it: either they will be a stakeholder on that issue or they won't. For stakeholders it's a relatively straight path to their being interested in the conversation; for non-stakeholders it's probably less obvious but I want to make the case that they're perfectly positioned to safeguard the process by which the conversation unfolds. They can be active as bridge builders when stakeholders are having trouble hearing each other accurately—precisely because they care little about the issue, they can care a lot about the relationships.

The Remedy: If you can sell this orientation to the group, then everyone will have a solid reason to have their head (and heart) in the game regardless of the topic at hand (read less air sucking).

o  The Energetic Advantage of Separating Factor Identification from Problem Solving
In working an issue it's been my experience that it can help enormously if the group is disciplined about first surfacing all the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account before turning anyone loose on problem solving. While it sounds reasonable enough when presented this way, groups are uncommonly prone to two habits that don't align with this guidance:

a) Some groups expect that issues be accompanied by a proposal as a condition for getting onto the agenda. This misbegotten notion is used as a substitute for expecting items to come to plenary in a sufficiently mature condition. The problem is that someone has to invest time and effort in crafting the proposal and if they don't anticipate well enough, then their work can be trashed in plenary and that doesn't feel very good.

b) When someone names a concern (or factor) it's relatively common for someone else to immediately follow that with a way to address it, essentially moving from Factor Identification to Problem Solving. When a group dances indiscriminately between the two it can be crazy making. The former is expansive; the later is contractive. If the group is not careful about this, it's at risk of hyperventilating and losing its way. Kinda like having the air sucked out of the room.

The Remedy: Stop placing the proposal cart before the factor horse, and get religion about assiduously completing Factor Identification before moving along (deliberately) to Problem Solving.

o  Managing Repetition & Cross-town Bus Traffic
In most cases the two most common day-in-and-day-out meeting behaviors that undercut meeting efficiency are repetition and off-topic comments. On the challenge of repetition, it can be hard in a culture that embraces the philosophy that "everyone has a piece of the truth" to simultaneously digest that we only want to hear that truth once from you, and it may not even be necessary to hear it once if someone has already expressed the same opinion.

On the challenge of off-topic comments it can be hard to walk the line between encouraging safety, acceptance, and creativity, while at the same time chiding members for enthusiastically sharing insights that reach escape velocity from the orbit of the topic on the table.

The Remedy: To ride herd on these enemies of focus, you need facilitators that are willing to be firm with a lasso, and a group that will back up its facilitators.

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