Saturday, January 26, 2013

Community Meetings Made from Scratch

I recently worked with a group that had abandoned community meetings, mainly because they didn't function well and people stopped coming. During my visit the group got in touch with how they still needed meetings—the group was seriously fractured and there was no clear pathway to their being made whole without a venue for gathering as a whole—and they were able to muster enthusiasm for restarting them. 

That occasion motivated me to create a checklist of questions to consider when a cooperative group wants to set up meetings to function well and is working from whole cloth. In essence, it would be the kind of process questions I'd recommend that starting groups consider.

After nearly four decades of living in cooperative groups, I've learned that there are many ways that meetings can work well, yet there's a stable set of questions to address—the notion being that not having an answer to any of these questions will be a problem, as mischief will flourish in the ambiguity.

So here's my process checklist of a baker's dozen questions for cooking up productive and efficient meetings:

1. What is the purpose of plenaries (to what extent to address issues and concerns; to what extent to build connections among members)? Hint: The answer here will vary depending on the circumstances. The key is knowing these different objectives are both in play and accepting that you'll occasionally need to negotiate which way to slant things.

2. How will you make decisions? While consensus (in some form) is overwhelmingly the most popular choice among intentional communities—and one that I wholeheartedly support—it is by no means the only choice and is not one that you'll get good results with unless you're willing to train in its proper use.

3. How will you provide a reasonable opportunity for people who miss meetings to have input on the topics discussed? In most groups it's rare to have a meeting where everyone is in the room. In groups of 20+ it may never happen. So it's important to have a common understanding about how to balance the rights of those who miss meetings and want a say in what happens, with the needs of those who show up to be able to proceed without being hamstrung by people's absence.

4. How will you record what happens in meetings? This includes standards for note taking, how minutes will be disseminated, how they will be indexed, and how they will be archived. When you don't have this in place you're at the mercy of oral tradition and vagaries of  memory.

5. How will meetings be run? What is the authority extended to facilitators to conduct meetings; what are the qualities wanted in plenary facilitators?

6. What is your commitment to train new members in your meeting process? This includes how you make decisions, your meeting culture, how you want meetings facilitated, how you want minutes taken, and how you'll with work constructively with conflict. It's not particularly smart to expect new folks to pick all this up by osmosis.

7. How will plenary agendas be drafted (and what is the standard for circulating the proposed agenda among the membership ahead of the meeting)?

8. How often will you meet, where, and for how long?

9. What are the expectations for member behavior at meetings? Hint: Your answer should be significantly different than what you'd expect from people engaging informally.

10. How will you work with emotions in meetings? At the scary edge of this is the more volatile question: how will you work with conflict (which I define as significant disagreement about substantial issues during which nontrivial distress emerges)?

11. How will you effectively delegate when the plenary worthy aspects of an issue have been resolved and further details still need to be worked out? Imbedded in this is the sub-question: what is plenary worthy (appropriate use of whole group meeting time)?

12. What are the norms for how proposals will get generated? Hint: It will tend to work much better if you protect an opportunity for the plenary to identify first what the proposal needs to take into account (keep the cart behind the horse).

13. What role do you want ritual to play in your meetings? This is a far-ranging question that can include anything from starting each session with a moment of silence, to holding a seance every full moon. It can be part of how the groups bonds, and can part of how the group gets into a bind. Talk about what makes sense for your group, for the culture you intend to create and nourish.

Caution: Good meetings are more than good structure. You still need to have: a) good will; b) the diligence to do your homework ahead of time; c) the discipline to stay on topic; and d) a commitment to prioritize understanding what others are saying ahead of being understood. 

In short, good meetings are no accident.

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