Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Group Works: Invitation

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith 

In the Intention segment there are five cards. The third pattern in this segment is labeled Invitation. Here is the image and text from that card:

Bring people together by expressing a clear call toward shared purpose, tuned to getting the right people into the room with shared intent. Let people know why this is important and what to expect, while requesting the honor of their presence.

While the image and words on this card are elegant, they also tend toward the formal and come across as a bit too starched. To be fair, there are some gatherings in life freighted with sufficient ritual and weightiness to justify embossed letterhead and formal attire (a wedding?) but they are few.

Most meetings are come as you are, and the invitation (or reminder) will arrive electronically through a list serve. Or perhaps you'll get a postcard or a phone call. 

Though I've begun this post by lampooning the tone of this card—all facilitators know you have to play the card you're dealt, and as the choice of words and image were made purposefully, I figure that affords me a free poke at formality, which I've mostly been allergic to in my life, and which I find often masks authenticity and stifles creativtity—I want to mine a few golden nuggets in the ore of Invitation.

1. Getting the Right People in the Room
For the most part, this translates into the stakeholders (those affected by an issue or the proposed responses to it) and the people with authority to do something about that issue. If we're talking large numbers then this almost certainly means representatives of stakeholder constituencies, rather than everyone.

When it's not possible to have all stakeholders represented, you can make sure that good minutes are taken, that they are disseminated to the missing folks as soon as possible afterwards, and that an effort is made to allow those folks an opportunity to offer delayed input.

2. Being Clear about Objectives
It's one thing to know what the agenda is before a meeting, it's another to have a clear and commonly held idea about what is expected to be accomplished by focusing on those topics. 

Your answer here can vary widely depending on factors such as:
o  Has there been prior work done on this issue or is this the first time ti's being tackled in plenary?
o  Whether or not there are existing agreements that bear on this issue .
o  Whether there are strong feelings evoked by this topic, and whether those feelings have been expressed and/or resolved.
o  Are you ready to do problem solving?
o  How much is this about addressing an issue, and how much about building relationships?

3. Doing Your Homework
Part of the reason for extending an Invitation is to give attendees the chance to get ready for the meeting. It's not just a matter of showing up; a prepared participant is an informed one who has read the background material, discussed the issue with his/her constituency, and taken the time to organize their thoughts and concerns ahead of time.

That said, there is a significant difference between coming into a meeting with an open mind and coming with an empty mind. While there may be a purity and innocence about an empty mind (in a tabula rasa kind of way) it is not honoring an Invitation to have skipped your homework, and then play catch-up in the meeting. (Hint: if you're reading a proposal for the first time in the meeting at which it will be discussed, somebody has fucked up: either the drafting person (or group) didn't circulate it far enough ahead of the session, or you misspent your time getting ready.)

Going the other way, it is abusing an Invitation to make up your mind about issues ahead of the meeting such that you are not available to be persuaded by what others say on the subject. In short, you want to cultivate curiosity and flexibility, while eschewing naiveté and unpreparedness.

Finally, there is a more subtle version of getting ready that entails getting centered, such that you are in a suitable psychic space to listen fully and think well. Arriving at a meeting late, frazzled, or distracted is not taking the Invitation seriously. Honoring an Invitation is much more than getting your body in the room and sitting quietly while others speak; you need to be energetically present as well.

4. Selecting Formats and Settings that are Inviting & Congruent with Objectives
One of the most delightful things about people is also the most maddening: we are all so different. While meetings (at least those conducted in a cooperative setting) are almost always meant to be equally welcoming to all participants, the truth is they aren't. 

Not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in groups, not everyone takes the same amount of time to know their feelings or to know their mind (which are not at all the same thing), not everyone hears accurately, not everyone can sit for 90 minutes and remain focused and productive. If you want the meeting to be inviting to all participants, you need to give some thought to how best to do that, which almost certainly means variety—as there is no format or setting that works best all the time.

Your vocabulary here includes:
Time of Day 
Some people are like chickens—full of energy in the morning, and asleep when the sun goes down; others don't hit on all cylinders until the pm or after they've had at least two cups of coffee strong enough to float a spoon.

Choice of Formats
The default format for most groups is open discussion, which is often the most expeditious way to tackle an issue, yet that choice inadvertently favors extroverts, the garrulous, and the quick. Sometimes you have to slow things down or make the setting more intimate (such as with small group work) in order to protect an ingress for the diffident.

Working with the Whole Person
Almost all meetings are set up to work with ideas, yet people are much more complex than that. We "know" things emotionally, intuitively, spiritually, and kinesthetically as well as rationally. With consciousness of this richness, meetings can be structured to access these lesser honored forms of knowing, enhancing the quality of the consideration.

Selection and Orientation of the Meeting Space
There is nuance to selecting a suitable place for a meeting and the orientation of people's attention. You want a room large enough that it's not crowded, yet small enough to contain the energy. The ceiling needs to be in proportion to the square footage (too low feels oppressive; too high dissipates the juju).

In most cases, you'll want a variety of seating choices. Some like well upholstered, cushy couches; some prefer straight backed chairs with firm seats; some will sit on the floor if that's an option.

Meetings tend to go better if there's natural lighting in the room (especially daytime meetings), but you want the main bank of windows behind participants rather in front of them, where outside activity will tend to distract. Windows, if they can be opened, will also help with ventilation and temperature control.

Matching Ambience with Objectives
If you want a heartfelt meeting that emphasizes connection, then you'll want a softly lit, cozy environment—think floor lamps and candles—not harsh fluorescent lighting or a place where participants will have to compete with loud street traffic or raucous children to be heard. 

If you will be tackling a complex topic where visuals will be relied on to convey important information you'll want a space with excellent lighting and either a flat wall for posting flip chart pages, a chalkboard, or a screen to project images and graphs onto.

If you want to do an exercise that involves movement, you'll need a space where the furniture can be moved in and out of the way easily, or have access to a nearby space that is sufficiently uncluttered. 

Forcing activities into unsuitable spaces is not inviting.
• • •
As you can see, there are many elements to a well-crafted Invitation. If you want to participants to feel truly invited, and to anticipate an experience of movement—meetings that are dynamic and not stationary—it requires much more than the right stationery.

1 comment:

Ed Christwitz said...

This is my first experience with your wonderfully enlightening blog. Thank you for meeting my needs for wisdom, understanding and feelings of joy and hope. I've had the cards for about a year, and your approach adds many dimensions to my appreciation of healthy interactive integrity. I have one unoriginal invitative suggestion which has much statistical research to back it up. It works on relationships from those with self, with partner or spouse, with groups, and while not tested or sociologically researched to my knowledge, with any sized group such as humanity or all species: To establish willingness and increase ability to hear one another, first appreciate the other. If hard to do, first appreciate a few things about self or Source to yourself. Then feel some appreciations for the other and then state them, before uttering any criticisms or advice. This is spreading the fertilizer before digging in in, not just sugar coating the pill. Then throw in some Compassionate Communication about your feelings and needs, and be open in heart to hearing theirs, if the way opens. Then, if it feels time, maybe ask gentle questions of clarification, etc., and respond as non-defensively as possible to what comes up, not rushing into deeper waters, but trying to appreciate the difficult feedback as it arises. Finish with hopeful appreciations and Sourced thankfulness if time and others are still with you. This has almost always invited me into helpful heart changes, and usually left others feeling invited.