Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Trail by Meeting

To paraphrase 19th Century American essayist, Charles Dudley Warner, Everyone complains about meetings, but nobody does anything about them.

Of course, as a process consultant, I'm trying to do something about them, but it's definitely uphill. Overwhelmingly, people recreationally bash meetings in the same way they do the weather (which was what Warner actually wrote about). 

Suppose you bumped into a couple of friends in a grocery store and spontaneously asked them if they wanted to join you to see a movie, and the friends replied that they'd love to but needed to attend a community meeting. Most of us would have an immediate sense of who had the better prospects for an enjoyable evening—and it wouldn't be those attending the meeting. 

That doesn't sit well with me. Expectations have a large influence on our experience (to twist another aphorism, What you think you'll see is what you'll get), and I frequently point out to people that if you go into a meeting expecting it to be draining that you're already most of the way toward manifesting that reality. Fortunately, the obverse also obtains: you can appreciably alter the likelihood of positive results simply to holding in your heart that they're possible, and allowing that seed to sprout and grow.

I'm personally dedicated to the Sisyphean task of trying to undo the lousy PR that meetings suffer from, group by group. We need, I believe, a culture where people are excited to go to meetings, where there's the opportunity to both solve problems collaboratively and to deepen relationships. We want, even need, people to be eager to participate, to be curious about what will be discovered and what will be creatively resolved. 

To be sure, getting there will require more than white light. For many of us there's a lifetime of bad meetings that reinforce our low expectations, and we'll need a string of positive experiences to ignite the tinder of hope I'm carefully ricking before you.

We need to insist on high standards for how meetings are conducted. We need:

o  Appropriate agendas
    —drafted and circulated ahead
    —reasonable time allotments for the items to be discussed
    —topics ready for plenary consideration
    —topics screened for impact and urgency
    —clear objectives for what you're trying to accomplish with each topic

o  Participant behavior that is disciplined and focused
Do your homework ahead of the meeting and then follow this mantra in session: What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time?

o  Good facilitation
Good meetings are not an accident, nor are they just a matter of properly aligned celestial bodies, or good intent. It takes talent to be able to manage: a) discussions well; and b) energy well (which, unfortunately, are completely different skills). The good news is that they are both learnable. The bad news is that most folks are only inspired to learn from falling on their faces, which is tough on the complexion.

o  Good presenters
There is an art to concise and focused presentation of topics. It is not open mic and it is not amateur hour. Good presenters prepare ahead and are lean of expression without sacrificing clarity or necessary context.

o  Good delegation
High functioning groups have a clear understanding of how to sequence work so that valuable whole group time is respected, and that committee and manager contributions are poised to succeed and be honored. Healthy groups know as much about when to stop talking about topics as they do about when to start.

o  Responding to differences with curiosity and openness
One of the principal reasons meetings are experienced as exhausting is because participants find it so hard to resist going into battle mode when they encounter disagreement. And the higher the stakes, the thicker the battlements and the heavier the artillery. War may be exhilarating in the moment, but it's always exhausting afterwards—all the more so if you've suffered wounds. In contrast, curiosity and creativity are leavening (and require no armor whatsoever).

o  Bringing one's heart into the room as well as one's mind
Effective meetings are not a tug-of-war between the head (read product) and the heart (read process). Rather they are a dance between the two. Sometimes people "know" a thing more surely or more deeply through one mode than the other, yet both count and both need to be welcome at the table if you're going to do your best work.

Thus, if someone goes into distress in the course of a meeting, it is every bit as much a source of information and a source of energy as it is a source of danger. The best groups are alert to the opportunity this presents and learn not to be afraid of conflict. Mind you, I'm not suggesting you foment it; only that you strive to not be reactive to the emergence of reactivity. Think of it as meeting aikido.

• • •
Most people relate to meetings as a necessary evil (actually, some think of them as an unnecessary evil, but I'm going to assume a baseline acceptance of their inevitability for the purpose of this blog). They view them as an energy drain, or perhaps a mind-numbing exercise in amateur democracy. Some view meetings as treacherous, as an environment bristling with thorns and pitfalls.  
While meetings can undoubtedly be thorny at times, I have gotten to the point where, a la Brer Rabbit, they are my briar patch, and I try to embrace whatever I encounter, rather than insisting on people always making sense, arriving on time, paying attention, or being non-reactive. Rather than trying to defang the dangers (or switch to cultivating thornless blackberries), I've learned to navigate them.

While I'm busy extolling the virtues of meetings, let me add one you may not have thought about: it's an excellent way to screen prospectives.

Some groups prefer that meetings be closed, such that only members or residents are allowed to attend them. In general this is done to preserve air time for the decision makers, to prevent awkwardness around the uninitiated not being able to make sense of what happens (and possibly freaking out), and to protect confidentiality and candor in the considerations.

All those concerns notwithstanding, I've had overwhelmingly positive experiences with encouraging wannabes to attend group meetings and then using a debriefing with them afterwards as a membership interview (not the only one, mind you, but an important one nonetheless). As soon after the meeting as I can manage, I try to sit down with the person and find out:
o  What did they notice (and what didn't they notice)?o  How did they experience the energy of the meeting (if they noticed at all)? 
o  If there was tension at any point in the session, what were their impressions about how it was handled.
o  Did they use good judgment about when they spoke, if they spoke at all?
o  How well were they able to track the conversation?
o  How would they summarize the product of the meeting?

Since social skills are an important indicator of a person's chances for success as a member in a cooperative group, there is nothing that reveals information about their capacity in this regard quicker than debriefing a meeting that the prospective and I both attended. Yes, there have been times when the guest was disruptive and compromised what the group was able to accomplish, but the disturbances have always been relatively minor and a small price to pay for access to such a sensitive litmus test.
• • •
I find it trying that our culture—and I'm talking about cooperative culture—tends to view meetings as a trial (at least of one's patience, if not of one's stamina and one's commitment to diversity) instead of as an opportunity. We've got to cease thinking of meetings as a gauntlet to survive. Instead of trial by meeting (where only the innocent and pure of heart emerge intact—as if such people existed) we need to transform that phrase into trail by meeting, where the curious are rewarded and the path ahead emerges from the fog. 

Isn't that a nicer image?

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