Monday, March 3, 2014

Respecting the Absent

I recently worked with a group that was poised to make an important decision about how the community defined what worked was eligible to satisfy the group's expectation that all residents are expected to make monthly labor contributions to the community's maintenance and well being. It was an important conversation, and the group had worked hard to find common ground—but right before making the decision we hit the pause button.

Though the specific proposal was not developed until the session in question, there had been plenty of prior notification about that this topic was going to be addressed, and there had been an explicit agreement reached at the plenary that preceded my arrival that binding decisions could be made in the sessions that I facilitated.

All of that notwithstanding, there was a vocal minority that was uncomfortable pulling the trigger, even though everyone in the room felt it was the right decision. The problem was that even though there was a quorum two-thirds of the community was not in the room and there was concern about how this decision might land for the absent folks. Understandably, people were worried that there might be push back about it. At a minimum this could lead to fractured energy; if it were bad enough, it could lead to implementation sabotage. Nervous about these possible outcomes, the group backed off. Instead, the group decided to circulate the proposal among the entire membership and then bring it back a week later for formal approval.

While that may seem prudent, the reason I'm writing about it is because it is was highly frustrating for those in the room who wanted to move forward. (What was the point of having authority to make decisions if the group is too timid to make them?) To many it felt that the group was being controlled by those not present, and that the group was respecting the rights of the absent (to be informed of the proposal and given a clear chance to respond to it before it was enacted) over the rights of those who had shown up and had invested the time to listen and think through the best solution. At what point is the plenary coddling the absent, rather than protecting their rights?

• • •
As a professional facilitator, I'm frequently on the road working with groups. Sometimes I'm conducting a training; sometimes I'm hired to untangle a hairball; sometimes I'm asked to handle fissionable material (that no in-house facilitator is willing to touch); sometimes I'm expected to do all three.

While my presence as an outside facilitator is an atypical occurrence, and therefore doesn't necessarily invoke "normal routine" for how a group operates, it surprises me how frequently groups fail to anticipate the need for minutes or establish permission ahead of time for the right to make binding decisions in the meetings they have with me. (If they didn't think we were going to be doing something potent why did they hire me?)

While it's my practice to give groups a report after the fact, where I: a) go over what we accomplished in broad terms; b) offer observations about the group and why I made the process choices I did; and c) make recommendations for where I think they might profitably focus attention in the future, I'm always uneasy when a client group relies solely on the facilitator's notes or memory as a record of what happened.

The main thing I want to focus on in this essay is navigating the dynamics of people missing meetings—which only happens all the time (unless the group is pretty small) and was the pivot point in my opening story.

What can be done to better manage this? I have two suggestions.

Good Minutes 
They not only need to be taken, they need to be good enough for absent people to become fully informed about the viewpoints discussed on each topic. Note: this is much more than simply recording a proposal that emerged from the discussion. Good minutes will capture all of the main points of consideration so that the reader can know whether something they might say is already in the mix, and how that viewpoint has been worked with. Absent that quality of information, the diligent person will be motivated to share their viewpoints on the topic—which will be a drag if that's already been heard but the minutes weren't good enough to convey that.

An ancillary aspect of this consideration is the timely appearance of the minutes and a known way by which people can access them. The right of the absent to be informed is paired with the responsibility of the absent to inform themselves. It is not cool to show up at a subsequent meeting, not having read the minutes, and to then blithely subject everyone to your "wisdom"—much of which is likely to have already been taken into account.

Good Discipline
If the group paused on the verge of making a decision on a topic, then it should renew the conversation at the point of asking how well the proposal balances the factors in play. You do not want to go back into a discussion about what factors to take into account, as that door should have been closed at the prior meeting. If people who missed the first meeting want to start over when they attend a subsequent meeting on the same topic, the group needs sufficient discipline to maintain forward momentum, and insist that the work of the prior meeting be honored.

The perspective to keep in mind is that the right of the absent to have a chance to be heard is paired with the responsibility they have to honor the work of those who did not miss the first meeting. This dance is a duet, not a solo.

Tension associated with this slowing down is usually minimized if people who missed the first meeting are careful about what they surface at subsequent meetings on the same topic. If they name aspects that were missed in prior conversations it can go well; if they're just replowing old ground though, it can lead to considerable gnashing of teeth—which is not fun for anyone.

No comments: